Expansion Draft Preview: New Jersey Devils

This is one in a continuing series of articles outlining the options available to the Seattle Kraken during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. To learn more about the draft, please see our Expansion Draft Primer.

Check out articles like this one for every NHL team on our Expansion Draft Previews page.

So let’s get this out of the way right up front: the Seattle Kraken are not taking P.K. Subban without a significant sweetener and some retained salary from the New Jersey side. Making a straight expansion draft selection of an under-performing player — the oldest roster player on the Devils — at $9 million AAV would be nothing short of managerial malpractice on the part of Seattle Kraken GM Ron Francis.

That’s not to say that a sweetener won’t be offered, mind you. New Jersey appears committed to re-building around a young and talented core, something they showed pretty definitively at the trade deadline last year — moving rentals Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri to the New York Islanders in exchange for picks and some AHL hopefuls. If the Devils want to keep the momentum of the re-build moving briskly by, for instance, having Seattle take on Subban with 50% salary retained — plus youngster Nolan Foote and the 1st-round pick they received from the Islanders, I think Ron Francis would (and should) listen.

Okay, enough about Subban. There are another 20-plus guys on the roster, and one of them is going to land on the Seattle Kraken selection list in July. Too bad there aren’t many inspiring selections.

The Devil You Know

New Jersey has whittled its roster down nearly to the bare bones in advance of the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. When you get past the list of protected players, as of now there is exactly one (that’s, “1”) roster player who is under contract for next year. Everyone else is either UFA or RFA as of July 28th. As of this writing, New Jersey will need to either sign, re-sign, or acquire at least one forward and one defenseman to meet the exposure requirements.

In determining who the Devils will protect we used a number of guiding principles, but also took note of the opinions from local print, broadcast, and online media outlets to get some perspective on what the team might be thinking as the draft approaches. What we found was that there wasn’t a lot of agreement in that department, especially on defense. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Our belief is that the Devils will use the 7-3-1 protection scheme, and that the following players will be protected:

Forwards: Nico Hischier, Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, Janne Kuokkanen, Yegor Sharangovich, Nathan Bastian

Defensemen: P.K. Subban, Damon Severson, Will Butcher

Goaltender: Mackenzie Blackwood

In terms of consensus, there wasn’t a terribly wide variance for the Devils up front — some are making the argument that forwards Nick Merkley or Michael McLeod have earned a protection slot, and rightly so — or in goal. But on defense there is absolutely no agreement whatsoever. That lack of continuity represents the different approaches the Devils might take in determining who to keep and who to let go.

Do they go with the guys that got them this far, and protect the top performers? Do they shed salary and look to bring in different talent during free agency? Or do they blow the whole thing up, trade away any defender with market value, and focus on developing their youngsters? They have already given a prominent role to Ty Smith, and they have Reilly Walsh and Kevin Bahl knocking on the door down in Binghamton (soon to be Utica).

It is easy to see them going in any direction outlined above, and for that reason we’ll suggest to you that the list of protected defensemen could include all — or none — of the names shown above. There’s no way to predict that at this juncture.

The aforementioned youngsters Smith, Walsh, and Bahl are all exempt from the draft, and you can add forwards Jack Hughes, Jesper Boqvist, and the previously mentioned Nolan Foote to the exempt list as well. Furthermore, the following players will be unrestricted free agents at the close of the season, and as such are unlikely to be either protected or selected: defensemen Ryan Murray, Connor Carrick, and Matt Tennyson; and goaltenders Scott Wedgewood and Aaron Dell.

Who’s Left?

One forward under contract for next year, plus a long list of restricted free agents. Here are the highlights.

LW Andreas Johnsson, $3.4 million AAV, signed through 2023. Johnsson isn’t a bad player, he’s just odd-man out on a roster filled with up-and-comers. The Leafs signed him to a 4-year deal starting for the 2019-20 season, then moved him to New Jersey in a cost-saving move. He’s the prototypical European defensive forward: good two-way game, modest point totals, respectable plus-minus. He logs time on the PP and PK for New Jersey, though whether he will ascend to power play duty on a more offensively potent squad is debatable.

C Nick Merkley, $875,000 AAV, RFA. This 5’11”, 185 lb. play-making center has been earning his kibble in the AHL until recently, and putting up solid numbers there. Good speed, protects the puck well, works the dirty areas, and knows how to get open. At 24 years old there is still time to grow out of his bottom-six role.

C Michael McLeod, $863,000 AAV, RFA. More size and more up-side with this 23-year-old, as he has performed at a point-per-game level in Juniors, and has adapted well to the AHL and NHL levels. Last year was his first full time roster spot with the Devils, notching 9 goals and 6 assists in 52 games in a 3C/4C role. An opportunistic scorer, he relies on good positioning and brute force to get pucks into the net.

LD Jonas Siegenthaler, $800,000 AAV, RFA. With the caveat that any defenseman could end up being protected, this 6’3″ Swiss native is the most likely to be left standing when the music stops in New Jersey. He came over from Washington in a deadline deal this past year, but in 8 games with the Devils did not dent the scoresheet save for a minus-6 rating and 2 penalty minutes. It’s not a big stretch to suggest that buyer’s remorse will compel the Devils to leave him exposed, though I think they’re in no danger of losing him to Seattle.

What’s The Deal

There’s no doubt that Devils’ GM Tom Fitzgerald will be the biggest thorn in Ron Francis’ side in the days leading up to the expansion draft, as I expect getting rid of P.K. Subban’s contract is literally the only thing he has on his plate. Whether the sweetener he can offer is enough to get the Kraken to take on that contract — either in whole or in part — is anyone’s guess. But that will be about the only thing New Jersey would want to accomplish with a side deal: either take Subban, or choose what’s on the menu.

The fact that there is only one year left on Subban’s deal means two things are true. First, there is less risk in the Kraken taking on that big of a financial burden, as the term is limited. But second, the short remaining duration means the Devils won’t be willing to give up the farm to be rid of him. Francis has set the bottom line price for a side deal at a first-round pick, and in addition to their own at #4 the Devils have one from the Islanders to give this draft; so honestly I’d set the odds at a deal being consummated at better than 50/50. Depending on how much salary they retain and who the Devils throw in, we may just see Subban in a Kraken jersey in October.

If a deal can’t be reached, given the underwhelming choices available from the Devils’ roster, I think it’s either McLeod or an unrestricted free agent that the Kraken allow to walk when free agency opens. There are worse outcomes given the limited options available.

And, one more thing: given that Subban has been a disappointment to every team he has ever played for — if we do end up selecting him, please, for the love of God, don’t re-sign him.

Author: Tim Currell

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