The New Jersey Devils made a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final, losing a hard-fought series to the Los Angeles Kings.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a challenging offseason for the Devils, with free agency complicated by the club's financial troubles.
While the Devils and the league have denied that the NHL will take over the operations of the team, there are ongoing fiscal challenges facing current owner Jeff Vanderbeek that could, conceivably affect the team's ability to return intact for next season.
The most obvious challenge will be getting Zach Parise signed to a new deal. Parise is the most sought-after free agent forward available, so he doesn't have to sell himself short when he has an opportunity to hit a maximum payday on the open market.
Parise is one of 11 Devils headed for unrestricted free agency (including playoff contributors Stephen Gionta and Peter Harrold), so there should be some turnover and even if the Devils can keep many of those players in the fold, if they lose Parise, that's going to hurt.
Maybe the Devils will sort out their financial concerns, get Parise signed to a long-term, big-money deal and head into next season poised to contend once again, but if they lose some key contributors and don't have the resources to acquire suitable replacements, then the Devils could be battling for a playoff spot.
These are challenging times, then, for the Devils, but better to embark on those challenging times coming off a relatively successful season. It's important, however, for the Devils not to overrate last season's playoff success when making plans for the future.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Lou Lamoriello/Peter DeBoer
Ilya Kovalchuk was a workhorse for the Devils, leading all NHL forwards in ice time, with 24:26 per game and his 83-point season was a marked improvement from his massively disappointing 2010-2011 campaign, when he scored 60 points.
Kovalchuk also came under fire in some quarters for his lack of production in the Stanley Cup Final (one empty-net goal was his only scoring contribution in six games), but he was clearly playing through back troubles.
As the Devils face the prospect of losing Zach Parise
to free agency, there could be even more responsibility heaped on Kovalchuk to lead the team.
36-year-old Patrik Elias tallied 78 points, a total he last surpassed in 2003-2004, while playing a career-high 19:51 per game. While his minus-8 rating was a career-low, Elias took on major defensive responsibilities, consistently matching up with opponents' top lines.
Expectations weren't especially high for rookie centre Adam Henrique going into last season and he even spent some time in the AHL early in the year, but he responded to the opportunity to play with skilled players and went through a stretch in November and December during which he scored a point per game over a 27-game span.
Re-united with his junior coach, Peter DeBoer, David Clarkson was put in a bigger role, playing a career-high 16:22 per game and scoring a career-high 30 goals and 46 points. Clarkson has a rare combination of talent and toughness, especially if he's a bona fide 20-goal scorer.
Dainus Zubrus is coming off his best season as a Devil, putting up 44 points and playing 18:41 per game. He's versatile enough to play with high-end skill players or further down the lineup and, when he's on his game, uses his size to his advantage.
Out for most of the season as he recovered from an Achilles injury, Travis Zajac returned in time to play a significant role -- more than 20 minutes per game -- in the playoffs. He's a strong two-way player when healthy, so Zajac should be an important part of the Devils' plans going forward.
A broken collarbone and broken wrist hindered Jacob Josefson's sophomore season, but he's shown some promise in a limited role, putting up 19 points and a plus-15 rating in 69 games through his first two NHL campaigns.
After scoring a career-high six goals in 2010-2011, enforcer Eric Boulton didn't manage a point in 51 games last season. He can still tangle with the heavyweights, but there are fewer heavyweights with whom he can square off.
After returning to the league and showing that he could still snipe 20 goals, Petr Sykora may be worth keeping in New Jersey. The 35-year-old is an 11-time 20-goal scorer and he handled some difficult minutes for the Devils last season.
Surely the Devils would like to have Zach Parise return, but Parise is the most marketable unrestricted free agent forward on the market and that means there will teams lined up for his services and even if Parise is inclined to stay in New Jersey, the Devils' financial troubles smell like a ripe opportunity for other clubs to come waving a massive contract offer in Parise's face.
At a different pay scale, Ryan Carter has yet to reach 10 points in a regular season, but he scored five goals and seven points in the playoffs and has probably created a market for his services as a fourth-line centre with toughness.
If the Devils lose Parise, they're obviously going to need to fill that hole offensively and there aren't a lot of options in free agency. Would Alexander Semin or a trade for Nashville's Alexander Radulov be feasible? Since the Devils are committed to Kovalchuk, perhaps adding skilled Russians that look up to their superstar would be a way to keep the offence flowing.
Acquired from the Minnesota Wild, where he was having a disappointing year, Marek Zidlicky turned his game around with the Devils, so the 35-year-old puck-mover should be a prominent part of next season's blueline crew.
Andy Greene's minutes came down from the 22-23 per game that he'd been playing the last couple of years and it seemed a better fit to have him under 20 minutes per game. He's little undersized, but generally steady otherwise.
Shot-blocker Anton Volchenkov is the one getting paid the most on the Devils' blueline, but his time on ice dipped too, down to 17:59 per game, his lowest since 2003-2004.
Last summer's fourth overall pick, Adam Larsson, played a significant role for the Devils right off the bat, logging more than 21 minutes per game through the end of January, at which point his ice time was cut back and he became a healthy scratch more frequently. Larsson has the highest ceiling on an otherwise non-descript defence corps, so the 19-year-old should return to a regular role next season.
Veteran defenceman Henrik Tallinder missed more than half the season and much of the playoffs, due to a blood clot in his leg. Even though he was a career-worst minus-11 in just 39 games, Tallinder is a steady hand who can handle difficult assignments.
Unheralded Mark Fayne has good size, mobility and can make a fine first pass, so he quietly takes care of business for more than 20 minutes a night.
Bryce Salvador was a terrific story last season for the Devils. He missed all of 2010-2011 while recovering from a concussion and he played all 82 games, finishing with zero goals and nine assists, but also a career-best plus-18 rating while playing a career-high 20:13 per game. Salvador exploded offensively in the postseason, putting up 14 points in 24 games and while that's not going to be his standard, it helped push Salvador to the forefront. He'll be a priority free agent signing for New Jersey, but might have other suitors too.
If Salvador moves on, New Jersey may be in the market for a veteran defenceman, but they also have some prospects that may deserve a look. Alexander Urbom, and Eric Gelinas already have AHL seasoning and Devils free agents Matt Taormina and Peter Harrold could be included in the depth plans.
Free Agent Goaltenders
||'11-'12 Cap Hit
For the second straight season, Martin Brodeur struggled through the early stages of the season (.894 SV% pre-All-Star break in 2011-2012), but picked his game up in the second half (.921 SV%) through the playoff run; enough to expect that 40-year-old Brodeur should be back again next year.
If Brodeur does return as expected, he could still use a solid backup, someone who can handle 25-plus starts. Johan Hedberg, who is a mere 39, is coming off a season in which he posted a .918 save percentage, the best of his career. Given that level of play, Hedberg is certainly capable of returning in the backup role next season.
||2-9-11, +11, 19 GP
||16-21-37, even, 75 GP
||6-14-20, even, 35 GP
||2-10-12, -3, 50 GP
||1-8-9, -5, 57 GP
||28-10-3, 3.02 GAA, .911 SV%, 43 GP
||Swift Current (WHL)
||9-40-49, -14, 71 GP
||16-17-33, +16, 41 GP
||28-22-50, -19, 67 GP
||12-11-23, +13, 39 GP
Off-ice troubles kept Jon Merrill out of the Michigan lineup for more than half the season, but when he did play, he showed that he's still a fine long-term prospect, with good size and puck skills. He could sign this summer and be a viable pro next year, but another full year of development at Michigan won't hurt Merrill considering how his 2010-2011 season played out.
A second-round pick in 2009, Eric Gelinas is 6-foot-4 and coming off an impressive AHL rookie season, scoring 16 goals, which emphasizes the skill in his game because he could still use his size more effectively.
A smaller forward with good puck skills, Mattias Tedenby has to be more committed if he's going to stick in the NHL. That means playing more responsibly without the puck and going to the dirty areas necessary to score because nine goals and 28 points in 101 career games hasn't been enough to keep his spot in the NHL lineup.
6-foot-5 blueliner Alexander Urbom hasn't looked out of place in 13 games with the Devils over the last couple seasons and his reliable defensive play could have him ready to make the jump soon.
22-year-old Brandon Burlon battled for playing time in his first AHL season, but should get a better look next season. He's a smooth skater, but doesn't have the size of the towering blueliners above him on the list.
A third-round pick in 2010, Scott Wedgewood is the proverbial goaltender of the future, though if Brodeur only happens to play one more season, 19-year-old Wedgewood won't be ready to take the reins quite so soon. Given some time to develop, and prove himself, in the AHL, Wedgewood could be a solid pro.
Puck-moving defenceman Reece Scarlett has seen his point totals jump from 10 to 24 to 49 in three WHL seasons. The 19-year-old needs to mature and round out his game before he gets consideration at the next level.
A sixth-round pick in 2008, David Wohlberg completed four solid years at the University of Michigan and played half a dozen AHL games at season's end. Wohlberg may not have great offensive upside but, with some time in the AHL, he could be a useful two-way forward.
Reid Boucher was drafted in the fourth round last season and had a decent first year in the Ontario Hockey League, earning a one-game audition in Albany as well. He can put the puck in the net, but needs to improve his all-around play as he matures.
A stocky forward selected in the third-round last summer, Blake Coleman has offensive skills and is getting good training at Miami-Ohio. If he can develop into an offensive threat, that would put him a step ahead of many Devils forward prospects.
29th - Scott Laughton, Sebastian Collberg, Phillip Di Giuseppe.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Devils have approximately $42.2M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 13 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Devils roster on Cap Geek here.
Needs: Three top nine forards, two top four defencemen, two goaltenders.
What I said the Devils needed last year: Two top four defencemen.
They added: Petr Sykora, Adam Henrique, Eric Boulton, Brad Mills, Adam Larsson.
TRADE MARKET Dainius Zubrus, Andy Greene, prospects.
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.