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Off-Season Game Plan: Devils

Scott Cullen
6/2/2008 3:46:15 PM
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Even with a new head coach -- again -- the New Jersey Devils couldn't get out of the first round of the 2007-2008 playoffs.

Off-Season Game Plan examines the Devils' roster and what they might consider in an attempt to return to their Cup-contending ways.

Last year's hiring of Brent Sutter was supposed to signify a change in New Jersey, but the results seemed awfully familiar: a successful regular season undermined by a playoff ouster. Assuming that Sutter is the man to lead this team, changes need to be made.

"I have no question in my mind about whether we had the right personnel," general manager Lou Lamoriello told the Newark Star-Ledger. "We didn't get the job done collectively on a consistent basis. I don't see a lot of necessary changes."

While it's that kind of loyalty to his players that might prompt guys to sign contract extensions under market value, Lamorielo's reputation has taken a hit in recent seasons because of his evaluation of team needs and the players brought in to address those needs.

At one time, the Devils were successful by making value signings to complement their core stars, but in the post-lockout years there have been too many instances of the Devils trying to replace top-end talent with unheralded rookies or minor leaguers.

Even worse, New Jersey's forays into free agency have failed to bring an impact player and the Devils are consistently competitive enough that one or two impact players would make a huge difference.

So, while there may not be a huge quantity of changes in New Jersey this summer, the quality of the changes needs to be significant. Big, bold moves are necessary if the Devils are going to reclaim their place among the best in the Eastern Conference.

GM/COACH
Lou Lamoriello/Brent Sutter

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Salary
Zach Parise 80.71 $2.5M
Patrik Elias 79.44 $6.0M
Brian Gionta 71.97 $4.0M
Jamie Langenbrunner 71.11 $2.8M
John Madden 70.44 $2.939M
Dainius Zubrus 65.37 $.43M
Travis Zajac 62.29 $984K
Sergei Brylin 57.73 $1.52M
Michael Rupp 56.95 $500K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '07-'08 Salary
Jay Pandolfo 66.55 UFA $836K
David Clarkson 62.82 RFA $555K
Rod Pelley 56.65 RFA 522K
Arron Asham 56.51 UFA $700K

Top Prospects: Nicklas Bergfors, Petr Vrana, Matt Halischuk, Mike Hoeffel

Leading scorer Zach Parise is a rising young star who can elevate his game when crunch time hits, but he could use more support in the form of talented offensive playmakers who can keep up with him.

Veteran Patrik Elias, who is expected to complement Parise, didn't have his best season in 2007-2008 and, now that he's 32, it's difficult to project him as being good value over the final five years of his contract unless he rebounds with a more productive season.

Diminutive Brian Gionta has a nose for the net, even if he did finish with 22 goals, his lowest total in three post-lockout seasons. He remains a quality top-six forward and, since Elias has no-movement clause, perhaps Gionta is the most marketable Devils forward.

Team captain Jamie Langenbrunner is a reliable soldier, though his game tailed off late in the season. He's a solid second-line player when he stays healthy.

35-year-old John Madden had the best offensive season of his career, tallying a career-high 43 points as he played a more prominent two-way role under Brent Sutter. Madden's still a top-notch checking centre, which makes him invaluable for a low-scoring team like the Devils.

Perhaps the Devils wouldn't be so low-scoring if Dainius Zubrus would have been able to fit in among the scorers, but he never got into a good rhythm and finished with only 38 points.

Equally disappointing, second-year centre Travis Zajac dropped in just about every significant category and ended up with 34 points. Zajac is big and a strong skater with skills that should warrant at least a second-line role, but he'll need to be better in order to fill that role.

Sergei Brylin has played every game for the last four seasons and has spent his entire 14-year NHL career with the Devils, but his value is diminishing after a 16-point season in 2007-2008. Both Brylin and the Devils hold a contract option for next season and, since it seems unlikely that another team would offer him more, Brylin seems likely to return.

Michael Rupp brings much-needed size up front, but his offensive contributions are nearly non-existent (44 points in 263 career games) which limits him to fourth-line duty.

Rookie winger David Clarkson brought a lot of energy and was far and away the team's top scrapper. If he can improve his scoring production, even a little, he'd be even more valuable.

Rod Pelley worked his butt off to get into 58 games as a rookie, but managed just six points, so he'll need to develop further if he's going to be anything more than a fourth-line/extra forward.

While the Devils could use additional scoring, they are also facing the possibility of losing 12-year Devil Jay Pandolfo, who may finally look elsewhere to cash in on his status as one of the game's most reliable checking wingers.

Should New Jersey take a plunge into the free agent pool, Brian Rolston, Ryan Malone and Cory Stillman may be among those players who have the kind of offensive skills to help change the Devils' fortunes around the opposing goal.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Salary
Paul Martin 76.15 $4.0M
Johnny Oduya 74.45 $575K
Sheldon Brookbank 64.11 $500K
Andy Greene 63.56 $600K
Colin White 62.78 $3.0M
Mike Mottau 62.51 $750K
Vitaly Vishnevski 60.39 $2.0M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '07-'08 Salary
Karel Rachunek 68.88 UFA $1.4M
Bryce Salvador 66.66 UFA $1.5M

Top Prospects: Matt Corrente, Anssi Salmela, Tyler Eckford

The blueline was once a vaunted strength of the Devils but, after several years of replacing Hall of Famers with bargain basement options, it's just not the same.

Paul Martin is the best of the bunch back there, a quality puck-moving blueliner, but he's not yet equipped to be the workhorse of the unit.

Johnny Oduya improved exponentially in his second NHL season, playing sound defensively while adding an offensive dimension. Given his salary, Oduya is one of the better value players in the entire league.

Tough guy Sheldon Brookbank was decent in a limited role, improving as the season progressed, making him useful as a seventh defenceman.

Andy Greene's rookie season was marked by several late-season scratches. He's undersized, but a decent enough puck-moving defenceman who needs to develop further in his second season.

A serious eye injury nearly ended Colin White's career, but he returned to play a solid physical role on the blueline. He's still big, strong and nasty, but White may not have quite the same edge as he did when he first broke into the league.

Career minor leaguer Mike Mottau had played just 23 NHL games in his first seven pro seasons before landing regular duty with the Devils and played 76 games in 2007-2008. Mottau can handle the puck, but can also get outmuscled down low, so the Devils may want to cut into his ice time so that he's not asked to handle more than 20 minutes per game.

Hard-hitting Vitali Vishnevki never seemed to get in a groove with the Devils and had a career-low minus-12 rating at season's end. With many teams interested in a physical presence on the blueline, Vishnevski would figure to have some value if it's not going to work in New Jersey.

If the Devils are going to rise up and be serious contenders again, the blueline needs to be addressed, either through trade or free agency. On the free agent front, Brian Campbell, Ron Hainsey, John-Michael Liles and Mark Streit are all possible upgrades. 

Finnish blueliner Anssi Salmela was signed after putting up 32 points in 56 games, so he may provide some help on the back end if he can make a smooth transition.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Salary
Martin Brodeur 83.55 $5.2M
Kevin Weekes 57.30 $700K

Top Prospect: Jeff Frazee

Martin Brodeur is 36, but has played 155 games over the last two seasons, and he's played them very well. While it wouldn't hurt to have a backup capable of handling at least a dozen games, the least of the Devils' concerns is between the pipes.

Veteran Kevin Weekes only started five games, but he's a decent guy to have on hand in the event that Brodeur gets injured. Weekes is a former starter who is hard to evaluate at this stage when he doesn't even start a game per month.

DRAFT
21st - Colby Robak, Zac Dalpe, Joe Colborne

FREE AGENCY
The Devils have approximately $42-million committed to salaries for next season.

 

Needs: One top nine forward, one top pair defenceman

What I said the Devils needed last year: One top six forward, two top four defencemen

Who did they add? Dainius Zubrus, David Clarkson, Arron Asham, Mike Mottau, Karel Rachunek, Sheldon Brookbank, Vitali Vishnevksi

TRADE MARKET


Scott Cullen can be reached at scullen@tsn.ca 




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