With free agency beginning in just a few days there was still a question mark as to how the Devils were going to deal with their goaltending situation, especially given the ominous non-update of Jonathan Bernier after hip surgery ended his 2021-22 season early, and the admission from GM Tom Fitzgerald that they were looking to add another goaltender this offseason. It never seemed likely Mackenzie Blackwood would be traded (even if you buy the rumors of him being unhappy here, or us being unhappy with him), especially with his value no doubt being deflated by his last two seasons and his cost still low payroll-wise. As such, adding another goalie always seemed to be the natural next step and Fitz did that Friday just before the second round of the draft by trading for Vitek Vanecek of the Capitals.
Essentially the Devils dropped back nine spots in the second round and gave up a third-rounder for the 26-year old Vanecek, who’s split time with Ilya Samsonov the last two years in Washington. Vanecek’s actually been the better of the duo with a career 42-23-10 record, 2.71 GAA and .907 save percentage but with the Caps presumably looking to upgrade in free agency by going after someone like Darcy Kuemper or Jack Campbell, they were willing to move one of their goalies. Truthfully it’s a deal that makes sense for both teams, the Devils aren’t in position to throw a major contract at an older goalie so Vanecek’s a calculated gamble. At worst he’s better than what we were playing most of last year in net, and healthier than the two guys we had. At best, he could be this year’s Jonas Siegenthaler (a guy we pluck from the Caps with modest success there who takes a step up here).
After that trade, Fitz publicly stated that he was content with our goaltending. Even as someone who had to watch our dumpster fire goaltending last year, I’m a bit puzzled by all the pushback Fitz is getting over those remarks.
First of all, what else is he supposed to say at the moment? If you say you’re still looking for upgrades after acquiring Vanecek, then that’s a blaring red light that Blackwood is not long for this world. Good luck getting anything for a malcontent goalie that’s struggled with both performance and injury the last couple of seasons at the lowest point of his value. Second of all, what meaningful upgrade is even out there? Backups and 1B goalies with similar career numbers also got traded this offseason – the Rangers got two third rounders for Alexander Georgiev while the Blues got one for Ville Husso and I’m not sure there’s even more of those types of guys available at the moment.
Fitz can’t get in a bidding war with total win-now teams like Washington and Toronto over the only two realistic options in free agency – Kuemper and Campbell. We did need an upgrade, but we aren’t good enough everywhere else to get in a bidding war with Cup hopefuls for older guys, so this was always going to be the only realistic type of option for this offseason. Plus there’s a chance you get more out of Blackwood or Vanecek, to where one of them becomes a long-term starting option anyway. If not, then hopefully the goalie market is better next offseason or you just get another patch veteran and Nico Daws can ideally be a #2 at the NHL level by then. For a raw rookie that was supposed to be at least a year and a half away, he did actually show some NHL capability last year. Besides, unless you have a no-doubt solution like Igor Shesterkin or Andrei Vasilevsky, you’re better off not throwing a lot of money at marginal upgrades in goal – just ask Colorado who was willing to move off their starter in back-to-back offseasons for other, cheaper options.
As for the rest of draft weekend, there isn’t really much to say at this point other than the Devils seemingly had a goal to add to their depth at RHD with not only Simon Nemec in the first round, but also a pair of Americans (Seamus Casey in the second round, and Charles Leddy in the fourth) as well as Russian Artem Barabosha in the seventh round. Also, the Devils drafted a Russian LHD in the fourth round picking Danill Orlov and further supplementing their goalie depth with Canadian Tyler Brennan as their first pick among their three fourth-rounders. Forward seemingly wasn’t a high priority this year with only wingers Petr Hauser (5th round, Czech Republic) and Josh Filmon (6th round, Canada) being selected, but you never know if one of these guys will become the next Yegor Sharangovich or Jesper Bratt – selected in the 5th and 6th round themselves. If you know more about these guys than I do, you really don’t need any recap from me. If you know less about them than I do, then a short post-draft interview with chief scout Mark Dennehy would at least provide a nice initial primer.
At least some of these guys – including Nemec – will be at Devils Development Camp next week, so if you’re in the area you can get a look at some of our most recent prospects there.
With free agency starting next week the question isn’t whether the Devils can do something substantial, the question is whether they will. Other than Dougie Hamilton last offseason, this organization’s been too content to save its cap space for a rainy day. While there aren’t a lot of obvious needs to chase, decisions have to be made on defense with both Ryan Graves and Damon Severson set to be UFA after next offseason, and PK Subban not likely to be retained this offseason. Sure Nemec and Luke Hughes could be two very valuable pieces in the long-term future along with Hamilton and Siegenthaler, but in the near-term neither one is going to be part of the 2022-23 Devils. Do you just keep Graves and/or Severson as placeholders till the younger defensemen are ready, or flip them now and sign some short-term patches?
Up front, clearly top six center isn’t an issue with both Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier signed long-term, a reality crystalized by the Devils passing on Shane Wright for Nemec. Perhaps a better third-line center than Jesper Boqvist would be nice – but he did show some signs of actually being an NHL player in the second half, and there’s always Dawson Mercer available to play in the middle if Boqvist flops. Wing stands out as our major issue right now, even assuming Jesper Bratt gets signed at some point you’re looking at Bratt, Sharangovich and a whole lot of question marks around the aforementioned centers. Ideally Alex Holtz takes one of the two other top six wing positions and runs with it this year although you can’t bank on it, and even if he does you still need another guy there.
And no I’m not convinced it’s Mercer, especially since he did better early in the season as a center than he did later on as a winger, though some of that was no doubt an 18-year old hitting the rookie wall. Figuring out where you’re slotting in Mercer enables you to proceed in FA and the trade market accordingly. If he’s a center, then you definitely need another wing. If he’s a wing, you still can’t just hand both him and Holtz top six slots without any kind of a net. Local boy Johnny Gaudreau would be a fantasy solution up front but he seems ticketed for either re-signing in Calgary or going to Philly (assuming they figure out another way to blow up their roster to squeeze out enough cap space to sign him). Plus even if you want to assume that Holtz and Mercer both have the stuff to be in a top six or nine next year, the Devils still need to figure out a way to get a bigger power forward at some point, and as much as Gaudreau would improve the team’s scoring, he isn’t that.
Long story short, I’m not necessarily expecting anything big but something creative would be nice. You can’t sell me on a forty-point improvement between last year and this team making the playoffs now just off marginally better goaltending, a healthy Hamilton and some growth from the younger players. Maybe it actually happens that way, but after several years of being in seventh or eighth place you can’t sell me on that preemptively. Especially when it involves almost 100% of everything going right, and as we’ve seen (especially the last couple years), it pretty much never works out that way.