As in every year, the 2010 playoffs have given us nothing but great and exciting hockey and while it’s discouraging to see my New Jersey Devils were amongst this year’s playoff participants that bowed out early, the remaining teams have given us as fans some serious and competitive entertainment. I was in Montreal this past weekend and have to say there’s no other place like it in the world as far as the attitude towards their home team and the sport of hockey goes. The energy and passion those fans have while watching a game is simply astounding and admirable. Having returned to the states yesterday afternoon after a treacherous six hour drive, I feel ready to get back to blogging about what I could in regards to my Devils.
The wounds of suffering a third consecutive first round exit aren’t as painful as they were a few weeks ago, but still persist. With the team’s future, along with general manager Lou Lamoriello’s intentions uncertain going into the off season, a lot of question marks surround this Devils team. Some fans still ask what went wrong and what has to be done to snap the Devils out of this frustratingly discouraging funk that’s seemingly put the team through the same course of events for three straight seasons. When Lou Lamoriello was quoted saying he would be surprised if changes weren’t made to this team, it struck me as very “un-Lou like”, who usually goes by sayings such as “I don’t see the need for many changes” or “I still have a lot of faith in this group of guys”. When Lou says changes, and considering how things went and the events that transpired (just to mention Lou’s jelly jar incident in particular), one has to wonder to what degree of change Lamoriello has in mind.
On a realistic and hopeful level, I would like to see the Devil’s veteran core altered to a significant degree as I’ve expressed my concern that three consecutive first round exits, preceded by unpleasant struggles in the second half of each season is enough indication these guys can’t do what they’ve done in the past together anymore. Although most of the Devil’s long time veterans still have a good number of years left in them, I think it’s time for certain players to move on. Aside from the Detroit Red Wings, I can’t think of any other team that’s had so many players stay for so long, regardless of regular season and playoff success. While there may be some opposing this belief I have, I think it could be their sentimental affections making them reluctant to see these players in another team’s jersey blinding them from the potentially beneficial results of taking necessary actions. Having said that, let’s take a look at this feature group of Devils, whose tenures with the team may be outdated.
Patrik Elias…Elias has been my favorite Devil ever since his breakout season in 1999-2000 and it truly pains me to include him in this group. While his numbers were bleak this year, his season debut was delayed due to surgical recovery and he was sidelined (I forget if it was once or a few times) with injury during the season. Between those lengthy stretches of games and the time it took him to return into form after his return, you have to give the guy a break for his numbers taking a hit. At thirty-four, Elias still has a good number of years left in him and wasn’t all that bad this year with nineteen goals and forty-eight points in fifty-eight games, especially coming off of a season, where he averaged a point per game (78 points in 77 games in 08-09). Having said that, Elias has been questionable in the playoffs the past two years, unable to get a goal this year, and only scored once in last year’s series against the Hurricanes, while going a combined minus three over the past two postseasons. With three years remaining on his contract and a salary well over five million per year, I think Elias can still generate plenty of interest should Lou signal his availability. Elias does have an NTC and while he became the Devils all-time leader in points (currently at 754), records and titles are meaningless if the amounted success can’t translate into the playoffs. In the event the Devils end up signing Kovalchuk, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lou puts Elias on the trade block, who I can see waving his NTC if his destination is a winning team or reputable hockey market.
Jamie Langenbrunner…Ever since Jamie arrived in New Jersey, he’s been a vital core player and fan favorite, looked upon to score clutch goals and make a difference in the playoffs. When considering the type of player Jamie is and what he’s done during his time in New Jersey, the typical fan wouldn’t question his captaincy and despite the hissy fit he threw when Lemaire scratched him for a game towards the end of the season, I think it ultimately showed his eagerness and want to play and contribute on a nightly basis. Like Elias, Langenbrunner still has plenty of gas left in the tank and had a solid follow up season prior to putting up career numbers of twenty-nine goals and sixty-nine points. My decision to put Langenbrunner on this list has nothing to do with his leadership qualities or off ice dramas that I think were blown out of proportion by the media and fanatical fans looking for a focus to put their frustrations and blame on. Like Elias and most of the players I’ll mention, Langs has an NTC and will call the shots on any alternations Lou may have in mind for him. With a year and $2.8 million salary remaining on his contract, it could make Langenbrunner an attractive commodity for teams looking for a veteran top six forward. Having said that, I think Langenbrunner’s scoring output, on-ice, and off-ice role can be replaced by players already on the team and any outside or home grown additions made.
Jay Pandolfo…Ever since he re-signed with the Devils in 2008, Pando’s become the ideal definition of an “overpaid slug”. Over the past two seasons, we’ve seen Pandolfo’s play and role decline to the point, where he’s been excluded from the lineup, even in the playoffs, ending his streak of consecutive postseason appearances that went for ten plus years. Although Pandolfo arguably had a redeeming and encouraging start to the year, he wasn’t the same player since he returned from an arm injury and hasn’t really been the same player in general since he was sidelined for over twenty-five games in the 2007-2008 season. During his prime, he was considered one of the best penalty killers in the league along with longtime line mate John Madden, who parted ways with the Devils last summer. Over the past two seasons, Pandolfo’s only had nine goals and nineteen points in one hundred thirteen games, going a combined minus twenty-two. I’m a firm believer that the career of a defensive forward with minimal offensive ability is shorter than one may originally perceive, especially with one team and if the past two seasons are any indication, especially Pandolfo’s inability to redeem his play under the defensive mentality of Jacques Lemaire, who you can say gave him every opportunity to disprove his critics, I think it’s safe to say it’s time for the Devils to move on with Pandolfo’s memories only. As of now, Jay isn’t really an attractive trade chip and since it’s going to take him four months to recover from his recent shoulder surgery, Lamoriello is unable to buy out the remaining year on his contract, which a few Devils analysts anticipated. Out of everyone on this list, I think Pandolfo has the greatest chance of not returning next year, but how and when he parts ways with the Devils (if it happens) remains to be seen.
Brian Rolston…A lot of Devils fans hated on Brian Rolston since last year and have fantasized about dealing him in blockbuster deals that would bring that top three defenseman or top two center this team’s desperately needed for years. In reality, I think Rolston had a decent year, but receives a salary that doubles his actual worth, a common case many teams have with at least one player. While he’s only played his second full season with the Devils since he was signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2008, I include him on this list for the previous five and a half seasons he played for the team in the mid-late nineties and exploit him as an unfavorable turnout of Lou bringing back former Devils. When Rolston came to New Jersey, he was expected to establish himself as the team’s power play quarterback and substantiate their quality of point men in advantageous situations. In his last year with the Wild, Rolston scored thirty-one goals, but only scored half of that in his first year with the Devils, which some fans (including myself) excused due to his early season injury. You could also argue Brent Sutter exiled him from the top six upon return due to the current state of the team at the time, which resulted in Rolston mostly playing third and fourth line minutes. This year, Rolston reached the twenty goal mark and scored seven times on the power play in a season that was interrupted by a two game injury sideline. With the arrival of Jacques Lemaire, it was also believed he knew how to use Rolston, having coached him during his first stint with the Devils and the entire time he was in Minnesota, but ultimately got no better than a notch than what Sutter got out of him. Rolston also hasn’t been much of a playoff factor with Jersey, at least not much of a game changer. With two years and $10.4 million remaining on his contract, his recent seasonal output, and his NTC, it makes Rolston a fairly unlikely commodity for Lou to move, an evident fact that’s ultimately been accepted by most fans. Rolston was thirty-five when he signed with the Devils so even if Lou waives him, his salary still counts against the cap and buying him out wouldn’t do much justice either. As much as I’m sure most fans would love to see Rolston play for another team next year, it appears he’s one player this team is simply stuck with.
Paul Martin…slated to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st, I question how essential it really is to see him back next year. While his departure will further weaken the blue line, he could free up cap space and would create room for one of the kids to take on a full time role or to hopefully acquire that top pairing defenseman this team’s cried for since Brian Rafalski left. I think it’s safe to say over the past three seasons, we’ve seen Paul Martin at his best and I think it’s clear he lacks the necessary skill to be entitled a top defenseman. You can make all the excuses you want, but the facts stand…ever since Martin became the blue line’s top guy, it started the Devil’s recent trends of second half struggles in the regular season and early playoff dismissals. I’m not saying it’s entirely on the defense, but to say Paul Martin is your best defenseman certainly plays a significant factor. I also think Martin plays his best hockey without the pressure of being looked upon as the blue line’s greatest threat, as he put up career numbers of five goals and thirty-seven points in 2006-2007 as an example. Sure Martin is a solid contributor, plays a sound defensive game, and can log heavy minutes, but I think the past three seasons proved he needs at least one other top defenseman of equal or higher play quality to play with to take at least some of the pressure off him. Overall, I believe Lou’s Paul Martin experiment didn’t turn out as well we he’d hoped and unless Martin takes a pay cut, I think it’d be in Lou’s best interest to have Andy Greene replace Martin on the skill chart, while getting a player or two that can surpass him on it as well.
Colin White…White won’t be going anywhere unless Lou buys the final two years of his contract out or waives him, which he won’t do out of respect for one of his long time veterans. You can say Colin White is a “Lou-type” player and was rewarded for it in 2006 when he signed a six-year $18 million extension. For the better part of his career, I thought Colin White was a serviceable stay at home defenseman that fulfilled the requirements and expectations of his job until he received that eye injury at the beginning of the 2007-2008 season. He hasn’t been the same player ever since and has been scrutinized by Devils fans. A player like White, a mediocre defensive defenseman is generally recyclable and like defensive forwards, I think stay at home defenseman of White’s skill level should appropriately have short tenures with one team, let alone a general career. Colin White doesn’t do much fighting anymore, so don’t get excited about the forty-six penalty minutes he had this year and while his flaws and mishaps have been well documented over the past few seasons, he’s still a formidable force in the corners and front of the net…when his positioning is on track, but I think he lacks the energy he used to have when he was younger. You can say Mark Fraser, who outscored white this year by a goal, while manning significantly less ice time and appeared in less games could make a sufficient successor with more to offer.
Martin Brodeur…Yes, yes I know as long as the sky is blue and water is wet, Lamoriello won’t even entertain the thought of putting Brodeur in a situation, where he wouldn’t be back next year, although it could morally be the right thing to do for this team. You could argue the struggles the team endured throughout the second half of the season weren’t entirely Brodeur’s fault, but his average at best play remained constant, even with a lengthy rest period the Olympic Break gave him, where his struggles seemed to follow him and cost him the starting goaltending position for Team Canada. In the end, Marty got his seventy-plus games and forty-plus wins in, although his numbers were a notch or two lower than usual, he got his Vezina nomination and left his mark in this year’s goaltending statistics departments, while breaking a few more records, which seems to only be what matters to Brodeur at this stage in his career. Lemaire and Lamoriello can say how Marty wasn’t meant to play this much and throw as many excuses as fans convinced he’s still one of the best in today’s game will use to defend him, but the fact of the matter is, Marty’s proved once again he can’t maintain such a heavy regular season workload and take the pace and pressure of the playoffs anymore, which he and the team overlooked and ended up factoring in the Devil’s third consecutive first round exit…I won’t even get into how he was outplayed by a third string goalie. There is a possibility the Devils may go through a seasonal cycle of mediocrity as long as Brodeur’s still playing, who obviously has more say in what he does than any Devils coach. While it’s unlikely we’ll see Marty ever play anywhere but New Jersey, his alleged stubbornness is something Lamoriello has to figure a way to work around if he’s keen on salvaging the closing window of opportunity to get Marty one last cup before he calls it a career.
I’m going to try and get a Devil’s off-season write up posted by the end of the week. Overall, It’s clear Lamoriello has a lot on his plate this off-season, between hiring a new coach, and what changes he feels need to be done, whether they’ll keep the Devils in contention or cause them to take a step back for a season or two. Whatever the case, I’m hoping (because you never expect anything when you’re a fan of a Lou Lamoriello team) for an eventful off-season in New Jersey, at least more eventful than usual.