As we progress further into the offseason, the NHL landscape begins to settle. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any outstanding question marks on various NHL rosters. Many NHL teams are in the midst of serious cap crunches and RFA holdouts. With so much uncertainty regarding various aspects of the game we once knew so well, teams need contingency plans to avoid taking a step back next season.
Teams like the New York Islanders & Tampa Bay Lightning are already looking at cap overages with outstanding RFA contracts to sign. Both have already made the first of many tough decisions on important roster players, namely Devon Toews and Tyler Johnson. On the other hand, franchises like the Colorado Avalanche boast an exemplary cap structure, allowing them to not only keep their contending roster intact but also add a few more high-value pieces to their lineup.
In the second instalment of QSAO’s Insights around the NHL: Offseason Edition, we break down why the Colorado Avalanche are this offseason’s big winners and how the New Jersey Devils can best utilize their roster space.
1. The Colorado Avalanche keep getting better – How the Avs’ offseason moves made them even stronger
It seems like ages ago that the hockey world considered the Colorado Avalanche a lost cause, and now they boast arguably the best NHL roster going into next season – and it all started with the masterclass that was the Matt Duchene trade. Beyond that, general manager Joe Sakic has made several moves this offseason which have poised the Avs to take the next step next season – and arguably one they would have made did they not succumb to injuries in the bubble.
The first of many shrewd moves by the Avs front office lies in their RFA extensions. The Avs re-signed Valeri Nichushkin and Andre Burakovsky to two-year deals at $5-million and $9.8-million value, respectively. Given their contributions in the lineup, both are relatively team-friendly deals. Both players have had their struggles with previous organizations, but have thrived under the tutelage of Jared Bednar’s staff.
Nichushkin, in particular, was a revelation for Colorado. Nichushkin developed into an analytics darling last season, posting some of (if not the) best defensive numbers in the NHL. For example, in his return to the Dallas Stars in 2018-19, Nichushkin struggled to produce, producing a mere 10 assists through 57 games.
In 2019-20 with Colorado, he flourished, scoring 13 goals and 27 points, while being one of the best defensive forwards in the league (he was in the 100th percentile of defensive goals above replacement, as shown above).
Burakovsky’s contract is less of a steal however he did produce solid offensive numbers, scoring 20 goals and 45 points in 2019-20, including 16 even-strength goals. Additionally, after struggling in the first half of the year across the board, Burakovsky became one of the best offensive producers in the NHL through the second half of the regular season, while also improving defensively. As a secondary scorer who can play top-line minutes when needed, Burakovsky excelled in the playoff bubble, scoring 7 goals and 17 points, including a goal and an assist during Gabriel Landeskog\’s absence. Moving forward, both will Nichushkin and Burakovsky will be key complementary pieces to the likes of Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen up front.
At the draft, the Avalanche took a leap on polarizing defenseman Justin Barron at 25th overall, while also extracting excellent value in centre Jean-Luc Foudy at 75th overall. Barron divided scouts not because of his skill, but because of his recent surgery to remove a blood clot in his arm. The Avalanche expect him to fully recover, and if he does he could turn out to be one of the biggest first-round steals with his top-end talent, although it is a story to follow closely as he recovers.
The bulk of the value in Colorado’s offseason rests in their two major acquisitions during free agency. On October 11th, Colorado acquired Brandon Saad ($1-million retained) and defenseman Dennis Gilbert for restricted free-agent defenseman Nikita Zadorov and defenseman Anton Lindholm.
Adding Saad to an already explosive top-six gives the Avalanche arguably the best forward core in the league, or at least one that rivals the Tampa Bay Lightning. During the regular season, Saad led Blackhawks forwards in puck possession (51.13 CF%), and expected Goals For/60 (3.08) at even-strength. As you can see, Saad is one of the best offensive players at even-strength in the NHL. In terms of intangibles, Saad adds unmatched playoff experience from his years with the Blackhawks and should mesh well with the Avs’ leadership core of Gabriel Landeskog, Erik Johnson, and company.
In giving up Zadorov, the Avs left a hole on defense, where they already showed weakness after losing Erik Johnson to injury in the bubble. So, general manager Joe Sakic used his accumulated draft stock to acquire defenseman Devon Toews from the New York Islanders for second-round selections in 2021 and 2022. Shortly after the acquisition, the Avalanche signed Toews to a four-year, $16.4-million contract.
The acquisition of Toews is assuredly Colorado’s best move this offseason, as Toews could be one of the NHL’s most underrated players, let alone defenseman. Apart from his six goals and 28 points in the regular season, Toews was a stalwart in the Isles’ defensive system. At even-strength, Toews led Islanders defensemen in shot share (50.79 CF%), High Danger Chances Against per 60 (10.92). Although, it is worth noting that Toews was one of two Isles defensemen to start over 50% of his shifts of the offensive zone during the regular season, and started nearly 60% of his shifts there during the playoffs.
Although, that does not discount his defensive value, as he has posted stellar defensive numbers during his first two seasons in the NHL. Looking toward next season, Toews slots in as the perfect defensive partner for Cale Makar. As a pairing they will hold the line & transition the puck with ease and will be one of the best pairings in the NHL next season, mark my words.
As I mentioned already, many criticized the Avalanche for their thin defensive core this year. Given their struggles against the gritty Dallas Stars, and an inevitable matchup with the Vegas Golden Knights, Devon Toews’s experience under the best defensive system in the NHL will do wonders for the Avalanche’s group. Adding Toews to the defense means a lessened burden for an ageing Erik Johnson, who fronted the majority of Colorado’s top defensive assignments this season, as well as more offensive freedom for Sam Girard and Cale Makar. While Nikita Zadorov did an alright job in his defensive role, Toews is a cut above both offensively and defensively and did not cost another roster player to acquire, hence why this addition looks to be GM Joe Sakic’s best move.
Given the nature of this offseason, not many teams were able to improve too much. However, the Avalanche made extensive improvements to an already stacked roster. With so much uncertainty surrounding the Tampa Bay Lightning’s salary situation, the Colorado Avalanche own far and away the best roster in the NHL, and anything short of a Stanley Cup Final berth this season should be considered a failure.
2. With a wealth of contract and cap space, how will the New Jersey Devils fill out their roster?
The New Jersey Devils have been one of the busiest franchises over the past 12 months. They traded former star winger Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes for what now looks like a king’s ransom, and shipped Blake Coleman to the Tampa Bay Lightning where proved to be a key cog in the Bolts’ Cup-winning roster. Through such moves, the Devils have quietly (not really) accumulated a wealth of picks and prospects.
With their abundance of picks, newly minted general manager Tom Fitzgerald added several top prospects at the 2020 draft, such as Alexander Holtz and Dawson Mercer. Fitzgerald also leveraged New Jersey’s draft capital & cap space to acquire Blue Jackets defenseman Ryan Murray for a 2021 fifth-round selection. After buying out goaltender Cory Schneider, Fitzgerald added stability to the crease, signing former Chicago Blackhawk Corey Crawford.
As of right now, the Devils have roughly $17.2-million in cap space, with RFAs Jesper Bratt and Mackenze Blackwood yet to sign. Out of all 31 NHL teams, only the New Jersey Devils have more than four roster spots available, assuming RFAs are signed. With that being said, the Devils have five roster spots to fill. Here’s how I think they can most effectively do so.
To start, we will handle their RFAs. Jesper Bratt was a staple of the Devils’ top-six this past season, scoring 16 goals and 32 points in 60 games while averaging 11:17 of ice-time. Bratt also provides excellent value on both ends of the ice at even-strength but is inefficient on the powerplay.
With another year in a top-six role and more ice-time with a sophomore Jack Hughes, expect Bratt to produce at an even better clip. Given the current market landscape, I would put Bratt down for two years at a $2.5-million cap hit. Given that fellow RFAs Jake Virtanen and Denis Gurianov received a similar AAV at similar point production. Usually, the main comparable for contract negotiation, I would expect Bratt to receive the same.
Given Mackenze Blackwood’s unique situation in New Jersey, the closest comparable I found in terms of performance and career stage is Matt Murray’s rookie extension and Tristan Jarry’s rookie extension. Yes, I know comparing Blackwood to “prime” Murray sounds absurd but hear me out. After winning the Stanley Cup for a second time, the Pens handed Murray a three-year, $3.75-million contract (roughly $4.075-million under the current cap ceiling). Jarry, on the other hand, received a three-year, $3.5-million contract earlier this year.
Now, given Murray’s championship pedigree at that point in his career, the contract is merited. However, his regular-season performance in his contract year was only marginally better than Blackwood’s, and in those that followed, closely compare to Blackwood’s rookie season(s). Despite a smaller sample size, Blackwood has played considerably better than Murray in the past few years.
Although we must keep in mind that the Devils threw Blackwood into the fire as a rookie, where he held his own quite well. With Corey Crawford signed for two years, Blackwood will have time to develop into a top netminder at a far more manageable pace. All things considered, I think that you should expect Blackwood to sign for around two years at $3-million. Blackwood’s contract is hard to pin down for certain but, given that the Devils are in no rush to contend, Blackwood should bet on himself with a bridge deal while he develops into a top NHL netminder. Also, he would still be arbitration-eligible, which would give him better leverage on his next contract.
With our RFAs dealt with, there are still five roster spots to fill out with ~$11.7-million in cap space. As of right now, the Devils roster looks as such – not too great. Personally, this roster has two forward slots in their bottom-six to fill out, and could probably benefit from another defenseman, honestly speaking. Now, this is where we will get creative with our roster construction (or the ~fun part~ if you will).
Now, it is not that I don’t think the Devils’ can enter the season with a forward trio of Michael McLeod, Brett Seney, and Jesper Boqvist in their bottom-six, I just don’t think they’re all that great in the lineup together. For that reason, I propose two low-risk free-agent signings that could provide solid value next season. Not only to stabilize the bottom-six but to generate potential trade deadline interest as well. The first signing to round out the Devils’ top-nine is picking up utility forward Carl Soderberg to a one-year deal at $2.5-million.
Through 70 games, Soderberg posted 17 goals and 35 points, on pace to record his second-straight 20-goal season before the stoppage. Logging borderline top-six minutes on an offensively-dry Coyotes roster (similar to New Jersey), Soderberg scored 9 even-strength goals, while chipping in 6 powerplay goals on the second unit. For a one-year deal, there is no risk associated with Soderberg at this dollar amount.
Soderberg can play up and down the lineup and on special teams. Given the league’s current financial landscape, you could consider this dollar amount on the higher end, but for this experiment, I’ll consider it fair. In summary, Soderberg proves to be an added weapon on the man-advantage, and the Devils can flip him at the deadline for assets.
As added insurance, bringing in Riley Sheahan to anchor the fourth-line on a league-minimum would also significantly improve the Devils’ bottom-six. This past season, Sheahan provided league-average production on both ends of the ice at even strength and has been a defensive boon for his teams over the past five years or so. Replacing Boqvist and Seney with Soderberg and Sheahan provides the Devils bottom-six with solid production and utility which were not at their disposal before. Additionally, these signings allow for one of Michael McLeod, Nick Merkley, or Janne Kuokkanen to settle in the lineup with far easier in sheltered minutes, which bodes well for their development.
With the forward group settled, the Devils sit at ~$6.81-million in salary room. Concerning the Devils’ defense, I think that the Devils can use their abundance of salary space to take on some deadweight, while still improving their backend. Enter Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk.
Given Boychuk’s modified no-trade clause, this entire theory predicates on Boychuk including the Isles in his eight-team list, but for the sake of this argument, let’s say that he agrees to move to New Jersey.
Now, it does seem like a stretch, because why would the Devils help out a division rival in a salary bind? But, I think bringing in Boychuk for a draft pick or prospect would have a net positive outcome long-term. If the Devils were to bring in Boychuk at a $4-million cap hit ($2-million retained), second-round selection plus another late-round pick would be a realistic return, given his declining output. So, acquiring Boychuk provides an upgrade over Connor Carrick, as well as additional draft stock, which the Devils can package to acquire another high-impact player in the future.
To be blunt, the Devils will at best compete for a playoff spot, but do not look poised to make any noise in the postseason for at least another season or two. Further, Boychuk’s $4-million cap hit for the next two years will not damage their cap structure, as the majority of their high cap hits come off the books after this season anyway, and the rest expire the year after. Also, not to harp on the cliché, but having Boychuk in the lineup with defenseman Ty Smith joining the team (and making a considerable contribution) within the next two years, and hopefully Reilly Walsh as well, it will only benefit their development early on.
So, after the following moves, I propose the following New Jersey Devils opening night roster:
With a grand total of $2.809-million in cap-space (quite a bit relative to the average opening-night roster), such moves will add a total of seven standings points and 3.8 Wins Above Replacement, and a complete roster of 23 skaters. As a quick caveat, also assume that Connor Carrick and Ty Smith are interchangeable throughout the season, as I do expect Smith to log minutes this season.
While this could (and realistically will) amount to just merely a fun exercise, I do think that such moves would help the Devils in their development towards becoming contenders tremendously, as I do believe this team has an exciting core and should look to contend in the East in the near future.