Predators, Devils serious Stanley Cup contenders after busy NHL offseason moves

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Nashville Predators
Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

No team made more noise in NHL free agency this summer than the Nashville Predators. But if you include trades and a coaching change to the mix, the New Jersey Devils have been, arguably, just as busy as the Predators.

Coming off a 99-point season and a first-round exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Predators capitalized on their projected salary cap space of $25.5 million after trading away defenseman Ryan McDonagh, and made three big splashes by signing star forwards Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Marchessault, and defenseman Brady Skjei, when NHL free agency kicked off Monday.

Stamkos received a four-year deal with an average annual value of $8 million. Marchessault is joining the Predators on a five-year, $27.5 million deal with an AAV of $5.5 million. Skjei landed a seven-year, $49 million contract after a terrific season with the Carolina Hurricanes. The deals to three established and playoff tested veterans is a combined 16 years and roughly $109 million.

All of this took place after Nashville signed goalie Juuse Saros to an eight-year contract extension worth $61.92 million.

To say that Predators general manager Barry Trotz has been a busy man is an understatement.

Stamkos won two Stanley Cup championships as captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The money is reportedly double what the Lightning were offering Stamkos, who scored 555 goals since being the top overall pick in the 2008 draft. Just last year, he posted his seventh 40-goal season.

So, he’s still got it. And he’s motivated after being snubbed by the Lightning, who instead lavished forweard Jake Guentzel with a seven-year, $63 million contract and inked defenseman Victor Hedman to a major contract extension.

Stamkos will be 38 when the deal is complete but the Predators were not content with merely adding a member of the 500-goal club to a team who has not advanced past the second round since reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2017.

Related: 2024 NHL free agency: Winners and losers after spending frenzy

Like Stamkos, Marchessault is one of the most accomplished players with his previous team – the Vegas Golden Knights.

An original Golden Knight thanks to the 2017 expansion draft, Marchessault scored 192 goals in 514 games and helped one of the NHL’s most recent expansion teams become a consistent playoff team. He helped the Golden Knights to a Stanley Cup appearance in 2018 when they lost to the Washington Capitals, who were coached by Trotz, and also was a Conn Smythe trophy winner in the 2023 playoffs when he totaled 13 goals and 25 points as Vegas won the Stanley Cup.

Even though Vegas was unable to defend its title this past season, Marchessault scored 42 goals – 12 more than his previous NHL career high set in 2016-17 with the Florida Panthers and 2021-22 with the Golden Knights.

Skjei joins a defense corps that already features Roman Josi. A former first-round pick by the New York Rangers in 2012, Skjei is a smooth-skating defenseman who’s turned into an excellent player at each end of the ice, and will be a solid and younger replacement for McDonagh in the top-four.

The signings of Stamkos and Marchessault should enhance an offense which finished 10th in the NHL with 269 goals and could also improve the 16th-best power play in the NHL (21.6 percent).

Skjei is coming off a career-high season of 47 points and is highly durable. In any full season, he has played at least 80 games five times and the 30-year-old enhances a defense, which was 13th in goals against (248) last season.

These moves are also reminiscent of the time the Predators acquired Peter Forsberg from the Philadelphia Flyers in Feb. 2007 and signed Paul Kariya to a two-year deal to usher in the salary cap era in Aug. 2005.

Adding star power back then did not help the Predators get past the first round and the bar is now raised again for the Predators to compete in a stacked Western Conference.

Related: 2024 NHL free agency: Jake Guentzel among stars off board before market opened

Devils fix biggest problems ahead of 2024-25 season

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Calgary Flames
Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

While the Predators added a pair of star forwards, the Devils made moves designed to improve two sources of frustration – goaltending and defense.

Jacob Markstrom was finally acquired from the Calgary Flames earlier this offseason after the Devils failed to land him ahead of the 2024 trade deadline. The 34-year-old goalie has two seasons left on a six-year deal and the Devils were able to make the move after the Flames decided to turn to heralded youngster Dustin Wolf in goal.

It was a move that was sorely needed after the Devils were done in by goaltending in their dud of a 2023-24 season that came on the heels of a franchise-record 52 wins and 112 points the year before.

The combination of Vitek Vanecek, Nico Daws, Jake Allen, Akira Schmid and Kaapo Kahkonen combined for a 3.43 goals-against average and .896 save percentage last season. Only the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, Columbus Blue Jackets and San Jose Sharks finished with worse goals-against averages.

Markstrom posted a 2.92 and 2.78 GAA the past seasons after finishing with a League-best nine shutouts, 37 wins and a 2.22 GAA in 2021-22. Simply, he’s a massive upgrade in goal for New Jersey.

Besides improving their spotty goaltending, the trade made financial sense since the Flames agreed to retain 31.25 percent of Markstrom’s salary that is $6 million per year.

Getting the Flames to retain nearly one-third of the salary helped the Devils enter free agency with roughly $11 million in cap space and like the Predators, they took advantage by signing defensemen Brett Pesce and Brenden Dillon.

Like Markstrom, Pesce was coveted and the 29-year-old received a six-year deal worth $33 million and a cap hit of $5.5 million to help the Devils improve 5v5 and on the 10th-worst penalty killing unit in the NHL.

New Jersey allowed 281 goals last season, tied with the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens for fifth-worst. The Devils struggled defensively, especially after Dougie Hamilton was lost for the season in December due to a torn pectoral muscle.

Pesce was a steadying presence on the Hurricanes and was sorely missed in a second-round playoff loss to the the Rangers after sustaining a lower-body injury early in the first round against the Islanders.

Dillon is a 13-year veteran of the Winnipeg Jets, Sharks and Washington Capitals, one who plays a hard game on the back end. He’ll add bite and experience to a young blue line that features rising stars Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec. His three-year, $12 million deal won’t break the bank and he will slot it in nicely to replace Kevin Bahl and John Marino, who were traded earlier in the offseason.

This is a vastly upgraded roster, one incoming coach Sheldon Keefe must be extremely excited about.

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