2019 NHL Free Agency, Advanced Stats, Drew Stafford, Egor Yakovlev, Kenny Agostino, Kurtis Gabriel, New Jersey Devils

Devils’ Pending UFAs: Who Stays and Who Goes?

Finishing the season 31-41-10 is not how the New Jersey Devils envisioned their season going. It paid off in the end as they won the NHL Draft Lottery last week and will select first overall at the Entry Draft in June. That’ll go a long way in helping them rebuild their roster, whether it’s either Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko they select.

Team USA's Jack Hughes
Team USA’s Jack Hughes (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Carlos Osorio)

Even with the first pick, there are going to plenty of more changes this offseason in New Jersey. They don’t have any big-name unrestricted free agents hitting the market this offseason, but there are a few that played more than their fair share of games. Who should the Devils choose to re-sign? And who should they let walk?

Devils’ Top Pending UFAs

Drew Stafford

Stafford is in an interesting spot with the organization. He first signed with the Devils as a free agent in the summer of 2017 and played a depth role on a playoff team. He only had 15 points in 59 games, but he was a key locker-room presence on a young team making their first postseason appearance in six seasons.

It didn’t look like there would be a spot for Stafford this season. However, Jesper Bratt fractured his jaw before the start of the regular season, opening the door for Stafford to sign a one-year deal. His counting totals were about the same as last season, as he finished with 13 points in 57 games.

Related: Drew Stafford’s Value Goes Deeper Than Stats

Stafford is a depth player at this point in his career. His goals above replacement (GAR) was minus-0.5 this season (via Evolving Hockey), the same as Gabriel Bourque and Greg McKegg. He doesn’t score much, and the Devils are in desperate need of more offense. His underlying numbers at five-on-five aren’t great, either. So he seems there’s a good case to let him go, but I can see a scenario where he’s back.

Drew Stafford #18
Drew Stafford #18, October 20, 2018 Philadelphia Flyers versus the New Jersey Devils. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Devils will need a 13th forward next season, and they’d be better off giving Stafford that role instead of giving it to a rookie. It’s also hard to discount the presence he provides in the locker room, and that may be why the Devils bring him back. That said, it’s probably in their best interest to find someone who can score more than Stafford.

Kurtis Gabriel

If you had Gabriel as a regular in the lineup before the season started, I would’ve called you nuts. But that’s how things played out during the second half of the season amid all the injuries. He made for a nice story, scoring his first-career NHL goal this season, but he struggled to perform otherwise. Here’s where his Corsi for percentage (CF%), expected goals for percentage (xGF%), scoring chances for percentage (SCF%), and high-danger chances for percentage (HDCF%) ranked on the team ( > 100 minutes played):

  • CF%: 37.1% (last)
  • xGF%: 34.47% (last)
  • SCF%: 32.73% (last)
  • HDCF%: 35.9% (second to last)

Gabriel also takes a lot of bad penalties, putting the team on the penalty kill more often than they need to be. He can drop the gloves and will stand up for his teammates, but that won’t be enough to keep him around next season. The Devils need to start freeing up roster space for their young players, so moving on from Gabriel makes sense for the long-term picture.

Kenny Agostino

Agostino didn’t begin the season with the organization. But the Morristown, NJ-native found himself with the Devils after being claimed off waivers from the Montreal Canadiens in February. He played 27 games with the Devils and finished with 13 points, a 39-point pace over 82 games. His underlying numbers at five-on-five, although not overwhelming, were in the top half of the team since Feb 11. ( > 100 minutes played):

  • CF%: 48.86 percent (second best)
  • xGF%: 49.95 percent (fourth best)
  • SCF%: 47.19 percent (seventh best)
  • HDCF%: 55.36 percent (fifth best)
New Jersey Devils Kenny Agostino
New Jersey Devils left wing Kenny Agostino (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

Agostino also produced at a steady clip, averaging 1.69 points per 60 minutes (P/60) at five-on-five, which ranked sixth on the team for the season. He can score a bit more than players like Kevin Rooney or Stafford, who closed the season as regular bottom-six forwards. And he had better underlying numbers than those two.

It’s not going to cost a lot to bring back Agostino. His previous contract paid him $700,000 per season, and the Devils will have over $30 million in cap space this offseason, so affording him won’t be an issue. On a one-year deal, he’ll be a cost-effective bottom-six option.

Egor Yakovlev

Yakovlev signed a one-year deal with the Devils last offseason, after spending the previous nine seasons in the KHL. He showed some offensive upside in his time in the NHL, but he was never able to maintain a spot in the lineup. He flourished in the AHL, totaling 16 points in 19 games, but at 27 years old, I doubt that’s where he wants to continue his career.

The issue with Yakovlev isn’t his play as much as it is the Devils’ roster situation. Connor Carrick will be a restricted free agent this summer, and I’m sure they’re going to re-sign him. Steven Santini is also signed for two more seasons, so the Devils are already set in terms of depth defensemen.

Egor Yakovlev #74
Egor Yakovlev #74, November 15, 2018 Philadelphia Flyers versus the New Jersey Devils. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Two of the team’s top defense prospects — Ty Smith and Jeremy Davies — are also close to being NHL ready. They’re both left-handed shots like Yakovlev and are sure to take away playing time from him. In a different situation, it’d make sense to bring him back. But if Yakovlev wants to continue playing in the NHL, it looks like it’ll have to be with another organization.

Are There Any Other FAs of Note?

Nick Lappin has been with the organization since he signed as an undrafted UFA in 2016. He’s played in 60 games combined in the NHL since then but has only totaled eight points. He’ll be 27 years old in November and has yet to stick in the NHL, so it looks like his time with the organization may be coming to an end. I’d expect the Devils and Lappin to part ways this summer.

Related: Devils Win Draft Lottery and Hughes Sweepstakes

Eddie Lack is one of the Devils’ more interesting unrestricted free agents. He missed most of this season with an injury, so that may be a factor in what the Devils decide to do with him. At the same time, they’ll need a goalie who has NHL experience just in case one of Cory Schneider or Mackenzie Blackwood get hurt. That would be one reason to bring Lack back, but he’d also take time away from prospects Evan Cormier and Gilles Senn, the latter of who is expected to come to North America for 2019-20.

Eric Gryba was one of the Devils’ sparse free agent signings last summer. He played in just 10 games in the NHL and did not total any points. He’s a physical presence on the back end, but he provides almost no offense which is a problem for how the Devils want to play. Gryba’s situation isn’t much different than Yakovlev’s. They have enough depth defensemen under contract, so it’d be a surprise if he returns to the team next season.

Eddie Lack New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils goaltender Eddie Lack (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

Finally, there’s Blake Pietila. He played a majority of the team’s games down the stretch, totaling one point in 19 games. His underlying numbers were also among some of the worst on the team with at least 100 minutes played:

  • CF%: 38.08% (second worst)
  • xGF%: 42.31% (fourth worst)
  • SCF%: 43.59% (fifth worst)
  • HDCF%: 46.15% (fourth worst)

Pietila was a fifth-round pick of the Devils in 2011 but has not stuck in the NHL. And judging by his numbers, it doesn’t look like there’s much to say it’s going to happen any time soon. He did finish with 46 points in 50 games in the AHL, so he’d help a Binghamton Devils squad in need of some improvement, too. Otherwise, I think he’s likely played his last game with the organization.

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick except where noted

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