Summer of calm for Hudson rivals, Rangers and Devils

It’s now been over a week since all the fireworks 🎇 were fired on the first day of free agency. Following John Tavares’ impactful decision to go home like Dorothy to Kansas Toronto, leaving a gaping hole for the Islanders to fill (they haven’t), most talk centered around Erik Karlsson.

However, a few days after a few writers made it seem like he was a foregone conclusion to the Tampa Warriors Lightning, nothing has happened yet. If they’re really going to execute such a blockbuster trade, they need a third wheel to help offset salary. Ironically, both the Rangers and Devils were mentioned as potential partners. But nothing came of it. Ryan Callahan isn’t coming home. Maybe it’s for the best considering all the crying bitter Ranger fans have done on social media. The insanity borders on pathetic.

Whatever Tampa GM Steve Yzerman decides, he has even less margin to work with following a eight-year extension with Nikita Kucherov for $76 million. Basically, a whopping cap hit of $9.5 million beginning in ’19-20. He will earn $5.5 million in ’18-19 and only be on an AAV of $4.77 million. So, the Bolts even with Ryan McDonagh deciding to forgo unrestricted free agency in 2019, agreeing to a seven-year extension worth an average of $6.75 million through 2026, are a shade over $70 million currently. They could still try to acquire Karlsson and add his $6.5 million salary to a blueline that boasts rating Norris winner Victor Hedman, McDonagh, Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, Braydon Coburn and Mikhail Sergachev. Jake Dotchin too if he counts. 😮

Why can they do this? Aside from the tax advantage, which allows players to take less knowing they’ll make more due to playing in Tampa, Yzerman is aware that the contracts of Girardi, Stralman and Coburn are expiring next summer. He’ll put a priority on re-signing Yanni Gourde, while looking to dump salaries such as Callahan or Alex Killorn.

There’s also this. A worthwhile note about the contract extension Kucherov agreed on yesterday.

Mind numbing. Any way to take full advantage of the rules under the current CBA. Tampa will be responsible for the next lockout in 2020. Not that they care. It’s all about getting as many big name players as possible and fitting them in for a run at a Cup.

If you’re the Rangers or Devils, why would you help the Lightning? Unless they’re willing to include a good prospect or two draft picks in either of the first two rounds, I hang up the phone and tell Stevie Y, “Go find someone else to use.”

Most fans knew the Blueshirts strategy this summer. They weren’t gonna be in on any big names. It doesn’t mesh with what they want to do. It’s not a big deal that top pick Vitali Kravtsov won’t make his Broadway debut until the following season. He will fulfill the remaining year of his contract with Traktor of the KHL. They gave him a bump in salary. It’s a professional league which should further his development. Even if it means he might need some seasoning in Hartford next year, Kravtsov will arrive at some point.

Right now, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton will focus on re-signing his restricted free agents. He took care of Russian Vladislav Namestnikov, giving him a nice raise on a multi-year deal worth an AAV of $4 million. We’ll see if he fares better on the wing under new coach David Quinn.

Group II’s Kevin Hayes, Brady Skjei, Ryan Spooner, and Jimmy Vesey all filed for salary arbitration last week. Hayes and Skjei looking at considerable bumps in salary. Especially if Hayes is retained, and Skjei gets a long-term deal that could benefit both parties. John Gilmour remains restricted as does Ryan Sproul.

The only move Gorton made was minor, inking former Ottawa defensive defenseman Fredrik Claesson. He’ll compete in camp for a roster spot with Brendan Smith, Steven Kampfer, along with some of the kids. We’ll see if either Ville Neskanen or Michael Lindqvist can make it up front.

Alexandar Georgiev remains the favorite to be the backup goalie behind cagey vet Henrik Lundqvist.

As for the Devils, they’ve been mysteriously quiet this offseason. Although it’s been longstanding tradition even post-Lou Lamoriello to not make any sexy moves, you have to wonder what the thinking is. GM Ray Shero re-signed mere mortal Eddie Lack as goalie insurance due to starter Cory Schneider possibly not being ready for camp due to offseason surgery.

Hopefully, he will be ready for the start of the season. The Devils can take solace knowing backup Keith Kinkaid was instrumental in helping them reach the postseason. If not for his strong and steady play down the stretch with Schneider hurting, they wouldn’t have beaten out the Panthers. That helped Taylor Hall win the Hart Trophy, becoming the first ever Devil to do so.

So, what else have they done so far? Not much. Unless you think signing Eric Gryba for one year will help stabilize a blueline that lost Mr. Overtime, John Moore to the Bruins. He signed for five years! Good luck with that, Boston. New Jersey has plenty of D to fill the roster. Starting with captain Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen, they don’t lack depth. However, they could use another top four who could make a difference. Justin Faulk? Eh. He can add offense but his defense is a bit suspect.

Obviously, Will Butcher will be looked upon to continue his development into a top four role. He got plenty of power play time and favorable match-ups in his rookie year, which translated to 44 points (5-39-44). Damon Severson scored nine goals and added 15 helpers, but struggled with consistency in his end. That remains a weak point for a good player who the Devils invested in long-term. He’s signed for another five years at an AAV of $4.17 million through 2023. The right D turns 24 next month, entering his fifth season. He will be a key if the Devils are to improve.

Mirco Mueller and veteran Ben Lovejoy remain. They should have the inside track to the bottom pair with Gryba and forgotten man Steven Santini fighting for a spot.

Up front, Shero hasn’t been able to add another scorer who could take pressure off Hall. He, Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri form a potent top line. That’s if John Hynes wants to keep them intact. He could always opt to slide Palmieri down for more balance. With Patrick Maroon turning down more money to go home to St. Louis for one year, that hurts. He was the one acquisition who worked out due to his size and grit. Michael Grabner (Coyotes) never fit in. Drew Stafford and Jimmy Hayes weren’t returning.

Unless there is a drastic change, the Devils will need former 2015 first round pick Pavel Zacha to become more dependable. In his first two seasons, the former sixth overall pick has totaled 16 goals in 140 career NHL games. That can’t continue. Blake Coleman and Stefan Noessen will be re-signed. Two hardworking players who overachieved, carving checking and penalty killing roles under General Hynes. They have speed and bring a lunch pail work ethic. Travis Zajac remains a Devil for another three seasons at an AAV of $5.75 million. Part of a big contract Lamoriello gave him before injuries and a decline in production caught up due to his tenacious style of play. He’s still a valuable secondary forward, who is superb on the penalty kill and solid on big face-offs.

Inspirational Brian Boyle also remains for one more year. Could it be the swan song for the lovable big man, who courageously battled cancer, becoming an All-Star and locker room leader? Boyle has always given his heart and soul wherever he played. No wonder he’s so beloved by his peers and fans. I wish he could’ve remained a Ranger. I still root for him.

Two forwards the Devils are hoping for improved performances from are Jesper Bratt and Marcus Johansson. Bratt was the surprise of last year making the roster. He was a fixture early on with Hischier due to a great start. But eventually, he cooled off considerably and even fell out of favor. But he is similar in speed and defensive acumen to Grabner. If he can improve his consistency, then he should be a good player.

Johansson had a rough first year in Newark due to injuries. None more serious than the concussion he suffered on a dirty hit by Brad Marchand following a whistle. A foolish act by a player, who has issues despite his talent. Johansson played in only 29 games, scoring five times with nine helpers. He did return for the playoffs, going without a point in three games. Hopefully, ’19-20 treats him much better. He’s a quality top six forward as long as he stays healthy. A good skater with some finishing and playmaking capabilities, Johansson was barely a factor last season. If he can get back to what he was, pencil him in for 20 goals and 25 assists. That would be a welcome sight.

So would the continued improvement of Miles Wood. He scored a career best 19 goals with 13 assists and 84 penalty minutes. However, it didn’t translate in a first round loss to Tampa. He wasn’t as effective following a dopey cheap shot that resulted in a suspension. He can be a good player when he stays in control. A bit similar to David Clarkson, Wood is a better skater, who crashes the net. Obviously, the Devils need him to become a consistent secondary scorer.

If it looks like it’s the same old, same old for Jersey’s team, that’s because it is. They’re expected to make the playoffs again. With teams around them improving, it’s no wonder Hasan is concerned. They never seem to invest much money into the roster. Taking a step back would be bad. Hall would only have a year left on a contract that pays him $6 million. He’s signed through 2020. Then can turn unrestricted.

It’s a important year for the Devils. One they can’t afford to waste.

What can be taken away is that you have the two Hudson rivals at different stages. The Rangers fully committed to a rebuild even if it means missing the playoffs a couple of more seasons. Youth will be served. The Devils looking to improve on their surprising ’17-18. Not just be one and done. Both rivals remain compelling.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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