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New Jersey Devils 2010 Summer Playbook

With a third consecutive first round exit, the New Jersey Devils have gotten a head start on evaluating themselves and seeing what needs to be done to fix this team that many within the organization believe was capable of a deep cup run. General Manager Lou Lamoriello has another lengthy checklist to work with this summer and he said his evaluation of the team began the moment the Devils were eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in five games. Lou has already gone to work, signing former first round picks Mattias Tenneby and Jacob Josefson to entry-level deals, both of whom Lamoriello believes are NHL-ready, as well as defensemen Eric Gelinas and Dan Kelly. Lamoriello also had mutual feelings for center Adam Henrique, which could be Lou basically implying for fans not to be surprised if all three players make the team out of training camp this fall (although I would personally like them to audition in Lowell for at least one season, but Lou certainly knows the game better than I do). In addition, Lamoriello has to hire his seventh head coach in five seasons, decide which unrestricted free agents he wants to keep, and what other alternations he needs to make to this roster.

The coaching situation is interesting and as far as the demands of the fan base and media are concerned, there appears to be a conflict between hiring a coach with experience, and what type of system they’ll instill. I’ve heard the usual group of names such as Ken Hitchcock, Mike Haviland, John MacLean, Guy Carbonneau, even Mike Keenan and Mario Tremblay as potential candidates, but it seems you’ll find just as many flaws in each one as you would pluses. It would be my preference to hire a coach with a respectable amount of experience under his belt that plays an offensive-oriented system with keen defensive knowledge (kind of like a 60/40 thing). I want a coach good to stay long term, and is good with balancing out youth and veteran skill on the roster, but isn’t afraid to experiment with the lineup when he feels it’s necessary. It’s easy to talk about, but seeing it happen is on a whole other plateau. If it isn’t MacLean, I believe Lamoriello will bring someone in under the radar nobody’s heard of or expected. I really can’t say how long it could take because I think Lou’s dead set on truly hiring “the right guy” this time that will do the job for more than a season or two. Who do you think it should be?

Next, we have the Devil’s 2010 unrestricted free agency class. Lamoriello clearly has a few options as to who he can keep and who’s hitting the road. The Devils have approximately $14-16 million (a little more, a little less) in cap space to play around with this summer. I’ll go through the Devil’s 2010 unrestricted free agent class and quickly evaluate each player…

Illya Kovalchuk, 27, left wing…Clearly this year’s big fish. It’s likely Kovalchuk will test the market and this is the same player that turned down a 12-year deal from the Thrashers for over $100 million. Kovy said he wants long term security on a team that will play beyond the regular season on a regular basis, but was “open” to negotiating with the Devils. I wouldn’t be surprised if he stays or signs elsewhere, although a primal concern amongst Devils fans and media outlets is how the outcome of the Kovalchuk situation could affect the fate of seeing Parise in New Jersey long term.

Rob Niedermayer, 35, center…An early season addition, Niedermayer was playing stellar hockey until he was sidelined for eleven games with an upper body injury. Nonetheless, Nieds was a serviceable third line center and penalty killer, but considering his age, role on the team, and potential integration of youth that could bestow the roster, I think the sequel to the Niedermayer era in New Jersey has concluded. If the Devils feel they need a defensive forward to center the third line, think Pelley’s ready to fulfill that role?

Dean McAmmond, 37, center…I liked McAmmond…when he was used appropriately. I was annoyed a few times when Lemaire had him on the second line between Elias and Rolston, but thought he was an ideal and experienced fourth line center that did what he was asked of. McAmmond talked retirement late in the season and after the Devils were eliminated and like Niedermayer, he was another late addition I think we’ve seen the last of, but could be brought back for experienced depth.

Paul Martin, 29, defenseman…He was appointed the Devil’s top defender when Brian Rafalski left in 2007. Martin has been a valuable defender in New Jersey and I think it’s all about how much Martin demands that determines if he stays or goes. Both Lamoriello and Martin have mutual interest in working out a deal and keeping Martin can be a smart move if Lou can bulk up the quality of his defense corps to take the pressure off him. The Devils have gone through the same course of events from October to April since Martin was deemed the top guy and I always felt every Devils team for the past three seasons was a top four defenseman or two away from making a deeper playoff run.

Mike Mottau, 32, defenseman…I’m sure most Devils fans will rejoice as I can say in confidence Mike Mottau’s time in New Jersey should be over. Disturbingly, Mottau was second in points amongst Devils defensemen, logged heavy minutes, and seemed to catch the favoritism of Brent Sutter and Jacques Lemaire, which kept him a lineup regular over the past three seasons. The Mottau/White pairing may have been one of the most frustrating defensive duo Devils fans have seen that stuck together for more than a season. I think it’s safe to say Mottau is a depth player at best that was overused and under-skilled. Should he sign elsewhere, I doubt he’ll get the role he had while he was in New Jersey.

Martin Skoula, 31, defenseman…Lou’s annual trade deadline acquisition for depth purposes. He played a serviceable game, but wasn’t much of a difference maker and was likely to be nothing more than a rental. He did those little things that didn’t show up on the score sheet most of the time and while I wouldn’t hate it if he stays, he has had some good years in the past so would it be fair to say he has some potential to be a regular second or third pair defenseman that can chip in a point here and there? Overall though, if drastic changes are coming to New Jersey, I’m skeptical about Skoula’s return.

Yann Danis, 29, goaltender…For the few games he played, I thought Yann was a great backup and he’s expressed interest in coming back to New Jersey…and playing more. I think Danis proved in the 2008-2009 season he’s capable of starting 15-20 games, but the whole goaltending dispute seems like a lost cause to discuss. I can see Lou bringing him back for a year or two and I want to say he could be a solid insurance policy if Brodeur gets sidelined.

Considering the Devil’s upcoming UFA class, it leaves a few voids on offense and gives Lou a chance to give the defense a significant makeover. While the Devils lose a substantial quantity of skill should Kovalchuk sign elsewhere, most of which I believe Lemaire was unable to tap into during his time in New Jersey, I think the Devils are solid at left wing with Zach Parise and Patrik Elias manning the top two lines. If the Devils don’t aggressively address their blue line needs, Paul Martin’s loss could bring down an already average defense corps a notch or two, while the rest of the remaining unrestricted free agents could be replaced by a simple signing or an integration of homegrown youth.

Now the fun begins…what does this team need? I can’t stress the need for a top three defenseman and top two center enough, two things the Devils lacked over the past three seasons, haven’t properly been addressed, and were exploited greatly. I’ve always said the defense had its puck movers and stay at home defensemen, but the problem was all have been of moderate quality at their position type and nobody truly excels. I can live with a combination of Colin White, Bryce Salvador, and Mark Fraser playing the roles of defensive defensemen, but the blue line’s lack of goal scoring is bothersome. Regardless of what kind of system the Devils play, I feel the blue line won’t abandon its defensive traditions (which doesn’t mean they’ll be entirely defensive minded) so I think it’d be appropriate for Lou to add some offensive punch. Now as easy as it is to say, I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I hope to see a defenseman or two arrive in Jersey with offensive upside that fulfill their responsibilities in the defensive zone. This year’s free agent crop is relatively weak compared to recent years and the trade market is entirely speculation, but the Devils do have options.

It’s really uncertain what approach Lou will take this year so I think anything is possible so we can discuss potential unrestricted free agents he could be looking at to bring into Jersey. The top defensemen in this year’s free agent class include Sergei Gonchar, Pavel Kubina, Anton Volchenkov, Dan Hamhuis, and Paul Martin. Like I said, keeping Martin can’t hurt the Devils, but if Lou decides to let him walk, he has to act quickly on at least replacing him. Like I said, the trade market is purely speculative, but a few names I’ve heard rumored to be available are Tomas Kaberle, Sheldon Souray, even Brian Campbell, since Chicago is expected to try and shed some cap space. What I don’t like about the trade route is how you have to give to get and out of the three players I’ve mentioned, I think the only one I’d like to see the Devils get is Kaberle, although it’s clear he won’t come for cheap…and the Devils already sacrificed this year’s first round pick in getting Kovalchuk.
If Lamoriello intends on significantly alternating…and improving the offense, I hope he does more than he did in 2008, sign a pair of aging free agents to unreasonable contracts and call it a summer, who ultimately did little to make a difference. If you’re wondering if and how Lou will finally get this team a natural top two center, I wouldn’t expect him to utilize the free agent or trade market, considering his signing of Jacob Josefson and praise of he and Adam Henrique, who won the OHL’s playoff MVP as he, along with team mate Adam Hall, guided the Windsor Spitfires to their second straight championship. The only reason why my expectations of seeing one or both these players on the team next year is because I haven’t seen Lamoriello speak so highly of prospects since Zach Parise and Travis Zajac came to Jersey, let alone express his belief they’re ready for the NHL. While experience and an adjustment period could factor into both player’s effectiveness with the big team, I believe Lamoriello is truly intent on integrating youth into the roster that sticks around with beneficial results. Aside from center, I can see Lou trying to add or swap a top six right wing and I’ve heard from a source that Lou is going to try to do some “summer housecleaning” this off-season…whatever that may mean.
So, from everything said and covered, I’ll sum up what I think could and should be the Devil’s off-season checklist…
-Let youth occupy the need for a No. 2 center
-Add at least one top three defenseman
-Re-sign Paul Martin or replace him with a player of higher or equal talent
-Hire a head coach that can stay for the long term
-Attempt to keep Kovalchuk or have a backup plan if he departs
Like I said, talking about it is the easy part, but actual action causes the differentiation between the expected and actual outcome. While changes do need to be made on this team, the Devils are in a sticky situation with some of the contracts Lou has awarded to veteran players and the no movement or no-trade clauses attached to each one. Jamie Langenbrunner, Patrik Elias, Brian Rolston, Jay Pandolfo, Danius Zubrus, Colin White, and Bryce Salvador all receive annual salaries around or over $3 million for at least one or two more seasons. I think most of these players have done what they were asked of them, but I think the fact most are overpaid and up there in years makes their overall worth questionable and since all of these players are basically guaranteed roster spots and regular lineup appearances as long as they’re on the team, it’s difficult to bring in new or fresh faces that can positively impact this team. I think most of these players could be marketable and replaceable, but consider teams that underwent roster makeovers and deployed an entirely different team the following season compared to their previous one. It hasn’t worked in recent years for teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Rangers, but seems to have clicked for teams like the Philadelphia Flyers and arguably Montreal Canadians. Assembling a new cast of players that have to learn each other and the team’s system takes time and could ultimately be a coin toss. While you can say this current veteran core can’t make the deep playoff runs they’ve endured in the past, they’ve been able to play more than eighty-two games a year, a tradition the Devils take great pride in…do you think this is a risk Lou has considered and is truly willing to take if he wants to keep his Devils in contention on a regular basis?

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