Where to start after arguably the Devils’ most successful FA frenzy day? Let’s start with the obvious…the Devils’ additions of top-pairing defenseman Dougie Hamilton and veteran goalie Jonathan Bernier make them a much better team than they were twenty-four hours ago. Assuming GM Tom Fitzgerald had an internal ‘to-do’ list this offseason adding a top pairing defenseman, a solid 1B goalie in addition to trading for another top four defenseman (Ryan Graves) this offseason arguably checks off the three most important boxes for this franchise in the short and long-term.
I was hopeful last night when word leaked out that Hamilton would be leaving Carolina, and the Athletic’s Sara Civian reported today that the Hurricanes’ last offer to their UFA defenseman was 8 years and $50 million total ($6.2 million AAV). Great money for you and me but not exactly what the market is for defensemen of Hamilton’s caliber. Especially after Seth Jones signed for $9.5 million per year this offseason. Looks like Carolina owner Thomas Dundon skimped out again, but Carolina’s loss was the Devils’ gain this afternoon.
Of course I was a bit paranoid some mystery team would swoop out of nowhere at the last minute and give Hamilton an offer he wouldn’t refuse, especially after this dragged out past 5 PM due to negotiations over the odd structure of the deal – but without anyone linking Hamilton elsewhere in the last few days, it seemed like only a matter of time before the seemingly inevitable finally became a reality. As early as a few minutes before noon, Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported on Twitter that it was a done deal with contract terms that would prove pretty prescient:
In fact, the deal wound up being a 7 year, $63 million contract for an even AAV of $9 million per. Give Kypreos credit for being first and fairly close on the numbers, although to be fair pretty much everyone had been calling Hamilton to the Devils for the last several days, since he was given permission to negotiate and see what his market was. Clearly it was much higher than anything Carolina was willing to offer. As noon turned to 5 PM I had a little angst, how could you not? Until a deal is done, it really isn’t – we’ve seen examples of that throughout sports with last-minute snags. Finally though, all the insiders basically confirmed the deal one after the other just after 5 and the celebrations could begin in earnest.
Hamilton gives the Devils the best all-around defenseman they’ve had in nearly two decades, since the Great Scotts both walked out the door after the 2004-05 lockout (Stevens to retirement, Niedermayer to Anaheim). I always loved Brian Rafalski and felt he got underappreciated but he really wasn’t on that level as a player, he was more of a complementary piece on a top pairing as opposed to the driving force. Andy Greene was a loyal soldier and solid defensively till the end, but never really put up the double-digit goal and 40-50 point production offensively that Hamilton can bring as a PP1 QB. Not only that, but he brings a fanbase – not to mention the entire franchise – a shot of hope desperately needed after three straight seasons far out of the running of postseason hockey and only one playoff appearance since 2012.
Obviously Fitzgerald’s day couldn’t just begin and end with Hamilton, though fortunately he was able to lock up Bernier to shore up our goaltending much earlier in the afternoon for a 2 year, $8.25 million deal ($4.125 million AAV). I don’t really get the criticism that he ‘overpaid’ for Bernier, first of all who cares about overpaying on a two-year deal? We have so much cap space, we’re still skirting the cap floor even after the Hamilton and Bernier signings. Second of all, Bernier’s numbers the last few years are more indicative of the dogmeat Red Wings team he was playing with than his own play. Having a .914 save percentage in 24 games this season (9-11-1 record) was a borderline miracle on a team that lost 37 of its 56 games overall and gave up over three goals a game. He fits the bill of being a guy good enough to carry the mail in goal if need be, but not too good where he’ll block Blackwood from getting his chance to be the undisputed #1 goalie for a full season.
Like with Corey Crawford last offseason, Bernier cited franchise legend Martin Brodeur as a key impetus into him signing with the Devils. It has to be an asset when you have an icon who all goalies of this generation looked up to, selling any goalie (UFA or draft pick) on a franchise and an area he knows so well.
Almost as if trying to sneak it in between the Bernier press conference and YouTube interview, and the official announcement of Hamilton being done, the Devils also made a minor transaction dealing defenseman Will Butcher and a 5th round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for ‘future considerations’, whatever that means. An unfortunate ending for a guy who signed with us as a college FA and started his career with a bang in 2017-18 with 44 points in 81 games. However his defensive and skating deficiencies hurt him long term as his production went down, and he fell completely out of favor with coach Lindy Ruff, being benched for much of the season until injuries and trades forced him back into the lineup later in the season. Still, it’s a good thing for Butcher who gets a fresh start and more playing time in Buffalo than he would have received his last year under contract here.
At the risk of sounding greedy our offseason can’t begin and end today though, not if Fitzgerald and ownership is serious about putting all our chips in to take the next step back toward relevance. Particularly in a division chock-full of teams attempting to be win-now. A third-line center, a scoring winger and another depth left defenseman are probably the remaining goals I’d have from this offseason. Perhaps one or two of those holes could be filled from within but there’s still enough room for young guys to step up in the lineup without having any additions unnecessarily block guys who earn time from getting it. Not to mention we still have over $20 million of cap space to work with.
Today is an exciting day though, no doubt about it. Usually our July 1’s are filled with heartache and annoyance, like when big names leave – on many occasions for the team across the river. Or on a rare occasion, spending that didn’t work out well (a.k.a Lou’s offseason of Ilya Kovalchuk, Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, or Ray Shero’s summer of P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev two years ago). Here’s hoping this is the even rarer offseason that’s franchise-changing in a good way. There really isn’t anywhere else to go but up at this point.