Men of a Certain Age
General Manager Ray Shero has been up front about his rebuilding strategy from the very beginning. Aside from helping further the idea of "Fast, Attacking, and Supportive" hockey, he has targeted contracted players and free agents with some time left to develop.
He talks about this, a lot.
On the Palmieri trade:
"I think it's more of the style of play we're looking for and it will make us a better team all around, a deeper team all around playing the right way at the right age." (via Fire and Ice, June 27 2015)
On the Hall trade:
"He's really at the right age for us at 24, and certainly I think he's one of the better young wingers in the league." (via Sportsnet, June 30 2016)
On the Bennet trade:
"...It's worth, for us, the chance on the third round pick, when we had plenty of picks in this draft, with [Bennet's] age and so forth." (via New Jersey Devils, July 1 2016)
An NHL GM coveting young talent is not a novel idea. In fact, in a cap system it is a necessity. Young, cost controlled talent is the foundation upon which successful teams are built. Value savings on young talent allow for a team to survive the overpayment of older players entering into the twilight years of their NHL career on long contracts. It helps mitigate the cap room that is eaten up by high value UFAs.
However Shero's moves have almost exclusively targeted players in their mid-20s, yet to reach their UFA eligible years. By identifying these moves, and re-signings, we can begin to understand the architecture of Shero's New Jersey Devils, the prospective core of the team, and a preliminary window for contention.
Discerning the Core
It is not always easy to correctly identify the core of a hockey team. A relatively safe way of discerning a team's long term plans is to examine their contract and salary cap structure. The idea is that players that you build around are the ones you want to lock into long-term deals, provided the price is right. Once a player becomes a known quantity, teams increasingly move to secure their services before their development continues and raises the price in subsequent contracts.
On or around July 1 2016 the New Jersey Devils signed free agents, re-signed RFAs, and made a blockbuster trade. The length of these contracts, either signed or acquired, provide some context as to who belongs in the Devils' core, who is serving as a utility player, and who has yet to become a fully known quantity. For example, look at the Devils' recent 1-2 year contracts:
Vernon Fiddler, C, age 36, 1 year/$1.25m
Jacob Josefson, C, age 25, 1 year/$1.1m
Sergey Kalinin, C, age 25, 1 year/$0.8m
Beau Bennet, RW, age 24, 1 year/$0.725m
Devante Smith-Pelly, RW, age 24, 2 years/$1.3m
John Merrill, D, age 24, 2 years/$1.1375m
Nick Lappin, RW, age 23, 2 years/$0.8425m
Yohann Auvitu, D, age 26, 1 year/$0.7925m
These players share much in common, with the exception of Fiddler, who is a known bottom six utility forward and faceoff machine. The others are all players aged 23-26, yet to reach either UFA years or their first long-term NHL contract. They are still developing, their talent ceilings yet to be determined.
John Merrill for example has seen NHL time in his last three seasons, but has yet to surpass his career high of 63 games, which was reached in the 2014/15 season.
Merrill's play has not cemented his role in management's eyes, and both parties agreed that their interests would benefit most from another year before committing to a long-term contract or exploring a trade. The same pattern is found when examining the Devils' other short term contracts.
New Jersey's longer contracts, signed or acquired within the last few seasons, provide a better picture of the team's identity moving forward:
Many of the team's longer contracts are remnants of the Lamoriello era, most notably the Schneider and Zajac contracts. Taylor Hall's remaining four years on his contract represents Shero's longest commitment so far.
One player not listed is Ben Lovejoy, who was signed to a three year contract this July. While his contract is too long to be a simple prove it deal, his age falls slightly outside of Shero's typical type. He certainly adds a much needed veteran presence to the Devils blue line, which will feature a cast of rookies and journeyman defenders. Despite the length of his contract, Lovejoy is more suited to the status of utility player, who will assist in filling the void left by Larsson, which will be apparent in the Devils' penalty kill moving forward. There is even the chance that Shero's vision for Lovejoy is influenced by the upcoming expansion draft - satisfying the contract criteria for exposed players while Lovejoy fills a shorter term shutdown role. It is an interesting thought, and in that case if Lovejoy is not selected his contract is a small investment in helping develop New Jersey's young defensive group.
This graph shows the age of New Jersey's core players throughout the length of their contracts. Schneider provides a necessary foundation for the team to build upon for the next six years. Expect players such as Palmieri, Henrique, and Hall to be re-signed when their contracts expire (or the preceding offseason), as they represent the current core of the Devils organization moving forward. Tentatively mark the 2019 and 2020 offseasons as a major decision point for New Jersey, as they will be tasked with negotiating with Henrique and Hall, respectively, as well as expiring entry level deals for NHL hopefuls Mackenzie Blackwood, John Quenneville, and others.
Something that may have flown under the radar is that prospects Steve Santini and Miles Wood burned a year of their ELCs during the final game of the season, when they joined the Devils against the Toronto Maple Leafs along with Pavel Zacha. Per article 9.1 d (i) of the NHL collective bargaining agreement, the typical 9 game allowance before a rookie burns a year of his contract does not apply. This is because Santini and Wood signed their ELCs at 21 and 20 years old, respectively. Their ELCs will end in 2018.
A First Look at New Jersey's Window
Looking at the Devils' contract structure, several things come to mind. The first is that there seems to be obvious cohorts of players, all grouped by age:
Veteran Core: Greene, Zajac, Cammalleri
Young Core: Henrique, Palmieri, Hall
Rookie Hopefuls: Zacha, Santini, Quenneville, McLeod, Blackwood, Jacobs
Cory Schneider: Cory Schneider
There are of course many more rookies who have a chance to make an impact at the NHL level, but for now those are the prospects who have the best chance at making the Devils roster in the coming years. Something to remember is that none of these players are guaranteed to even make the NHL, let alone make meaningful contributions. What's important is that New Jersey has the best collection of prospects it has had in many years. If even one or two of these players make an impact, it will provide meaningful support to the other cohorts as New Jersey moves from a bubble team to a stronger playoff contender.
Drafting is important in the modern NHL. Most successful playoff teams consist of a mix of established veterans, younger core players in their prime, and young unproven talent. Having a constant flow of young, cost-controlled talent is essential for icing a competitive roster under the salary cap. Players on their ELCs or shorter bridge deals allow for players to produce above their salary, which helps teams compensate for poorly aging veterans, costly free agent signings, and the occasional (but sometimes necessary) over payment. The rise of long-term second contracts is changing the current thinking on salary cap structure, with players like Aaron Ekblad, Nathan MacKinnon, and even Taylor Hall foregoing the typical bridge deal for long-term security. Teams hope that by overpaying for years one and two of these deals, they acquire much needed savings throughout the rest of the contract.
Returning to the Devils, there is also a cohort of relative unknowns. These are players who have been a part of the organization for some time, but whose caliber at the NHL level has yet to be determined. These include:
Damon Severson, D, 21
John Moore, D, 25
Jon Merrill, D, 24
Jacob Josefson, C, 25
Joseph Blandisi, C, 22
Reid Boucher, LW, 22
Establishing a likely timeline for success begins with structure of the Devils' contracts. Within the next four to five years, Palmieri, Henrique, and Hall will have had time to form chemistry with not only each other, but their cast of supporting characters. Cammalleri's contract will come off of the books, perhaps returning at a discount. Henrique will hopefully re-sign, and rightfully for a raise, all while Andy Greene and Cory Schneider lead the team's back end.
This tentative period will allow for clarity on peripheral players such as Blandisi and Boucher, while rookies Zacha, McLeod, Santini, and others explore their limits in the Devils system. Expect this current iteration of New Jersey Devils to be built, analyzed, and added to in order to compete within this window. Past that point, players such as Schneider, Greene, and Zajac - all defensive assets - will be into their mid-30's. They will hopefully age gracefully and continue to contribute, but will be past their prime.
What should be encouraging to Devils fans is that all of this has been done without trading away the future. New Jersey will be relying on their young talent to supplement their core. What players they do not envision as part of their core going forward will provide trade value. On top of this, they have a healthy selection of draft picks for the next two seasons, including their own two 1sts, four 2nds , and three 3rd round picks.
There is a lot that needs to go right for New Jersey to successfully contend in the future. While they have amassed some legitimate talent both in net and at forward, their defensive lineup is unproven. Outside of Andy Greene, most of New Jersey's defensemen have not fully demonstrated their worth. Including Severson, Merrill, Moore, Santini and newcomer Auvitu (among others), it is not clear if any of them have the talent for a position on the first pairing, or if they are suited for top 4 or top 6 roles. Watch for Shero to take the next season to evaluate New Jersey's defense, possibly with the goal of trading for a more established talent when the opportunity arises. Severson presents an interesting case, and is an intriguing prospect given his usage so far. Next year will show if the 2015/16 season was more of a sophomore slump, or if his ceiling is lower than fans hoped. Looking at Severson's usage, it's clear that so far he has not been relied upon to kill penalties, which is one of the biggest areas of need after the Larsson trade:
While New Jersey's defensive core is unproven, fans should be encouraged that the team appears to have a well-structured approach to success. After years of neither contention or prime drafting position, New Jersey is poised to move into playoff contention for the next several years. Despite the need for defense, Shero has been shrewdly collecting 2nd and 3rd round draft picks, while maintaining his own high picks, allowing for flexibility and the ability to make big moves when the time is right. New Jersey's draft selections will supplement their existing pool of rookies, many of whom have the chance to make the big club over the next three years.
Flexibility is the operative word here. New Jersey's success will be in part due to the young core of talent that is cost controlled for the next four to five years and the cap room to make changes as needed. This is a team that is built to compete over the next five years, and into the foreseeable future. While the road will be tough, it is better to fall short of a larger vision than to mire in mediocrity ad infinitum. There will be years of disappointment, but there is a plan, and the plan calls for playoff hockey in Newark and meaningful games late into the season.
This is a good time to be a Devils fan, no matter what the outcome.