While signing a depth defenseman and a fourth-line forward doesn’t sound like much activity amidst all the frenzy of July 1, it was nonetheless part of an important day for the Devils as they signed five players to contracts and going a long way toward putting their 2016-17 roster into focus. Yes it was expected that Shero would re-up with wingers Beau Bennett and Devante Smith-Pelly as well as defenseman Jon Merrill even after not giving them a qualifying offer, but still crucial as all three look to craft out bigger roles next season. Merrill and Smith-Pelly both agreed to two-year deals ($1.3 million per for DSP, $1.175 million per for Merrill), while Bennett signed a one-year deal at $725k, interestingly enough saving money on the QO they declined to extend. Though all could have gone to UFA, all chose to remain with the Devils.
In addition to retaining those three, the Devils also made a couple of outside signings today – the biggest one being the signing of ex-Penguin blueliner Ben Lovejoy (above) to a three year, $8 million deal (AAV: $2.67 million). Lovejoy adds snarl and a bit of a stabilizing stay-at-home presence the Devils needed after dealing off Adam Larsson in the Taylor Hall acquisition. Perhaps just as importantly, the 32-year old Lovejoy gives a still young defense a second veteran presence to lean on in addition to captain Andy Greene and provides a stopgap at RHD until prospects Steve Santini and Joshua Jacobs develop and the Devils one day see what these kids can become.
Signing Lovejoy also balances out the defensive pairings giving them a third RHD to go along with Damon Severson and Santini (assuming he makes the team) while their leading three LHD are Greene, Merrill and John Moore. With last season’s revelation David Schlemko moving onto San Jose after signing a four-year deal, I don’t expect any more UFA signings unless it’s a depth/seventh defense type.
Showing he wasn’t done adding to the team, Shero also inked veteran center Vernon Fiddler to a one-year deal worth $1.25 million. The 36-year old Fiddler improves the team’s depth, giving them a true fourth line center (ATOI last year: 11:38) and one that can actually win some faceoffs and put up a few points. Last season Fiddler put up twelve goals and twenty two points playing all eighty-two games for a high-powered Stars team. Fiddler’s addition signals change in a bottom six that was frequently lacking in 2015-16. Retaining Smith-Pelly and adding Bennett along with Fiddler starts to round out the starting twelve forwards. My projected lines as of this afternoon:
Hall-Henrique-Bennett, Cammalleri-Zajac-Palmieri, Boucher-Zacha/Elias/Quenneville-Smith-Pelly, Josefson-Fiddler-Kalinin
One of the kids could also win a spot and bump former first-rounder Jacob Josefson or last year’s overseas signing Dmitry Kalinin out of the lineup, such as Blake Pietella who didn’t look out of place late last year. With both Josefson and Dmitry Kalinin still under contract they currently have the first crack at being the wings on an improved fourth line though, since the team is not expected to retain free agents Stephen Gionta, Jordin Tootoo or Tyler Kennedy. If any return hopefully it’s in a depth role only (re: 13th and 14th forwards). We already know Lee Stempniak will not be returning after signing a two-year $5 million deal in Carolina, making it the tenth team for the well-traveled Stemp, who was a revelation last season as a camp tryout signing but ultimately not a long-term part of the rebuild Shero’s engineering.
Looking at that lineup currently the biggest question is top six wing (which on paper looks to be a battle between Bennett and Smith-Pelly) and third-line center. 2015 first-rounder Pavel Zacha will be given every chance to make the team and with the construction of the roster you would think it would be at center. There is also the possibility that 2014 first-rounder Joel Quenneville could emerge and steal a spot after a strong WHL season, though you would think the team would like to get him some time in the AHL first. Of course there’s also the specter of franchise icon Patrik Elias who could also be a factor if he recovers from his knee surgery and shows he can still play. Elias has already said he doesn’t want to play anywhere else so if he doesn’t return, that’ll be it for the Czech legend and hopefully future HOF’er.
While I do expect other tweaks before September I’d say the major work is over barring a trade to perhaps improve at center or LHD. And right now I’m fairly content that this team is a lot better than it was a week ago, even without the expensive, flashy UFA signings many teams opted for this afternoon.