Assessing the Winger Market as FA Period Rolls On

Less than 24 hours after the New Jersey Devils landed the biggest free agent available this offseason in defenseman Dougie Hamilton, it’s clear that GM Tom Fitzgerald is ready and willing to make big moves in order to facilitate a more rapid transformation of the rebuild.

Hamilton will slot in as the No.1 right-handed defenseman, bringing depth and clarity to the blue line, but in terms of the winger group, much less is set in stone.

2021 was a strong season for the development of both Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich. Both players burst onto the scene and looked like NHL players. That’s great, it’s what this rebuild has lacked for a few years and what will need to happen again a few times considering some of the high draft picks that are presumably knocking on the door at wing.

But as the 2021 offseason rolls on, there is no doubt a need to add at least one more forward to the group, in some sense to help ensure that the moves you’ve made on defense and in goal with the signing of Jonathan Bernier are met with similar progression from the forward group. It’s no easy task, but Fitz has the cap space to just about anything he’d want.

What about the kids?

If you’re Tom Fitzgerald, this is a tough spot. If you sit back and do nothing and hope for the next set of forwards; Alexander Holtz, Dawson Mercer, Nolan Foote, Graeme Clarke and to a lesser extent, Jesper Boqvist to take steps forward, you’re gambling on some combination of that group taking a pretty sizable step forward THIS season.

But what if they don’t? Most prospects need more time. Even really high-end prospects usually need more time. Though it is completely conceivable that one of the players from that aforementioned group does assert themselves as an NHL regular, if the Devils are still searching for extra scoring punch it may prohibit them from taking as big a step as they could possibly take in a year where there are finally some expectations.

Internally, the options aren’t clear cut either. As mentioned before, Kuokkanen and Sharangovich took strong steps, but is it fair to pencil either of them in as a true top-six option? The synergy with Jack was apparent, but the ceiling for either player as to being a true top-six guy is debatable. Is it prudent to go into a season expecting so much from the young Finnish and Belorussian nationals?

Options from within

The Pavel Zacha vs. Andreas Johnsson conundrum has been a sharp talking point in many Devils circles. The analytics love Johnsson but his production was lukewarm at best. As for Zacha, his shooting percentage until proven otherwise could be an outlier and the analytics crowd didn’t like his 5v5 numbers.

Perhaps the best answer to that debate is that you probably shouldn’t want to count on EITHER of these players to play a top-6 role for you in a perfect world. Without adding anything and without simply handing jobs to rookies, both of these enigmatic players could see significant ice time with either Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier. Is that optimal? Probably not.

If Zacha goes back to the form we’ve seen from him under Hynes and Johnsson’s expected numbers don’t start to align with his actual production, there’s a clear lack of top-six wing talent. It’s fair to pencil in Jesper Bratt somewhere with in the top-six, but outside of that, no one is exactly beating down the door for major minutes, yet.

So Who is out there and should we want them?

For the purposes of this breakdown, let’s keep this to 5 names. Vladamir Tarasenko, Reilly Smith and Alex Tuch who would be acquired via trade from St. Louis and Vegas respectively and Brandon Saad and Tomas Tatar via free agency.

Vladamir Tarasenko –

This is the biggest name on this list, but the Russian winger also comes with the most baggage. Much has been made about Doug Armstrong’s ego in regards to finding a suitor for Tarasenko. Though that factor plays a role in this, assuming Vlad can be had for a more than reasonable price, the question quickly pivots to his health. When healthy Tarasenko is an elite scorer. At 29 (30 in December) years-old with a now well-documented history of shoulder trouble, the questions about his health and what type of production he has left are more than fair critiques.

Tarasenko’s cap hit is $7.5m for 2 more seasons, so though the hit itself is on the larger size, being able to get out from under the contract if things don’t work out in just 2 seasons is definitely a plus.

Vlad is unquestionably the highest risk/reward name on this list. While he could put his injury trouble/animosity towards STL quickly behind him and rip off a 30-goal season or two, he could also never regain his form.

Though there is clearly considerable risk in terms of projecting his production, even a 75% Tarasenko could be a major positive, if he can get there.

Reilly Smith –

Smith has always been somewhat of a polarizing figure in Vegas. Some moments he looks like a true top-six caliber winger and other times he tends to disappear. Smith has scored over 25 goals twice and has had more than 50 points a handful of times.

Smith perhaps falls into that category of GREAT third liner if your depth is good but also someone that may leave you asking for more if you’re hoping for a 20+ goal season. There is reason for upside though and the fact that he would get a chance to work with a Hughes or Hischier could mean better production, considering Vegas’s lack of center depth.

The reasoning behind the Vegas guys is that with the signing of Evgeni Dadanov, Vegas is full up on right wingers, so perhaps a trade could be had. I decided to not include Jonathan Marchessault on this list simply because I don’t look at him as a great option.

With one year left at $5mil, Smith’s contract isn’t an issue, but as a true rental, the cost of the trade will matter.

Alex Tuch –

Considering the Devils lack of right handed forwards, Tuch gains some ground simply for the fact that he’s a right handed shot. At 6’4” 220, Tuch also would add some size to the middle six. He’s a speedy player who can battle in the corners as well. Think a more all-around Miles Wood with a better shot.

The burning question around Tuch is about his ceiling. Tuch is signed for 5 more seasons at $4.75m. If you think he’s someone that can eclipse the 50-point mark throughout that deal, it’s decent value. If you view him as a very good third liner with fringe consistent 20+ goal scoring potential, perhaps it’s a bit of a long/expensive commitment.

Tuch did have 18 goals and 15 assists in 55 games last year, so if thats a precursor of things to come, maybe the Devils would be buying at the right time. Understandably, even with the need to perhaps move out a right winger, there will be some cost to acquiring Tuch from Vegas.

Brandon Saad –

The contract is going to be key here. Brandon Saad is a fine hockey player. He won 2 cups in Chicago, has scored 20+ four times and hit the 30+ mark once. Saad has proven to be a guy that hovers around that 50 point mark throughout his career.

I like to look at forwards through the lens of a million dollars for every 10 points they score. Considering that Saad has only eclipsed that mark 3 times, this feels like it’s pushing into the realm of overpayment even before we consider how many years it’ll take to secure his services.

The player is fine. He’s a winner and someone who has scored goals, but especially after 7 goals in 10 playoff games for Colorado last year, it just feels like the current perception of the player as a UFA that won’t cost assets to get versus what he truly is as a player just don’t line up.

If you could get him on a 2-3 year deal, I think you’re fine with that, but it just doesn’t seem as if that’ll be the case.

Tomas Tatar –

Tatar is a strange one. He’s a highly productive regular season player who has good impacts as well, but the fact that he was benched both during Vegas’s playoff run in 17-18 and during Montreal’s run to the cup this past year is an absolute red flag.

His regular season production has seen him score over the 50-point mark a handful of times, so the production shouldn’t exactly scare you away, but, does making some sort of decent time/money commitment to a guy who has been deemed an undesirable in the playoffs with 2 different clubs smart?

Sure, the Devils have a long way to go before we need to worry about playoff production, but to say that there’s no “there” there in regards to Tatar would probably be wrong.

Rankings time

  1. Vladamir Tarasenko
  2. Alex Tuch
  3. Tomas Tatar
  4. Reilly Smith
  5. Brandon Saad

All of these options are at least somewhat tantalizing if you’re Tom Fitzgerald looking for a little bit more scoring punch and in reality all 5 of these players come with ups and downs that must be weighed. I believe the risk is worth the reward on Tarasenko, especially because the contract isn’t long enough to be a problem. He’s the best player on this list by a lot if he’s relatively healthy. Tuch is a nice blend of size and scoring and the Devils could be buying at the right time. Tatar’s playoff issues scare me, but you can’t knock his production. Smith with one year left feels like just another guy and I think Brandon Saad is just too vastly overvalued and the contract will never give proper value even from year one.

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