Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald vowed to tackle his first free agent market with patience, and that’s exactly what he did Friday after the market opened at noon in the East.
Almost all night.
With lots of cap space to spend and pressing needs to address, the rebuilding Devils made a big move about an hour before the clock struck 12 midnight by signing veteran goalie Corey Crawford to a two-year, $7.8-million pact.
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What an intriguing addition this was.
Crawford, 35, will go down in Blackhawks history as a franchise great because the Montreal native was in the net for two Stanley Cup wins during his 13 mostly good seasons with Chicago, and this move filled a Devils hole because Cory Schneider, their No. 2 goalie last season when he wasn’t demoted to the AHL, was bought out on Thursday.
Now Crawford will be asked to play a lesser role both as an often-used No. 2 and mentor to starter Mackenzie Blackwood, who was pretty good as a rookie last season.
The Crawford signing was announced 24 hours after the Devils took advantage of a division rival being up against the cap when they acquired defenseman Ryan Murray from the Columbus Blue Jackets for just a fifth-round pick. With Murray, the second pick of the 2012 draft, seemingly over chronic back problems and expected to be a first- or second-pair defenseman next season, he could be a steal for the Devils even though he has just one season remaining on his contract.
That deal also filled a need, which leaves one pressing one for Fitzgerald, who would love to bring in a goal-scorer to play left wing on Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier’s line. The one stipulation for spending big dollars is Fitzgerald wants to bring in young, controllable talent.
The two most hyped wingers still on the market weren’t signed on Friday, but the Devils aren’t expected to be in the running to re-sign Taylor Hall, who they traded to the Coyotes last December, or Mike Hoffman, who scored 29 goals for the Panthers last season and averaged 28 over the last six.
A better fit for the Devils’ rebuild is left wing Tyler Toffoli, a 28-year-old right shot who had 24 goals and 44 points in 68 games last season playing for the Kings and Canucks. If the Devils outbid everyone on this really good all-around player, they’ll have had a great offseason even if they do nothing else.
It’s a mystery where Hall will end up, although it apparently won’t be a return to Edmonton, which had been the big rumor. His asking price reportedly is too high on a short- or long-term deal for the Oilers, and Hall is said to be weighing whether it would be worthwhile to take one or two years. In a shorter deal, he’d be betting on himself returning to his 2018 Hart Trophy-winning form and then test the market again in a year or two when he’s 29 or 30.
“(Edmonton) would have been a perfect fit (for Hall) because you’ve already got your two big guys down the middle, Connor McDavid and (and 2020 Hart winner) Leon Draisaitl,” NHL Network insider Dave Reid said on air. “More and more, it seems Columbus could be that team.”
The Blue Jackets added $14 million in cap space Thursday by trading defensemen Markus Nutivaara and Murray, and buying out forward Alexander Wennberg.
“They made room for something,” Reid added. “They need scoring up front. They need a power-play guy. That looks like a long-term fit (for Hall). Columbus opened up space to make a big splash and we haven’t seen it.”
The Devils still have the cap space to make a bigger splash, as they’re $21.7 million under next season’s $81.5 million cap after adding Murray ($4.9 million) and Crawford ($3.9 million).
Will Fitzgerald go hard for Toffoli, who is projected by Pro Hockey Rumors to get a five-year, $27.5 million contract? The Devils can afford that easy, and they could get five good seasons in a deal because of Toffoli’s age.
If Toffoli signs elsewhere, a backup option could be Evgenii Dadonov, a Russian right wing who also is a good scorer but a little older at 31. The 5-foot-11, 185 pounder had 25 goals and 47 points in 69 games with the Panthers last season. He’d also be a good pickup, but on a shorter team. Pro Hockey Rumors has his market being at $23 million for four years.
That’s also is very doable for the Devils, who really need to add an accomplished scorer to play with Hughes. The first overall pick of the 2019 draft, Hughes had a disappointing first season in 2019-20 – he had just seven goals and 21 points in 61 games – but the 19-year-old is expected to develop into a high-scoring star within the next couple of years.
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