After missing the playoffs again in 2013-14, the New Jersey Devils have a busy offseason ahead to transition this roster into a younger and better hockey team. I remember many other seasons where the Devils did not finish well, or had a losing record, and the questions surrounding the roster always loom larger in those summer months than when the team finishes with a playoff run.
This summer is no exception but two interesting components will drive the rebuilding process in New Jersey in the next few months:
- The pending increase in the NHL salary cap based on rising revenues
- The new ownership group of the Devils and their resources
The team certainly has holes to fill based on the way it finished last season in a difficult Metropolitan Division which features two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference: the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers. In order to stay competitive there is no question that the Devils have to make some improvements to their roster heading into next season.
However, every team has limitations and the Devils certainly run into that issue as well with a 23 man roster limit and players already under contract on multi-year contracts as well as the constraints of the salary cap. The team has to be very smart with their open roster spots.
New Salary Cap Projections
The first component of this offseason, which will impact every team in the NHL in one way or another, is the projected salary cap increase. Several media outlets have reported that the NHL will announce revenues for the 2013-14 season at a total of $3.7 Billion. This will mean an increase to the salary cap maximum to about $71.1 million per team, and the floor will be approximately $20 million below that, so figure roughly $51.1 million for the floor.
This type of revenue injection could result in what the NHL did not want to see happen: the big market teams spending the excess cap room on a few star players and the smaller market teams struggling to keep pace with a higher salary floor number.
In my view, that is what I think will happen in this scenario and it will separate the teams who are “buyers” and the teams who are “sellers” very quickly. It may even force some smaller market teams to overpay free agents to go there versus a big market team in order for the small market team to stay competitive and enable them to reach the new salary floor level.
In what this means on a micro-level specific to our favorite team, the New Jersey Devils, is that according to Capgeek.com, they have $57 million dedicated in current payroll for next season. The mitigating factor here is what my colleague, David Garrison, wrote about recently in his article on the impact of the performance bonuses on the Devils salary cap situation.
The contracts that the New Jersey front office gave to Jaromir Jagr and Marek Zidlicky both contain bonus structures which put the team bonus figure at about $3 million. This leaves the team with a total of $11 million in salary cap space, and 6 open roster spots to fill. This calculates out to $1.83 million per open roster spot.
The team may have to utilize another method to free up more salary cap room to offset the amount due for performance bonus compensation and that is the compliance buyout. My colleague, Thomas Formoso, wrote a very interesting article on this site on the potential buyout of either Bryce Salvador or Anton Volchenkov. Both of these defensemen are at a point in their careers where their skill level is diminishing. They are both known to be slower skaters and neither player provides much of any offensive contribution.
The Devils, via the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, have one compliance buyout left so they would have to choose which player they would utilize it on. A buyout of Salvador, who is entering his last year under contract, would provide about $3 million in cap space. Volchenkov has two years remaining on his contract and the buyout would create $4 million in cap space.
The rumors around the league are that the Devils are looking to trade Volchenkov (as some readers may recall I wrote a piece last summer about the potential buyout of Volchenkov’s contract) and he still has some physicality left to offer another team, but his trade value is hurt because he played often in the third defensive pairing last season. That means he did not face the opponent’s best offensive players.
The other issue with Volchenkov is that if other teams think that the Devils are going to buy him out, then the players offered by the interested teams will be watered down offers because they will just wait for the Devils to buy him out so they can negotiate terms to sign him as a free agent.
In my view, New Jersey should buy out Volchenkov, not that I am a huge Salvador fan, but Volchenkov has two more years of contract term and would provide $4 million in cap space which would bring their total amount of cap room to $15 million. That provides the Devils front office with the ability to spend around $10 – $12 million this summer to improve the team and have some wiggle room in the cap to obtain a player or two at the trading deadline.
Role of the New Owners
The very notion of discussing the possibility of spending the type of money the Devils have available at this point would not have been conceivable in the previous ownership regime. The new owners have deep pockets and a commitment to putting a great hockey team on the ice for the fans. I think they have a definite blueprint, I am not sure what it is, but I am excited to see it unfold in the coming months.
I think this ownership group will be shrewd and wise in their spending but I think they will not hesitate to make a run at some free agents this summer. That is the other byproduct of using the compliance buyout on one of the defensive players on the roster: it opens another roster spot immediately.
The new owners also have a vested stake in getting the Devils back into the playoffs after watching the cross-river rivals, the New York Rangers, make a run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. In order to accelerate that process, this team needs to add a couple of impact free agents and move some of the veterans off of this roster so that the younger talent can move into different roles next season.
New Jersey currently has 6 open roster spots, and they need to bring in a backup goaltender assuming Martin Broduer moves on to another team, which I think he will. However, the Devils are in talks with Adam Larsson regarding a new contract, so that would bring the available roster spots down to four.
In addition, if you believe what Devils personnel boss Lou Lamoriello stated recently about the CBGB line (see David Garrison’s very well done piece on this subject) that they want to bring back all three forwards on that line, and the team would have one more available roster spot to fill with decisions to be made about Jacob Josefson (a restricted free agent) and Mark Fayne (an unrestricted free agent) and the issue with goal scoring still has to be addressed.
This is where I believe the Devils will use the buyout on Volchenkov to create a roster spot on defense for one of the younger players in their system, namely Eric Gelinas or Jon Merrill. I also believe that they need to let at least one of the three guys leave from the 4th line, the before mentioned “CBGB line”, in order to free up some more open roster positions. I would let Steve Bernier go because his production was so paltry from that position, and I would consider retaining Stephen Gionta only because of his physical intensity. The Devils need that type of role player at the forward position next season.
The days and weeks ahead will be busy for both the Devils and for us here at Pucks & Pitchforks where we will be gearing up for the NHL Draft, and constantly updating the transactions made by the Devils.
I had some time to reflect back on this past hockey season, and in the weeks ahead I will be analyzing the performance of the team compared to the other teams in their division and the Eastern Conference. I will also analyze the free agent market and identify potential targets for the Devils to upgrade their team particularly on the offensive end.
The additional revenues, the salary cap increase, and the first offseason for the new ownership group in New Jersey will all converge to create one interesting summer ahead.
(Salary cap increase and revenue data courtesy of NBC Sports. Salary cap figures, cap space, contract details courtesy of Capgeek.com, and some background courtesy of NHL.com)