Why Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald won’t spend $18M in cap space on Taylor Hall, Mike Hoffman … or any big-money free agents

Sorry, Devils fans. Hate to be the bearer of disappointing news if you’ve been waiting for general manager Tom Fitzgerald to make a big free-agent splash to speed up a franchise rebuild.

Not happening.

Not this year.

And maybe not next year.

Fitzgerald made that crystal clear in a Sunday morning Zoom call.

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The Devils have a plan to go for it once young centers Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes reach their prime, but not before even though they still are under $18.35 million under next season’s $81.5 million salary cap following three significant weekend acquisitions – defenseman Ryan Murray (4.6M) and left wing Andreas Johnsson ($3.4M) via trades, and goalie Corey Crawford ($3.9M) in a free agent signing

Those additions strengthen the Devils’ depth chart a lot –Murray is a first or second-pair blueliner, Johnsson slots in as a second- or third-line winger and Crawford fits nicely as a No. 1A goalie – but there still is a big, big need for a 25-to-30 goal winger to play with Hughes or Hischier, who are gifted playmakers.

A lot of free agents have signed since the market opened last Friday at noon, but as of Sunday morning there still were five forwards who could be a top-line winger for the Devils, who have missed the playoffs two years in a row and seven of the last eight:

–Taylor Hall (16 goals in 65 games, age 28)

–Mike Hoffman (29 goals in 69 games, age 30)

–Tyler Toffoli (24 goals in 68 games, age 28)

–Evgenii Dadonov (25 goals in 60 games, age 31)

–Mikael Granlund (17 goals in 63 games, age 28)

–Anthony Duclair (23 goals in 66 games, age 25)

It’s understandable why the Devils won’t re-sign Hall, a league MVP for them in 2018 who was traded away last December: His price tag is very high for a guy who is coming off two mediocre seasons.

Hoffman also is probably is going to get a very lucrative deal because he’s averaged 28 goals in his six full NHL seasons, but he’ll turn 31 in November and isn’t a great two-way forward.

Why not one of the others, especially someone like Toffoli, who is good scorer and complete player?

NJ Advance Media brought up this issue twice during Fitzgerald’s media available.

Here is the Q & A:

Q: Four or five of the top forwards on the market are still out there. You have $18 million left that you could spend. Do you see yourself being a player for a top-six winger that could really strengthen your depth chart?

Fitzgerald: “I don’t want to say no, but we’re not going to pretend where we’re at right now. I like the mix of guys that we have for where we’re at. I’ve said it all along, this team is going to go when Nico and Jack are both hitting their stride and we can start thinking about bigger acquisitions.

“So right now I’m comfortable where we’re at. I’m going to stay patient. If something makes sense, we’ll sit down as a group and just kind of go through the pros and cons of it and where we’re at. But I’m not going to pretend we’re on the verge of winning a Cup. We’re not.

“I don’t believe in going from zero to 60. I think you could you could lose your way if you do that. Then you start thinking you’re better than you are. This is all about the future and being competitive right now. The most important thing to me is putting a competitive team on the ice that can grow together. We can utilize (American Hockey League affiliate) Binghamton for some of our young players, and when they’re sniffing we bring them up and give them a taste of National Hockey League. That’s development.”

Q: What is the downside to bringing in an impactful player for this season, someone that fits your age group, someone like a Tyler Toffoli? Obviously, fit comes into play, but does it come down to you wanting to bank that cap space for three or four years down the road? What do you say to fans that are saying, “Hey, don’t give up this year and next year. There are some guys that are in their 20s that could really be top six guys right now!”

Fitzgerald: “It’s a business situation. Some of these guys aren’t looking for one or two-year deals. They’re looking for five. Some are looking for six. I believe I know where we’re going to be in five or six years with our group as we continue to add and where our recent draft picks fit in. I don’t ever want to look back and go, ‘Geez, I did it for this season and next season, but, boy, years three and four, what am I going to do with this guy?’ I’m not looking at any particular player, but I am looking at there’s always a drop-off with older players.

“When is that drop-off and how does that pertain to the term of that contract? I don’t want to be one of these teams that’s making phone calls because we’re where we want it to be and we are a cap team, and we’re looking to shed potential bad contracts. I’m not getting seduced by that. I know where we’re at. And I’m not looking to go from zero to 60.

“The fan base, I believe, appreciates the path that we’re on and knows when we get to that point, in particular with Jack and Nico really hitting their strides, then we’re going to be in a situation like some of these other teams adding and be that destination for the top talent. But the most important thing is to draft and develop properly and grow our players internally, and then be able to just have the luxury to add something of importance. So that’s how I feel about it and I’m not going to be seduced or get swayed by something sexy these next couple of years that doesn’t look that great whatever down the road.”

All of that makes sense, but that $18.35 million in cap space that the Devils have allows them to get much better right away when others can’t. According to Cap Friendly, four teams have no free cap space – the Arizona Coyotes, Anaheim Ducks, St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals. There are 12 teams with less than $3 million, 20 with under $9 million. The only teams with more cap space than the Devils are the Ottawa Senators ($27.79M), Buffalo Sabres ($21.65M, Detroit Red Wings ($20.74M) and New York Rangers ($19.73M).

“We went into free agency, one, to get a goaltender and then see if it’s possible to fill holes that we have through the free agent market and/or trades, and the trades came my way just out of the blue,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t want to say out of the blue. These are players that we talked to teams about in the past, so Columbus and Toronto knew the interest of those particular players.”

As far as further moves before training camp, which will start in December if the pandemic allows the NHL to stick with its plan to start the next season in January, most of the teams with cap problems still need to fill our their rosters and one or more could make intriguing trade offers to Fitzgerald similar to Murray just for a 2021 fifth-round pick and Johnsson only for fringe-roster forward Joey Anderson.

“I don’t think that’s a secret,” Fitzgerald said. “We know that their are teams that are cap-strapped. I do know there are teams that are cash-strapped, too. I’m going to continue to be patient. You are the three moves that we made. Two came through trades and one was a free-agent signing. I do think there will be more. I don’t want to just fill spots and then have good NHL players come our way that we don’t have the room for. So I think patience is important.”

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Randy Miller may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @RandyJMiller. Find NJ.com on Facebook. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.

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