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Grading the Devils’ Free Agency Signings

The New Jersey Devils added Brett Pesce, Brenden Dillon, Stefan Noesen, and Tomas Tatar in free agency, a tidy bit of business by Tom Fitzgerald.



New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils defenseman Brett Pesce. // Photo courtesy of Colorado Hockey Now.

New Jersey Devils General Manager Tom Fitzgerald was quite clear with his priorities this offseason. After solidifying the Devils’ goaltending, he turned his attention to the defensive and physical side of the game and kept true to his word. On the opening day of free agency, the Devils reeled in their big fish in Brett Pesce, inked Brenden Dillon, and brought back Stefan Noesen following a four-plus year hiatus as the forward made his way through four different clubs. It appears Fitzgerald has checked off most of the boxes he created for himself.

It’s unclear if the Devils are done constructing the roster, although we may find out when Fitzgerald speaks on Wednesday morning. They were heavy on top-six forwards Jonathan Marchessault and Steven Stamkos before Nashville Predators GM Barry Trotz swooped in at the 11th hour and stole at least one of them out from under Fitzgerald’s nose.

Despite coming up short of a clear-cut top-six forward, it was still a strong showing from Fitzgerald who set his sights on certain needs and addressed them. Let’s take a look at the contracts the Devils GM dolled out and letter grade them A-F.

Stefan Noesen – Right Wing – 3 years, $2.75M AAV

Grade: A

Despite being selected in the first round of the 2011 NHL Draft, Noesen was an AHL dweller through the 2016-17 season. It wasn’t until the 2017-18 season that Noesen made a name for himself at the NHL level. He played 145 games across three seasons in New Jersey, establishing himself as a solid forechecker who could occasionally chip in on offense, though he showed flashes of potential that he could contribute more on the stat sheet than he did.

Noesen found a little more consistency with the Carolina Hurricanes, turning in back-to-back 13 & 14-goal seasons, collecting 36 and 37 points respectively over the last two years. The 31-year-old established himself offensively as a net-front presence, scoring 11 of his 14 goals on the power play last season, and became a quality passer.

However, the Devils’ incentive to bring Noesen back is also certainly due to his heavy presence in the dirty areas, high-energy, and ruthless work ethic which makes him an excellent forechecker who wins plenty of puck battles.

The Devils were certainly lacking what Noesen brings in their forward group last season and now they bring the journeyman forward back at a solid price.

AFP Analytics projected Noesen to cash in on the open market for three years at roughly $3.2 million each year. However, the Devils were able to match the term yet at a cheaper $2.75 million average annual value.

Noesen’s acquisition all around was excellent work by Fitzgerald.

Tomas Tatar – Left Wing, Right Wing – 1 year, $1.8M

Grade: C+

The Devils certainly had aspirations on the first day of free agency to sign a top-six forward such as Stamkos or Marchessault. When that didn’t come to fruition, Fitzgerald needed to pivot and landed on Tomas Tatar.

At first glance, it’s a curious move. There’s seemingly no clear-cut replacement for Tyler Toffoli — who Fitzgerald traded at the 2024 NHL Trade Deadline and is now a member of the San Jose Sharks. Further, Tatar didn’t fair well at all last season after signing with the Colorado Avalanche to then be traded to the Seattle Kraken after a poor start.

Perhaps Fitzgerald is looking to reunite Tatar with Nico Hischier and Dawson Mercer who put together some elite analytics in their 147 games together from 2021 to 2023, accruing an outstanding 63.32 xGF%.

In each of his two previous stints with the Devils, Tatar accrued 15 and 20 goals respectively.

If Tatar can regain his 20-goal form in New Jersey, that won’t quite replicate the near-35-goal pace Toffoli gave the Devils, but perhaps it can lead to Hischier and Mercer filling the net more as the trio seems to have some excellent chemistry.

AFP Analytics projected Tatar to receive a one-year deal, which Fitzgerald handed him, for about $1.65 million.

Tatar comes in just slightly over the AFP projection, and although there are reasons to be optimistic, it’s an underwhelming consolation prize if the Devils’ GM is, in fact, done seeking a top-six forward for the summer.

Brett Pesce – Right Defense – 6 years, $5.5M

Grade: A

It was the worst-kept secret of the offseason, but all that matters is the Devils locked up Brett Pesce.

In order to make room for the Pesce contract, the Devils needed to trade John Marino — who went to the Utah Hockey Club — in order to make room for the former Carolina Hurricanes defenseman.

Pesce will slide right into Marino’s role in the top-four which is a sure upgrade. Swapping Marino for Pesce’s contract only cost the Devils $1.1 million and they got the better defenseman.

At 6-foot-3, 206 lbs, Pesce isn’t all that physical. However, for what he lacks in physicality he makes up for in his defensive game, blocking shots, getting his stick in shooting and passing lanes, giving away very few pucks, and forcing turnovers at a higher rate than Marino.

Despite going into his age-30 season, Pesce plays the kind of game that ages gracefully. The right-shot defenseman is recovering from offseason surgery which limited him to three goals and 13 points in 70 games last season. However, he’s a good bet to bounce back and chip in a bit more like he did in 2022-23 when he scored five goals and 30 points.

If not, the Devils at least got a defenseman who will make the job of goaltenders Jacob Markstrom and Jake Allen a lot easier.

Playing for the Hurricanes, Pesce has a lot more postseason experience than Marino as well. Plus, Pesce is the kind of high-character guy who projects to fit well in the Devils’ locker room.

AFP Analytics projected Pesce to earn a five-year contract with a rough $6.3 million AAV. Instead, Fitzgerald offers an extra year (six) for a lower $5.5 million cap hit.

For a team who struggled all last season to keep pucks out of their own net, this is another strong bit of business by Fitzgerald.

Brenden Dillion – Left Defense – 3 years, $4M

Grade: B+

“A little more violence would be great,” Fitzgerald said when explaining what he wanted to add to his roster this summer.

Well, look no further than Brenden Dillon. The soon 34-year-old defenseman is the answer to Fitzgerald’s wish.

Last season in Winnipeg, Dillon registered 241 hits — which led the Jets in the category — across 77 regular season games. Dillion also chipped in a career-high eight goals and 20 points and was a plus-20, also a career-high.

What made Dillon so appealing was obviously his hit total which ranked 12th in the NHL last season, but also because he’s the kind of defenseman who possesses the old school mentality and willingness to stick up for his teammates.

The 6-foot-4, 225 lb defenseman isn’t just a hit machine, however. His underlying statistics — and the eye test — prove that Dillon is a very capable defender that see him skate an average of 19 minutes a game and serve first unit penalty kill duties.

Dillion was projected by AFP Analytics to receive a two-year contract at nearly a $2.9 million AAV. Instead, the Devils overpay a bit in both term and dollars by handing him an extra year at nearly $1.1 million more per year.

Regardless, the Devils severely lacked what Dillon brings. He knows the Devils don’t want to be pushed around any longer, and he’s going to be part of that solution.

Therefore, the slight overpay can be forgiven due to addressing a major need.

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