It was a shockingly disappointing 2010-2011 season for the New Jersey Devils, the first year since 1995-1996 that they missed the playoffs, but with a veteran-laden squad and heavy salary commitments, it looks like one more last-ditch effort with the current core is the way to go.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Devils team that may be one year from really undergoing a serious roster overhaul.
The first order of business for the Devils, it seems, is to find another head coach. After trying John MacLean last year, then replacing MacLean with Jacques Lemaire, the Devils might just be better off with Lemaire sticking around.
Since he isn't, the Devils could go one of two ways, hiring a veteran coach, which makes sense given the veteran-laden roster, or going for an up-and-comer, which seems less likely given the poor results (9-22-2) with MacLean.
Should they try the latter plan, former Devil and current Montreal assistant coach, Kirk Muller has been considered to be ready for his turn as an NHL head coach.
If it's the former, there have been reports that Ken Hitchcock is a consideration. Not only would he certainly fit the desire to have a proven bench boss to lead this veteran group, Hitchcock is more adept with a veteran group and it's not like Devils players would bristle at the thought of playing a rigid defensive style.
Whomever ends up behind the Devils bench will have to find a way to connect with Ilya Kovalchuk, the star winger that the Devils signed to a 15-year contract last summer.
They don't need to be best friends, the coach merely has to find a way to bring the best out of Kovalchuk so that he's a feared scorer once again.
The other big priority for the Devils this summer will be getting restricted free agent Zach Parise signed. Really, with a healthy Parise and motivated Kovalchuk, the Devils could be a playoff team.
Mix in an upgrade or two on the blueline, along with continued improvement from the young players that got a chance to play in 2010-2011 and the Devils might just be able to make a huge leap in the Eastern Conference standings.
Of course, their trusted long-tenured veterans may just be getting old and the young players may not be ready to take the reins so soon, which could leave them scrambling for another year.
After the surprise of 2010-2011, it's suddenly not so easy to place expectations on these Devils.
It's easy to say that Patrik Elia, now 35, is on the down side of a fine career, especially after registering his first minus season but, rest assured, he was still the Devils' best forward last season -- his negative plus-minus still the best among players that played at least 60 games, his shot differential at even strength was best on the club (per www.behindthenet.ca) and, oh yes, he led the Devils with 62 points while playing in all situations.
He's still under contract, at a $6-million cap hit, for the next two seasons, so Elias isn't going anywhere unless it's what he wants and the Devils are probably better off with his consistent presence in the lineup.
Elias' consistency is almost the antithesis of Ilya Kovalchuk, who was maddeningly unproductive early in the season (20 points- minus-26 in 36 games through the end of December), but then started playing closer to expectations after that, scoring 40 points (with an even rating) in 45 games.
The Devils are committed, for better or worse, to Kovalchuk, so they're going to want more than the 31 goals and 60 points (both low marks since his rookie season of 2001-2002) that he finished with in 2010-2011.
That it came in a season in which he averaged 22:34 of ice time per game -- the second-highest ice time of his career -- further emphasized the depth of Kovalchuk's struggles in his first season in New Jersey. He'll be better next season; he has to be.
Brian Rolston was coming off three straight 30-goal seasons when he signed with New Jersey and has proceeded to score 103 total points in three years with the Devils.
He did have 29 points in his last 44 games last season, so Rolston does have something left in the tank, even if it's not necessarily enough to warrant a cap hit north of $5-million.
Rolston has a no-trade clause and, as a player over 35 when he inked his latest deal, a buyout wouldn't save the Devils any cap room (just real dollars), so burying Rolston in the minors wouldn't provide any relief, and he's still a player that can still be productive in a complementary role.
Losing linemate Zach Parise for most of the season obviously affected centre Travis Zajac, an underrated two-way pivot who hasn't missed a game in the last four seasons.
While Zajac provides a sound game in all zones, he's not the most dynamic offensive player, so he's best when paired with more creative scoring wingers.
One of the bright spots for the Devils last season was the progress shown by 22-year-old power forward Nick Palmieri, who had 17 points and was plus-9 in 43 games.
If 6-foot-3, 220-pound Palmieri is capable of scoring 20 goals or close to it over a full season, he'll add another dimension to the Devils' forward lines and certainly becomes an interesting piece of the puzzle for the future.
Dainius Zubrus remains a useful player, though grossly overpaid for his production (135 points in four seasons with the Devils). He has tremendous size and is skilled enough to play with other offensively-gifted players, but if there's an expendable piece on the Devils' forward lines, Zubrus would figure to be it.
Rookie centre Jacob Josefson was limited to 28 games due to a hand injury and spending time in the AHL, but he finished strong, with ten points and a plus-6 rating in his last 20 games and the 20-year-old should be ready to take on a bigger role next season.
Fellow Swedish rookie Mattias Tedenby is a different style of player. While Josefson is a reliable two-way player with some offensive upside, Tedenby is a more gifted scoring talent, though he's still working on establishing consistency so that he's able to make a serious impact and some of that will simply come as the 21-year-old matures as a player.
The good news is that, while they require time to develop, it appears that both Josefson and Tedenby are keepers who should be able to help now and grow into significant roles with the Devils in the years to come.
There's a lot to like about the self-made player that David Clarkson, undrafted out of junior, has become, but last year was a step back for him. Both his 18 points and a minus-20 rating represented career lows.
Clarkson's game isn't all about scoring, as he's also one of the more combative Devils, but his contract extension wasn't purely for pugilism; the hope remains that Clarkson can still become a 20-goal scorer in addition to providing a physical element.
David Steckel didn't contribute a lot (one point, minus-3 in 18 games) after coming over at the trade deadline, but he has the tools to be an asset on the checking line, providing size and strong faceoff skills.
It's been a gradual process for Rod Pelley to reach the point that he has in his NHL career and the 26-year-old played a career-high 11:48 per game in a career-high 74 games last season, while matching his career best with a modest ten points. You know what you get with him; hustle, hard work, face-offs and not much with the puck.
Priority number one for the Devils in the summer, even more important than coaching, will be getting Zach Parise signed. A restricted free agent, Parise is coming off a season in which he was limited to just 13 games due to a knee injury.
When healthy, Parise is one of the game's elite performers and had four straight seasons with at least 30 goals and three straight with double-digit plus ratings going into 2010-2011.
Will the Devils get him signed to a long-term deal, or will they consider taking Parise to arbitration, looking to get a bargain settlement coming off of Parise's injury-plagued season?
Though Vladimir Zharkov hasn't been much of a scorer, managing two goals in 78 NHL games over two seasons, he's still a plus-5 in that time despite his limited contributions; that, along with a strong shot differential last year indicates that 23-year-old Zharkov should at least be able to fill a checking role if he doesn't develop into a scoring winger.
Last season's struggles afforded the Devils the opportunity to add youth to their lineup and the influx of talent should make the Devils better off going forward. Should they be able add a high-end prospect like Gabriel Landeskog, Jonathan Huberdeau or Sean Couturier in the draft that would only add to the long-term promise, without any rush to get that player into the lineup immediately.
Remember when the Devils had a defence led by Hall of Famers like Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, or even a quality puck-mover like Brian Rafalski? Those days are long gone and if there is one area that needs addressing, it's the Devils' D.
Signed as a free agent, Henrik Tallinder struggled early, but picked up his game in the second half, going plus-20 from January 9 through season's end, a span of 41 games.
Tallinder's size and mobility can make him a possible shutdown defender, but he needs a quality supporting cast if he's going to be able to focus on his defensive task at hand.
Injuries opened the door for Mark Fayne to get his first taste of NHL action and the 23-year-old fared well, with 14 points and a plus-10 rating in 57 games.
He's still better off in situations in which his minutes are protected, so that he doesn't end up with the toughest matchups, but Fayne ought to be in the mix as a regular next season.
33-year-old Colin White has been a part of the Devils organization since he was a second-round pick in 1996, so there is no doubting the loyalty in the relationship, but White's game is declining.
Heading into the final year of his contract, which has a no-trade clause, White can still provide serviceable defensive work.
The Devils likely had higher hopes for Anton Volchenkov when he was signed to a six-year, $25.5-million contract. Volchenkov's ice time was reduced -- his 18:06 per game was his lowest since 2005-2006 -- and his shot-blocking numbers (1.86 per game) were down, but it's too soon to get overly concerned; after all, Volchenkov still had the best five-on-five shot differential of any regulars on the Devils defence.
If anything, the Devils need Volchenkov to stay healthier. He hasn't played more than 68 games in any of the last four seasons, with last year's 57 representing his lowest total since 2003-2004.
Having missed all of 2010-2011 due to a concussion, Bryce Salvador's career has to be considered to be in doubt. It's not that he's not a solid stay-at-home defenceman, but at 35-years-old (and now a year removed from playing), it might be easier on the Devils' cap situation if Salvador wasn't healthy enough to play.
The ankle injury suffered by Matt Taormina that sidelined him from mid-November right through the end of the season prevented him from establishing himself at the NHL level. Since the Devils have such a dearth of mobile, puck-moving defencemen, they could really use Taormina to emerge in that role.
Taormina had 50 points in the AHL in 2009-2010, so he's as good a bet as any to quarterback the Devils' power play, but that may be just as much a reflection on the current crop of New Jersey blueliners as it is an indication that 24-year-old Taormina is ready to be a bona fide point producer.
A late first-round pick in 2006, Matt Corrente hasn't done enough to suggest he's more than a fill-in NHLer. He's tough enough, but has seen little action in 34 career games and missed quite a bit of time last season with a broken hand and separated shoulder.
Mark Fraser is another no-frills defenceman who hasn't looked out of place in 94 career NHL games, though he's also been kept to a very limited role (last year's 13:59 per game represented a career high). It's reasonable to think that Fraser or Corrente could be part of the New Jersey defence next season, but if both are in the lineup consistently, that's going to be a problem.
Knee surgeries limited Anssi Salmela to just 48 games, but he didn't distinguish himself in those games, putting up seven points and a minus-11 rating. He's more skilled than others on the Devils defence, but may be hard-pressed to secure a spot.
Andy Greene has had some good moments with the Devils, but was decidedly better in 2009-2010 than he was last year. If he leaves for greener pastures (see what I did there?) in free agency, the Devils will have to find someone to take over the 22 minutes per game Greene was providing, unless they think Taormina is the answer.
Given their cap situation, the Devils hardly seem to be a big player when it comes to free agency, but if they're willing to get creative (either by trading or burying a salary in the minors,) they could surely use a competent puck-moving defenceman.
Even if his time in Boston hasn't been terribly impressive, would Tomas Kaberle still hold some appeal? Maybe Ian White? Possibly too expensive, but quality puck-moving defencemen aren't likely to come cheaply.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'10-'11 Cap Hit
Nearly 39, Martin Brodeur is no longer an elite puck-stopper and his slippage is only amplified by the questionable defence playing in front of him.
Brodeur struggled early (he had an abysmal .853 save percentage in December) before rallying in 2011 (.925 save percentage in January, February and March) but, ultimately, his .903 save percentage was his worst since 1994-1995.
If the Devils can't keep Johan Hedberg as Brodeur's backup, they'll need another quality goaltender because, while there are several goaltending prospects in the system, they're not ready yet.
Mathieu Garon, Ty Conklin or Mike Smith might be inexpensive short-term options that are worth a try for 20-25 games or so in 2011-2012.
||7-18-25,+11, 42 GP
||25-25-50,-3, 73 GP
||2-21-23,-9, 72 GP
||5-13-18,+14, 38 GP
||Saint John (QMJHL)
||12-32-44,+15, 62 GP
||8-17-25,-3, 50 GP
||13-11-24,+8, 35 GP
||2.90 GAA, .902 SVPCT, 33 GP
||2.99 GAA, .908 SV%, 55 GP
||1.99 GAA, .920 SV%, 38 GP
It's not as if the Devils don't have help coming on the blueline, it's just not necessarily immediate.
A second-round pick in 2010, Jon Merrill enjoyed a strong freshman season for Michigan, but could probably use another year in school before looking to turn pro. 19-year-old Merrill has size and skill that could make him a top pair defenceman once he reaches his peak.
Adam Henrique completed a solid first pro campaign, ranking second on Albany wih 50 points. A two-way centre, Henrique showed that his play in junior wasn't merely a product of playing for a powerhouse Windsor team.
Lanky defenceman Alexander Urbom get into eight games with the Devils and may not be too far off challenging for a regular spot in the lineup. Eventually, his size could make him a shutdown-type defenceman.
21-year-old defenceman Brandon Burlon may be ready to try the pro game after three seasons at Michigan. Smooth-skating Burlon was a second-round pick in 2008, which would certainly address a need on the blueline, but he would figure to need some grooming in the AHL before being put into the New Jersey lineup.
is a defenceman with size (6-foot-4) whose game took off when he joined Saint John, scoring 20 points and going plus-25 in the final 27 games of the season.
Out of Merrill, Urbom, Burlon and Gelinas, the Devils should at least come up with a couple of quality NHL defencemen, maybe more if they're lucky.
Alexander Vasyunov has three years of AHL seasoning under his belt and saw 18 games with New Jersey last season as well. He could certainly be in the mix for a depth forward spot, but hasn't shown enough offence to suggest that he has more than that.
22-year-old winger Mike Hoeffel completed four seasons at the University of Minnesota before joining Albany for a 10-game trial at the end of the year. He has good size and some skill, though 87 points in 149 career games would seem to suggest that his NHL future, if there is one, will be on a checking line.
Injuries have been plaguing Jeff Frazee for the last couple of seasons and his numbers have been going the wrong way since posting a 2.62 goals against average and .920 save percentage in 2008-2009. Now 24, he could really use a healthy season to show that he might have a future beyond the AHL.
A third-round pick last summer, Scott Wedgewood was sharp in his first year as a starter for Plymouth, so he could be the proverbial "goaltender of the future", but he's still 18, so it won't be for several more years.
Two stellar seasons in college made Keith Kinkaid a sought-after commodity and he's added to the Devils' goaltending mix as well. He's 21-years-old, so the Devils have time to groom him properly in the minors and hope that his performance warrants NHL consideration at some point.
Check out a possible roster, without Salvador, and with Parise re-signed on www.capgeek.com, here: http://bit.ly/mRfmle
4th - Gabriel Landeskog, Jonathan Huberdeau, Sean Couturier.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Devils have approximately $52.2M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 17 players.
Needs: Two top four defencemen.
What I said the Devils needed last year: Two top nine forwards, depth forwards, two top four defencemen, backup goaltender.
They added: Ilya Kovalchuk, Jason Arnott, Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov, Matt Taormina, Johan Hedberg.
TRADE MARKET Patrik Elias, Brian Rolston, Dainius Zubrus, Colin White.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.