The rumors are rampant that the New Jersey Devils are very much in the Johnny Gaudreau sweepstakes. With free agency starting today, what is the main risk with signing the top free agent for the second year in a row?
The New Jersey Devils are not facing a salary-cap crunch. According to Cap Friendly, only the Detroit Red Wings, Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres, and Anaheim Ducks have more salary-cap space than the Devils. Three of those teams have no interest in being competitive next season. The Devils want it more than anything.
So, it looks like the Devils are going to join the negotiations for Johnny Gaudreau, by far the biggest free agent on the market. Gaudreau is a legit superstar who is coming off a 115-point season. The Devils have never had a player break 100 points in its franchise history. This is coming on 40 years of New Jersey Devils hockey. Not only does Gaudreau have his most recent season, but he hit 99 points in 2018-19 as well.
The Devils are going to be giving Gaudreau the most expensive contract on the team. Dougie Hamilton is making $9 million per season. Gaudreau is looking at a minimum of $10 million. He reportedly turned down an eight-year deal worth $80 million. Nobody is going to match that deal (most likely), but there are teams that can give him more. The reports are he wants to come closer to home. He was born in Salem, NJ and he went to high school on the Jersey side of the Betsy Ross Bridge.
Let’s say the Devils beat out the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders to sign Johnny Gaudreau. Let’s go over the top on the contract and say he makes $11 million. What does that do to the Devils bottom line now and in the future?
Now, it’s a little complicated. The Devils still have to find contracts for Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, and Jesper Boqvist. They already assigned Wood to arbitration. That will end interestingly, but it will stick the contract to a limited value. Zacha is another one that might go to arbitration. For now, they are trying to negotiate a deal. Jesper Bratt is the tough one, and he could push the AAV to $7 million per season.
So, the Devils are losing their $26 million in cap space quickly. $11 million to Gaudreau, $7 million to Bratt, and then a combined $6 million to Zacha, Wood, and Boqvist, and the Devils now have around $2 million in cap space. They also have to re-sign Vitek Vanecek, so they have to find wiggle room somewhere. Signing Gaudreau makes them a cap team right now.
Next season, things get a lot easier. The Devils have an expected $57 million in cap space in 2023. They have no bad contracts on the books. Jonathan Bernier, Tomas Tatar, Andreas Johnsson, Damon Severson, and Ryan Graves all head to unrestricted free agency. It’s kind of a clean slate for Tom Fitzgerald. The Devils do have to find new contracts for desirable players like Yegor Sharangovich, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Nathan Bastian.
With the contracts already in place, barring they move one of Zacha or Wood, the Devils now have $33 million in space. With contracts for two new goalies, the money is now sitting at around $27 million. That’s a huge chunk out of the money the Devils had without signing a new contract. Then, giving Sharangovich, Siegenthaler, and Bastian a total of $10 million, now the Devils have $16 million. The rest of the lineup probably adds entry-level deals, so that’s probably around another $4 million.
The Devils would only have around $12 million in space despite the situation starting with $57 million. It’s wild to think about, but the Devils had a lot of short-term deals for important players.
While signing Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier long term for great deals helps immensely, they still have to fill out the rest of the lineup. Things start to get more complicated once the Devils have to start paying these superstars they’ve either just drafted or have been developing.
Alexander Holtz needs a new deal three years into a theoretical Gaudreau deal. Luke Hughes would be four years into it. Simon Nemec is one of the two. What if they are all great? What if someone like Nolan Foote or Arseni Gritsyuk are also great on top of them? A Twitter user put it all together, and they had an interesting take on the future of the Devils’ salary cap situation.
Obviously, there’s a lot of educated guessing here. We aren’t entirely sure how high the cap is going to go. This also predicts immediate breakouts from Hughes, Nemec, and Holtz. It also has a few interestingly decent salaries (Gritsyuk and Fabian Zetterlund especially). This is not adding other players in free agency or trades. This is just adding Johnny Gaudreau and hoping things will work out. Eventually, the Devils would have to make a hard decision. The name that makes the most sense is Dougie Hamilton, but it’s way too early to go there. The Devils could get one of their top prospects signed to a discount.
Listen, this isn’t telling the Devils not to sign Johnny Gaudreau. They can easily figure this all out, and it’s really not putting them in a pinch for four or five years. It’s not like the cap situation goes to hell next year. Quite the opposite, actually. The Devils can make this work with a little long-term planning. Go sign Gaudreau and finally make the Devils competitive.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism