A crushing Game Seven playoff defeat ended the New Jersey Devils' season earlier than expected and they head into the summer with a lot of free agent issues to address.
Off-Season Game Plan examines the Devils and what they may do to stay among the contenders next season.
That the Devils were contenders at all last season, when Martin Brodeur missed half the year, was remarkable -- a credit to head coach Brent Sutter and goaltender Scott Clemmensen, who helped keep the Devils in contention.
With one year remaining on his contract, Sutter is expected to return and coach the Devils, but he's missed being in Alberta and there is always the possibility that the lure of home could be enough for him to resign, adding one more item to Lou Lamoriello's off-season list of things to do.
Additionally, Lamoriello has to make decisions on a number of free agents, with underrated defenceman Johnny Oduya and winger Brian Gionta among the higher priorities.
Given that the Devils finished fifth in the league, with 106 points, there isn't a need for a dramatic roster overhaul. Rather, some tweaking is really all that the Devils would need to get back among the best teams in the league and as long as Martin Brodeur is in goal, they can count on another playoff berth.
How far they go once they get there may depend on what kind of moves Lamoriello has up his sleeve this summer.
Lou Lamoriello/Brent Sutter
Top Prospects: Mattias Tedenby (3-1-4, minus-6; HV71-SEL), Nicklas Bergfors (22-29-51, minus-3 in 66 GP; Lowell-AHL), Matt Halischuk (14-15-29, minus-8 in 47 GP; Lowell-AHL)
The Devils' franchise player, at least among skaters, is now Zach Parise, the star forward who has improved in each of his four NHL seasons. Parise was a legitimate MVP candidate last season and now faces the challenge of duplicating or even exceeding his 94-point season.
At 32, Patrik Elias put up his best season since the lockout, notching a career-best 12 power play goals and tying his career mark of 31 power play points along the way. It's at least a little more reasonable to have Elias under contract for four more seasons if he's going to be a point-per-game player.
Perhaps no Devil exceeded expectations like captain Jamie Langenbrunner who, at 33, put up career bests in goals (29), assists (40), points (69) and plus-minus (plus-25). He has such good chemistry with Parise and Travis Zajac, but it could be hard to match that kind of production again next season.
At the other end of the expectation spectrum, Brian Rolston was a serious disappointment after signing as a free agent. The 36-year-old with the big shot suffered through a sprained ankle and his 32 points represented his lowest total since 1999-2000. Still under contract for three more seasons, Rolston has to come back strong for the Devils next season.
Dainius Zubrus hasn't been the offensive producer that the Devils were seeking when he was signed as a free agent, scoring 78 points in two seasons. He has size, skill and is under contract for four more seasons, so even getting up to 50 points in a season would be a step in the right direction.
David Clarkson brings a needed combination of toughness and talent, mixing 20 fights and 17 goals in his second NHL season.
Veteran Jay Pandolfo went through some rough periods, as a healthy scratch for long stretches and finishing with a career-worst minus-12 rating before getting back into the lineup late in the year. It's tough to see justify paying Pandolfo $2.5-million in each of the next two seasons unless he's in a much more substantial role.
Playing with Parise and Langenbrunner obviously helped, but Travis Zajac enjoyed a breakout season, scoring 62 points and finishing with a plus-33 rating. As he matures, Zajac should become even more productive.
The Devils appear to have enough cap room that they can take a run at a top scoring forward if they can find the right fit, though that kind of acquisition could mean shuffling Brian Rolston or Dainius Zubrus into a highly-paid checking role.
With so many veteran forwards nearing the end of the line, or at least heading to free agency, the Devils will need to beef up their checking lines. Guys like Chad LaRose, Travis Moen, Samuel Pahlsson and Andy Hilbert would be among those who would add some energy to the third and fourth lines.
Top Prospects: Matt Corrente (6-12-18, plus-1 in 67 GP; Lowell-AHL), Brandon Burlon (5-10-15, plus-17 in 33 GP; Michigan-CCHA), Tyler Eckford (2-25-27, minus-16 in 72 GP; Lowell-AHL)
Paul Martin is underappreciated, but there simply aren't many defencemen who have done what he's been able to do over the past two seasons -- recording at least 30 points and at least a plus-20 rating in each, a feat only achieved by Chicago's Duncan Keith and Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom.
That doesn't necessarily mean that Martin is at the level of an elite blueliner, but he's a quality mobile, puck-moving defenceman.
Not only does Colin White play a physical, no-nonsense game, he did it quite well last season, recording his first plus rating since the lockout. So long as there aren't expectations outside his own end, White is a reliable veteran leader.
After languishing in the minors for eight seasons, Mike Mottau has put together back-to-back NHL seasons with the Devils, including last year, when he finished with an impressive plus-24. He's not big, but Mottau is smart and poised.
In his first full year with the Devils, Bryce Salvador played in a career-high 76 games, notching a career-best 16 points. He provides an honest day's work, blocking shots, taking the body and dropping the mitts if need be.
A journeyman pro, Jay Leach got into 24 games with the Devils last season, giving the 29-year-old a total of 28 NHL games in his career. He's not likely to rise above the level of organizational depth.
Andy Greene hasn't been able to secure a full-time spot in the lineup, but has good mobility when he does play, making him a nice fit as the seventh defenceman.
It's been a while since the Devils had a workhorse on the blueline, so they could have some interest in Jay Bouwmeester or a second-tier option like Mattias Ohlund of Francois Beauchemin, though the Devils may be just as inclined to try and keep Johnny Oduya, who has developed nicely in three seasons with New Jersey.
Top Prospect: Jeff Frazee (28-22-6, 2.62 GAA, .920 SVPCT, 4 SO in 58 GP; Lowell-AHL)
Martin Brodeur's string of 70-game seasons ended at ten, when he missed close to four months due to an elbow injury. When he did play, Brodeur was inconsistent, recording five shutouts yet allowing four or more goals in seven of his 30 regular season starts before finishing the season by allowing four or more goals in three of the last four games of the first round loss to Carolina.
However, with his track record, there is no reason to think that Brodeur won't be able to get back in form is he's healthy next season.
The backup job could easily go to 31-year-old Scott Clemmensen, who surprised by rising to the challenge when Brodeur was hurt. If Clemmensen is lured away in free agency, perhaps with a chance to start more than a dozen games elsewhere, that would leave the Devils looking in another direction, whether it's prospect Jeff Frazee or any number of veteran free agents.
23rd - Chris Kreider, Kyle Palmiere, Nick Leddy
The Devils have approximately $39.5-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Two top nine forwards, three depth forwards, one top four defenceman, another defenceman, backup goaltender
What I said the Devils needed last year: One top nine forward, one top pair defenceman
Who did they add? Brian Rolston, Bobby Holik, Anssi Salmela.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca