Technically, the New Jersey Devils are not under the NHL’s salary cap floor of $54MM. At least not yet. CapFriendly currently calculates the Devils’ roster as being at about $60.7MM. However, that includes both the $4.85MM salary of Ryane Clowe and the $4MM salary of Marc Savard. With that duo, whose playing days are over, hitting the injured reserve and their cap hits leaving with them, New Jersey’s true salary number could very well drop below the cap floor, perhaps by several million dollars.
CapFriendly’s numbers are not totally accurate, though. The current Devils roster is listed as having 16 forwards and five defenseman, whereas the final lineup will of course feature at least seven defenseman and a few less forwards. The reason that the current projection is so disjointed is simply because the Devils depth is severely lacking. Roster Resource gives us a look at all of the possible roster players, and there are many clear holes. Behind a strong first line, there is a lack of dependable forwards up front, especially on the wing. The oft-injured Mike Cammalleri and Devante Smith-Pelley, who was good in 2015-16, but in very limited action, are the best of the rest. Many of the bottom six spots are right now being occupied by young, inexperienced players or low-upside veterans. On defense, the situation is even worse. After losing their top two defenseman from last season, Adam Larsson and David Schlemko, the Devils have failed to bring in enough talent to replace them. Newcomer Ben Lovejoy and youngsters Damon Severson and Jon Merrill will be asked to take more responsibility on the back-end than they are likely ready for.
With ample cap space and many needs, the question becomes: Are the Devils really done? With September upon us, it is easy to be underwhelmed by what New Jersey has done this off-season. That is an unusual statement to make when a team completed one of the biggest trades in recent hockey history, acquiring Taylor Hall from the Edmonton Oilers. Hall is going to continue to be one of the NHL’s best scorers on his new team, but even a strong first line of Hall and Kyle Palmieri with either Adam Henrique or Travis Zajac leaves the Devils top-heavy and exposed up front. Additionally, losing Larsson in the trade has created a gaping hole where the Devils would like a top-pair right-shot defenseman to be. In fact, if no further moves are made, it is likely that there will be only two right-handed blue liners on the roster this season.
The Devils have tried to make some moves this summer. They were of course one of the biggest suitors for college super-free agent Jimmy Vesey, but watched as he signed with the cross-town rival New York Rangers. They were also reportedly interested in winger Jiri Hudler, who would have been a good fit on the team, but failed to come to terms with him before he signed with the Dallas Stars recently.
Missing out on talent doesn’t excuse sitting on a lot of cap space with moves to be made though. The Devils are not in the same position as the Carolina Hurricanes, the only other team this off-season who faced legitimate concerns about reaching the cap floor. Carolina is currently in a rebuilding process, which may come as ironic considering they finished the season with a better record than the Devils in 2015-16. While they brought in a few key veterans this summer, the focus has been on young talent, such as the acquistion of Teuvo Teravainen and top prospects looking to earn a spot on the roster like Haydn Fleury, Sebastian Aho, and Aleksi Saarela. Aside from Pavel Zacha, the Devils do not have the same influx of young, NHL-ready talent to keep spots open for. The New Jersey roster contains many players who are in their prime, and the best move for New Jersey likely would have been to bring in more veteran talent in an effort to make the playoffs this season. As currently constituted, that seems like a long shot.
Is it too late for the Devils to improve their roster before the puck drops on the 2016-17 season? They certainly have the cap space, and depending on the exact numbers, they may be forced to sign a player or two. The big question is whether there is value left on the market. The big names remaining in free agency are Kris Russell and Alex Tanguay. Russell was expected to cash in this summer, but his old-fashioned playing style is not being valued as highly as he had hoped. Russell still is a serviceable defenseman, and one of the offers that he is reportedly mulling could be from the Devils. Still likely worth at least $1.5-2MM per season, Russell could help the Devils remain over the cap floor, while also providing great value as a top-four defenseman on their team. His signing would not solve the right-shot defenseman problem, however. Jakub Nakladal, a dark horse who has gained little attention on the market until recently, may be the perfect fit for New Jersey. His contract would be inexpensive, but would add some much needed depth and a high ceiling player. Up front, Tanguay is best available skater right now. The veteran is also currently considering offers, and New Jersey could use his locker room prescence and play-making ability, especially if a return for lifelong Devil Patrik Elias is no longer in the works. A reunion with Tuomo Ruutu, Jiri Tlusty, or Steve Bernier seems extremely unlikely, but the team might be willing to take a chance on a veteran forward like David Jones or R.J. Umberger or a young player like Cody Hodgson, all of which would likely contribute about a $1MM to their cap deficiency. Additionally, the Devils will get a good look at winger Lauri Korpikoski and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and Dennis Seidenberg at the upcoming World Cup.
None of the players listed has the ability to change the playoff odds of the New Jersey Devils in 2o16-17. If the team wishes only to meet the cap floor, try their luck with the current roster, and likely play for a lottery pick next season, then they should look to free agency or potentially do nothing at all. For a game-changer, they need to peruse the trade market. The Detroit Red Wings are having the opposite kind of cap trouble right now, and may be forced to trade a valuable, high-salary player. The Devils could potentially look into prying Gustav Nyquist out of Detroit. The Philadelphia Flyers have too many men on the blue line, an issue that New Jersey wishes they had, and cap problems and defensive depth issues could be wiped out by trading for Mark Streit, Andrew MacDonald, or maybe even Michael Del Zotto. The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a similar position up front, and could be willing to ship out any number of quality forwards. Finally, the Devils could look at pulling off their second blockbuster deal of the summer, if they could meet the price for disgruntled Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba. The 22-year-old stalwart has reportedly priced himself out of what the Jets are comfortable paying him, but a team with plenty of cap space and not enough defenseman, like the Devils, is the perfect fit to swoop in and either make a trade or sign the young blue liner to an offer sheet.
One way or another, if the Devils want to really compete in 2016-17, and also want to be comfortably over the salary cap floor, moves must be made. It’s been a quiet summer since the Hall-Larsson trade, and the Devils are the most likely candidate for some late summer fireworks before the season is underway.