By this time next week, we will know the two teams going to battle for the 2022 edition of the Stanley Cup. Colorado and one of Tampa Bay or the New York Rangers. If it’s the latter, the Rangers will have again come on top in game 7 in a series in which they trailed three-games-to-two.
And, if that scenario is the case. Fans of the rival-Devils will be chomping at the bit for this year’s nightmare season to be concluded. Though, I can’t imagine many want this year to go much longer regardless.
That said, there is again optimism around the Devils. They’ll select second overall in just under a month at the Entry Draft, one spot after the host-team, Canadiens are expected to draft consensus-top prospect, Shane Wright of the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs first overall.
New Jersey may have some things to consider at second. Do they snag the best European-based prospect in winger/happy-to-learn-center, Juraj Slafkovsky? Or, does Tom Fitzgerald, go to the USNTDP once again with a top pick and select Logan Cooley and offer a 1-2-3 middle-ice of Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes and Cooley?
Or, does something present itself to Fitzgerald and company that makes the second overall pick moved for the first time in over a decade? Focus on all of the above and more is just around the corner. So in the calming before the storm, let’s review a few items.
1.) Besides the draft, one piece of business the Devils have prioritized is signing Jesper Bratt to a long-term extension. Bratt, who will turn 24 this summer, is coming off a career season in which he scored 26 goals and 73 points in 76 games. He is due a mass increase on his $2.75 million salary from last season and should be in line for a seven or eight-year contract extension. Despite rumors suggesting he’s signed, Bratt’s agent, Joakim Persson told Inside Hockey there is “nothing new to report” on the contract front. This was communicated approximately 10 days ago. And while I do believe this is enough of a pressing subject that it could be resolved prior to the July 7-8 Entry Draft, I believe both sides will wait until the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Final before finalizing.
2.) One reason for that is the activity that is expected to come this offseason. Many around the industry believe the Devils could be among the more active teams in the league, but they won’t be the only ones trying to improve and many others with a laundry list of areas in need of improvement include teams that qualified for the postseason and teams that enjoyed runs including the Oilers.
3.) It’s pretty hard to get much intel on the draft as it relates to the notion of any team trading outside of the top-10. So, anything I’d say whether it’s trading the pick or not would be premature and a total guess at this point. I don’t find that to be very constructive. NJ being connected to Vancouver for reportedly taking time to interview Slafkovsky despite picking 15–long after the Slovakian winger will have been selected is more due diligence than anything else. I wouldn’t say the two teams should be connected as likely trade partners if a draft day trade is made. J.T. Miller may indeed be a player the Devils have interest in, but I can’t imagine they are prioritizing many conversations regarding players in the final season of team control. Just my two cents for that last part.
4.) Kevin Fiala will be 26 on opening night of the 2022-23 season. This we know. What isn’t known is where the 85-point, Swiss-born, left wing will be playing. I have no doubt the Devils have phoned Bill Guerin with regards to how New Jersey may be able to pluck the pending restricted free agent from the cap-troubled, Wild. Like Bratt, Fiala will also be seeking a considerable bump up from his $5.1 million figure on a two-year deal. Many within hockey circles not only believe Fiala could find his way to New Jersey, but he could also be willing to sign a long-term extension with the club and potentially play alongside his countryman, Hischier. While I suppose there’s a reality where the Wild get creative and sign Fiala and retain his services, the smart money is on Minnesota taking back a package that would include draft picks, 20-and-under prospects and perhaps, an NHL player with term and a low AAV and/or money retained. Other teams that likely take a run at this situation—Ottawa, Los Angeles—I’ve wondered if Detroit has inquired, too (and I think they probably have). Another team that’s made me wonder is San Jose. The latter would have to do some serious cap gymnastics to make it all work.
5.) The Devils and qualifying offers will be a very interesting thing to watch. To recap: the RFAs in need of QO’s consists of: Bratt, Jesper Boqvist, Tyce Thompson, Miles Wood, Pavel Zacha and Fabian Zetterlund. Boqvist and Zetterlund are not eligible for arbitration. Everyone else is. Despite being involved in trade rumors for much of the second half of the season, I’d be surprised if Zacha isn’t qualified. It’s hard to know for-sure what his value was before the trade deadline and where it has or hasn’t fallen to. If this is a busy offseason for NJ as we expect, Zacha is a player you could see moved. Wood, 27 by season’s start, is intriguing. He’s coming off a season in which he saw just three games after undergoing right hip surgery. He lamented to Devils team reporter the frustration of not being able to suit up for much of the campaign and after having a strong showing in his return game, he was limited on-ice and ultimately shut down for the year. A really tough season that could be made even tougher if he isn’t qualified. He brings a strong physical package and pre-surgery was able to skate with some of the league’s fastest players—teams will be interested in that. Wood, to his credit, says he sees the future ahead for the team and wants to be part of it. That’s a situation to watch for.
6.) Don’t mistake the mention of goaltending this late in the piece to lessen its importance. It remains abundantly clear the organization has to address its competition in-net. Whether or not Mackenzie Blackwood can re-gain the role as a 1A-type starting goalie, significant efforts will have to be made to make the position less vulnerable after being forced to rely on a rotation of Jon Gillies, Andrew Hammond and Nico Daws for much of the year. Jonathan Bernier wants to be ready for camp, but some in the organization aren’t sure that’ll be the case. Scott Wedgewood, claimed off waivers by Arizona and flipped to Dallas at the deadline, was a decent insurance option that didn’t pan out due to the difficulties of carrying three goaltenders throughout the season. I wouldn’t be surprised if they go down that road again though. Perhaps even Wedgewood is a guy they try for the ICE role. Who will battle with Blackwood next season remains to be determined. The goalie market in its own right may yet again be intriguing—M.A. Fleury, Darcy Kuemper, Jack Campbell headline the UFA class while we wait and see if the Caps re-make in the pipes means Ilya Samsonov is available via trade or as a non-tendered RFA-turned-UFA. I think Alexandar Georgiev, property of the Rangers, could be headed to open market as an RFA.
7.) While the coaching staff might still be “under review,” I wouldn’t be surprised if the Devils stick with Lindy Ruff for next season. Many around the team have praised his ability to develop the young players and think he deserves a season without bizarre goaltending woes.
More is most certainly to come for New Jersey as they enter into the ten-year mark of the 2012 Cup Final appearance and defeat to the Kings followed by an offseason loss of captain Zach Parise followed by a half-season lockout. Still trying to dig out from some of that turmoil, the hope is the fruits of a ten-year, up-and-down, albeit oft-down rebuild will come to fruition.