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Off-Season Game Plan: New Jersey Devils

Scott Cullen
6/4/2010 7:04:11 AM
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A third consecutive first-round playoff exit and another coaching change leaves the New Jersey Devils with more questions than might be expected from a franchise that has recorded at least 95 points for 13 straight seasons.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at what looks like another summer of change for New Jersey.

Following the Devils' first-round loss to Philadelphia, head coach Jacques Lemaire resigned, meaning that New Jersey will start with a new bench boss for the third straight season and fifth time in six seasons.

The popular notion seems to be that John MacLean, the long-time Devil who coached with Lowell in the AHL last season, is due for his chance to coach New Jersey, though ex-Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock and Montreal Canadiens assistant (and former Devil) Kirk Muller are others reportedly under consideration.

No matter who comes in behind the bench, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello has some major decisions to make regarding his roster. Evaluation is natural, particularly after three straight first-round exits, but for a team with some questionable contracts and still lots of cap room, there could -- and should -- be some changes made.

"The standards here are very high," said Lamoriello at season's end. "This is not something that is acceptable or would ever be accepted. We'll have to look at it. This is a time when you take a step back, no different than we've done other years. Try to evaluate and correct."

So, while the Devils talk about bringing back a free agent like Ilya Kovalchuk, there are also veiled acknowledgements that Kovalchuk's individualistic game didn't necessarily fit within the Devils' system.

If the Devils lose Kovalchuk and Paul Martin, the defenceman who missed three quarters of the season due to a broken forearm, then there will be substantial remodeling required, but even if both return, the Devils can't very well go into next season maintaining the status quo.

Sure, if the Devils go into next season with the same cast of characters and a new coach, there is a great likelihood that they will return to the playoffs, again, but the New Jersey Devils aren't a team that can be satisfied with a mere playoff berth.

It's those high expectations -- for a team that has won three Stanley Cups in the last 15 years -- that necessitate an active off-season for the Devils and will make it interesting to see if Lou Lamoriello can make the right moves to help the Devils recapture their former glory.

GM/COACH
Lou Lamoriello/Vacant

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Zach Parise 94.72 $3.125M
Travis Zajac 83.18 $3.888M
Patrik Elias 79.71 $6.0M
Jamie Langenbrunner 77.17 $2.8M
Brian Rolston 72.82 $5.063M
Dainius Zubrus 70.70 $3.4M
Vladimir Zharkov 62.99 $850K
Jay Pandolfo 59.58 $2.5M
Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond 55.46 $525K
Andrew Peters 53.44 $900K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Ilya Kovalchuk 88.13 UFA $6.4M
David Clarkson 70.04 RFA $838K
Rob Niedermayer 64.69 UFA $1.0M
Dean McAmmond 62.88 UFA $500K
Rod Pelley 59.78 RFA $550K

Zach Parise is an extremely productive forward, one of just two in the league (Alexander Semin is the other) to have at least 30 goals and a plus-20 rating in each of the last two seasons and the 25-year-old has put up more than a point-per-game in the last two years as well. He also happens to be a bargain.

Quietly developing into one of the game's better two-way pivots, Travis Zajac is a strong complement to Parise and further enhanced his value with career highs of 25 goals and 67 points last season. An added bonus: he's missed only two games in four NHL seasons.

Health issues creep up every so often, but 34-year-old Patrik Elias remains a consistently productive forward who could use some more reliable linemates.

It's hard for Elias to live up to a contract that costs $6-million a season for three more years, but he's also been a double-digit plus in six of the last seven seasons, so he's not likely to be a liability, even at the worst of times.

Captain Jamie Langenbrunner strangely fell out of favour ith Jacques Lemaire late in the season, so he probably won't mind having someone else set the lines next season. Langenbrunner has scored 60 points or more three times in his career, all in the last four seasons, as he's often been a veteran anchor on the Parise-Zajac line.

The wall closed in quickly on Brian Rolston, the 37-year-old winger who has scored 35 goals in two seasons since returning to the Devils, after three straight 30-goal seasons in Minnesota. He can play the power play and the Devils don't score enough to scoff at 20-goal scorers but Rolston's contract, which runs for two more seasons, well exceeds his current value.

Joining Rolston on the list of Devils that are okay players but have ill-advised contracts, Dainius Zubrus is still signed for three more seasons. He's big and talented enough, but hasn't scored 50 points in a season since leaving Washington in 2006-2007.

The 31-year-old did have a decent finish, with 14 points in the last 20 games, so the Devils may optimistically hope that he can build on that in a second-line role.

Though he scored zero goals in his first 40 NHL games, chipping in ten assists, Vladimir Zharkov does possess some offensive upside, as evidenced by his 21 points in 23 AHL games last year before getting promoted.

Given a more substantial role, Zharkov can use his speed to create scoring opportunities or, perhaps, by finishing more opportunities, Zharkov can earn a more substantial role.

Jay Pandolfo has been a loyal foot soldier for the Devils for the last 13 seasons, but the one-time shutdown checker has seen his role sharply decline in recent seasons. He would be a candidate for a buy out, but off-season shoulder surgery could scuttle those plans.

Tough guy Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond scrapped eight times in 27 games with the Devils, including an epic decision over former Devil Cam Janssen. He doesn't provide much more than that, as he's mustered just three assists in 35 NHL games, but he knows his role.

Letourneau-Leblond's role is effectively the role that Andrew Peters holds. At 247 pounds, Peters is more of a heavyweight, but he's an utter liability when it comes to actually playing, recording one assist in 57 games over the last two seasons.

David Clarkson came into the league with a similar tenacity, but more skill and he's evolved from a tough guy into a promising power forward, who could be good for 20-plus goals and 150 penalty minutes.

He was off to a terrific start last season before suffering an ankle injury that sidelined him then diminished his effectiveness, but 26-year-old Clarkson is one player with potential to accomplish more than he has to this point in his career.

Stuck in an extremely limited role, Rod Pelley played fewer than eight minutes per game last season and 16 points in 130 career games gives a pretty good indication that the hard-working 25-year-old isn't likely to vault above fourth-line status.

Last season's deal for Ilya Kovalchuk was a big splash, but it didn't make the Devils any better (their record was worse after the deal), so there may not be much of an appetite to sign him to the monster free agent contract that he's likely to command on the open market.

The Devils could go any number of ways to fill out their forward ranks, whether it's for a big-time scorer like Kovalchuk, a setup centre like Tomas Plekanec or a two-way player like Matt Cullen might be the right fit. Perhaps a bargain, and short-term investment, could be found with a veteran like Alex Tanguay.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Andy Greene 76.80 $738K
Bryce Salvador 64.30 $2.9M
Colin White 61.19 $3.0M
Anssi Salmela 61.11 $613K

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Paul Martin 68.36 UFA $3.833M
Mike Mottau 63.92 UFA $763K
Martin Skoula 63.21 UFA $575K
Mark Fraser 59.92 RFA $500K

A spare part in his first three NHL seasons, Andy Greene was thrust into a significant role when Paul Martin was injured and Greene played more than 25 minutes a game from November through February. He was closer to 20 minutes the rest of the way.

Greene's not exactly ideal size for defence, but his mobility and smarts helped him play effectively, even when asked to do a whole lot more than might have reasonably been expected of him. If he's playing more than 20 minutes per game next season -- and looking at this roster, why wouldn't he? -- Greene will be one of the league's best bargains.

Stay-at-home defenceman Bryce Salvador can be effective in a defensive role. He's not very mobile, but he's a battler and the type who can play the safe role with a partner who is more adventurous up the ice.

Colin White offers a similar, though even more physical, game in a larger frame. The 32-year-old was one of 15 defencemen to have at least 125 hits and 125 blocked shots last season.

The Devils brought Finnish defenceman Anssi Salmela back from Atlanta in the Kovalchuk deal and, while he added mobility to the defence, he was also a minus-5 in nine games. Having played a depth role in 64 career NHL games through his first two seasons, Salmela seems like a good bet to slide into that kind of role again next season.

Mark Fraser plays the same kind of physical, defensive game that White and Salvador provide, though he's definitely not as advanced, coming off a rookie season in which he was protected, playing only 12:33 per game. For the time being, the 23-year-old is a reasonable third-pair option.

Never mind if New Jersey loses Ilya Kovalchuk as a free agent; that was considered very much a possibility right from the time he was acquired and the Devils have enough talent to put together a couple of scoring lines without him.

The gaping hole that is staring at the Devils is the possibility that Paul Martin and Mike Mottau will leave as free agents and New Jersey can't continue on their path of replacing top defencemen with whoever happens to be hanging around.

While Martin is easily acknowledged as the Devils' top defenceman, Mottau was also one of three (with Martin and Green the others) to play more than 22 minutes a game last season so, while he's not a big name, Mottau would still be a notable loss.

The Devils could certainly entertain the possibility of trading for at least one top four defenceman, but they may have to look to free agency.

Dan Hamhuis may command nearly as much as Martin on the open market, which could be prohibitive, but the Devils need some defencemen capable of moving the puck, so Johnny Boychuk, Kim Johnsson, Joe Corvo, Jordan Leopold, Randy Jones and Carlo Colaiacovo could be some of the guys worth looking at in order to shore up the defence.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Cap Hit
Martin Brodeur 89.23 $5.2M

He may be 38-years-old and coming off his third straight first-round elimination, but Martin Brodeur can still carry the mail, starting a league-high 76 games and winning a league-best 45.

The Devils have cast their die with Brodeur, as he's signed for two more seasons and even if he's slipped some from his peak, he's still a good goaltender; albeit now with a smaller gap between his level of play and that of average starting goaltenders throughout the league.

Though Brodeur's durability is admirable it's not a stretch to think that, at this stage of his career, he might be better off starting 66 games instead of 76.

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Yann Danis 81.23 UFA $500K

Yann Danis was used sparingly as Brodeur's backup, but performed well when given the chance. He might want to go to a team that would present him with an opportunity to start more than half a dozen games, but if he's satisfied in New Jersey, Danis seems like a good fit.

Top Prospects

Player Position Team/League Stats
Mattias Tedenby LW HV71 Jonkoping (SEL) 12-7-19,+7, 44 GP
Jacob Josefson C Djurgardens (SEL) 8-12-20,+7, 43 GP
Matt Corrente D Lowell (AHL) 5-15-20,+3, 43 GP
Adam Henrique C Windsor (OHL) 38-39-77,+38, 54 GP
Alexander Urbom D Brandon (WHL) 12-21-33,+45, 66 GP
Tyler Eckford D Lowell (AHL) 8-23-31,+11, 61 GP
Matt Halischuk RW Lowell (AHL) 11-11-22,+6, 32 GP
Nick Palmieri RW Lowell (AHL) 21-15-36,-11, 69 GP
Alexander Vasyunov LW Lowell (AHL) 16-22-38,+7, 68 GP
Jeff Frazee G Lowell (AHL) 14-16,2.80 GAA, .910 SVPCT, 30 GP

Mattias Tedenby isn't big, but he's quick and has the hands of a goal-scorer, setting him apart from any of the Devils' other top prospects.

With a more well-rounded game, Jacob Josefson was a first-round pick last summer and he may not be too far off from being able to contribute in the NHL. He's played a regular role for two years in the Swedish Elite League, so his game is more refined than that of the typical 19-year-old.

Rough and ready blueliner Matt Corrente saw action in a dozen games with New Jersey last season and could challenge for a spot this year, depending on how free agency shakes out. Though his no-frills style is similar to some already on the roster, Corrente is also more apt to drop the gloves, if necessary.

A potential steal from the third round of the 2008 draft, Adam Henrique has been a prominent part of a Windsor Spitfires team that has won back-to-back Memorial Cups, doing his part by scoring 20 goals in 19 OHL playoffs games this spring. The two-way pivot will benefit from some seasoning in the AHL.

Swedish defenceman Alexander Urbom came over to the WHL and impressed in his first season of major junior. A big, physical package, Urbom presents intriguing potential.

24-year-old Tyler Eckford had a strong AHL season and could contend for a spot in New Jersey, particularly if his puck-moving skills are considered more of a need than Corrente's toughness.

Matt Halischuk got into 20 games with New Jersey last season, but didn't play much and while he could become a decent checking winger, he needs to get stronger in order to handle that responsibility.

Though his minus-11 rating tied for worst in Lowell, Nick Palmieri surprised with 21 goals in his first pro season. The big winger also saw action in half a dozen games in New Jersey and survived the experience.

A second-round pick in 2006, Alexander Vasyunov hasn't exactly exploded onto the AHL scene, but he could be ready to make his mark offensively.

After a strong year in 2008-2009, Jeff Frazee's level of play slipped some last year. The 23-year-old will have to be better to see more action ahead of Mike McKenna, unless McKenna is given a surprise shot as Brodeur's backup.

The Devils also have some longer-range prospects like Michigan teammates Brandon Burlon and David Wohlberg, Minnesota winger Mike Hoeffel and Finnish winger Vili Sopanen.

DRAFT
No first-round pick.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Devils have approximately $41.1 M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 15 players.

Needs: Two top nine forwards, depth forwards, two top four defencemen, backup goaltender.

What I said the Devils needed last year: Two top nine forwards, three depth forwards, one top four defenceman, another defenceman, backup goaltender.

Who did they add? Niclas Bergfors, Rob Niedermayer, Dean McAmmond, Ilkka Pikkarainen, Cory Murphy, Yann Danis.

TRADE MARKET Dainius Zubrus, Jay Pandolfo, David Clarkson.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.

 




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