New York Islanders 2017-18 Offensive Projections: The Top-Six 6
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Entering the 2018 offseason, the New Jersey Devils are back in a position to spend money on some of the top players in the free agent market.

The New Jersey Devils are back to being contenders. There’s no turning back now, and the phrase “rebuild” is something that Devils fans can eliminate from their vocabulary when talking hockey at the Prudential Center come October 2018.

In recent memory, the NHL’s unrestricted free agency (UFA) hasn’t been an exciting day for New Jersey, nor have any notable and “big” signings panned as anticipated. Though, expect the Devils and general manager, Ray Shero, to make headlines during this year’s UFA and as early as July 1 when all the fun begins.

The Devils have seven skaters on their current NHL roster that are set to become UFA’s this July (Michael Grabner, Patrick Maroon, Drew Stafford, Jimmy Hayes, Brian Gibbons, John Moore & Eddie Lack) and don’t expect a majority of those skaters to return, especially since New Jersey will have the cap space to fill the team’s immediate needs heading into the 2018-19 campaign.

While this past year’s team was exciting and made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2012, it was apparent that New Jersey needs to consider signing a household name for the team’s blue line, another proven goal-scorer and a two-way skater to provide depth for the team’s bottom six forwards.

New Jersey won’t be signing all of these players mentioned, but here are the top seven skaters that the Devils should target in the 2018 UFA-class.

D Ian Cole

Yes, another former Pittsburgh Penguin. Yet, this skater doesn’t have any ties to the Ray Shero days in the Steel City. Ian Cole, 29, has proven that he’s in the prime of his career and is more than likely going to leave Columbus for a bigger contract this offseason. But don’t let the sound of a pay raise scare you away.

The former first-round draft-pick (2007, 18th overall) has something that only current Devils defenseman Ben Lovejoy has, which is a Stanley Cup ring. Cole has two in fact. Recent history has shown that it’s imperative for teams to have everyday players on their roster that have a Stanley Cup ring. Cole would be a regular in the Devils’ lineup and have more of an impact than Lovejoy has since joining New Jersey.

The six-foot-one blueliner is a left-handed shot and one that could also end up replacing Moore’s role on the backend. The Devils wouldn’t acquire Cole with the intentions of having him be their top signing in order to improve the team’s blue line, but he should be an affordable asset that’s worth paying for.

C Joe Thornton

I know, I know. The direction that the Devils have been taking is about getting younger and faster, but bringing on a future Hockey Hall of Fame center could pay serious dividends for the team’s immediate future.

Yes, the Devils have a handful of skaters that can play center at the moment, but perhaps the team decides to move a player such as Marcus Johnson to the wing and will make room for Jumbo Joe.

A short-term deal would be ideal for both sides, and Thornton has proven that he still has what it takes to make a serious impact in a number of ways for a Stanley Cup Playoff contender. Adding a caliber center like Thornton would create the necessary depth down the middle of the ice for the Devils to take that next step in the right direction. Plus, it probably wouldn’t hurt to have him around the young Nico Hischier for a couple of seasons, either.

D Calvin de Haan

After losing in five games during the first round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs to the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was apparent that the Devils needed another well-rounded defenseman such as New York IslandersCalvin de Haan.

No, de Haan isn’t an offensively skilled defenseman such as Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, but the 27-year-old would add necessary depth to have more balance and flexibility to create more options on the team’s blue line. The Carp, Ontario native can eat up a lot of ice time and is reliable, which would add more value to other Devils’ defensemen such as Sami Vatanen and Andy Greene.

Less ice time and pressure on those two current Devils’ defensemen is key moving forward with this defense corps, as a lesser role will see their overall play improve.

LW Evander Kane

Big, fast, and can score goals…sounds like a good fit for the Devils’ roster.

The Devils should target UFA Evander Kane while they can, as the forward has shown signs that his overall game is still improving.

Kane, 26, is coming off a 54-point season (29G-25A) that was split between the Buffalo Sabres and San Jose Sharks (traded to San Jose at the 2018 NHL Trade Deadline). The big question with the former fourth-overall pick is his attitude off the ice and if he’ll fit in with the group of core players that any interested team has at the moment.

Still, a winning culture and change of scenery in San Jose panned out to benefit Kane and the Teal. Perhaps Shero can work his magic and convince the 26-year-old to drink the Kool-aid that’s working on the East Coast in Jersey. He’s the ideal skater that fills a big gap in the Devils’ top six up front.

Plus, his nine seasons in the NHL will carry over a good chunk of experience and he’ll be hungry to start playing in Stanley Cup Playoffs on a consistent basis for the first time in his career.

LW James van Riemsdyk

New Jersey’s fan base has been waiting for this day since forward James van Riemsdyk was drafted second-overall at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft (Philadelphia Flyers). There’s a good chance that the Middletown, New Jersey native will leave the Toronto Maple for UFA this summer, and joining the Devils finally makes sense.

The six-foot-three forward would be a huge upgrade on both sides of the puck, and Jersey’s top 10 power play from 2017-18 would improve drastically with the addition of van Riemsdyk. “JVR,” 29, had a career-high 11 power-play goals last season, and the big body in front of the opposition’s net hasn’t recorded less than five tallies on the man advantage since the 2011-12 campaign.

His asking price won’t be cheap, but he’s an upgrade for the offense that New Jersey shouldn’t pass over.

C John Tavares

Why not?

New Jersey’s 2017 offseason entailed drafting the number one overall pick at the draft, so now go obtain the best available player and leader on the free-agent market in 2018. The current captain of the New York Islanders, John Tavares, is hitting UFA for the first time and there seem to be more reasons for him to leave the Islanders rather than stay.

Again, the Devils have a number of players that can play center, but a caliber skater that’s available such as this one needs to be pursued by New Jersey. There might be question marks as to if the former first-overall selection would fit in with the team’s current talent, but Tavares has proven that he’s a team-first leader and his mindset would complement New Jersey’s style of play and the direction it’s going in.

This hockey enthusiast doesn’t think Tavares would get in the way of Hischier’s growth as a superstar player either; if anything it may benefit the youngster more than most might realize.

Signing Tavares brings the Devils one big step closer to hoisting Lord Stanley for the first time since 2003.

D John Carlson

The NHL’s 2018 free-agent class for defensemen shouldn’t be considered strong by any means, but within the next two seasons, the Devils are going to need to acquire a big name defenseman.

Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson is coming off of a career year (15G-53A –68pts), and there’s a good chance the dynamic blueliner is going to leave the nation’s capital as a UFA. Since the UFA class isn’t considered strong for defensemen, teams are going to have to overpay for Carlson; but he’s the type of player that the Devils need to add in order to move forward and improve this team. Carlson would be given the keys to quarterback the team’s first power-play unit, and his role would make the team’s other top defensemen better skaters in the process.

For eight full seasons in Washington, the former first-round draft-pick (27th overall, 2008) averaged 22-minutes of ice time or more per game, which would open things up for the team’s other defensemen. While Vatanen was seeing number one defenseman minutes, he’d add more value and offensive contributions by seeing less ice time.

Honorable Mentions

  • John Moore
  • Patrick Maroon
  • David Perron
  • Alexei Emelin
  • Luca Sbisa. 

Potential Steal: Kevin Connauton (Arizona)

Kyle McKenna is a freelancer who covers the NHL for Elite Sports New York, Hooked On Hockey Magazine & Fansided. Follow him on Twitter @KMcKenna_tLT5 and use the hashtag #McKennasDigest to have your NHL questions featured in an article or answered over his weekly NHL podcast.