Contrary to my expectations, it turned out to be an eventful July 1st for the New Jersey Devils. In the week that followed, the Devils have been on the inactive side since they, along with the majority of NHL seem hung on waiting for the decision of a certain someone on where they’ll play this fall. Hoping this certain someone would have signed by now, I wanted to wait on him before evaluating general manager Lou Lamoriello’s handling of the team since the market opened.
After losing defenseman Paul Martin to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Devils responded by signing defensemen Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov, which significantly strengthened the team’s blue line. One of the reasons Lamoriello said he signed Tallinder, who will receive a little over $3.3 million over the next four seasons is for him to mentor the three upcoming Swedish rookies Lamoriello believes have a strong chance at making next year’s roster (Mattias Tenneby, Jacob Josefson, Alexander Urbom), which is what he did with Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers last year. Although Tallinder puts up typical numbers, what I found encouraging was him going plus thirteen last year with a plus forty-six for his career, an indication that good things could happen when he’s on the ice. In Tallinder, the Devils also receive a solid puck mover, who starts plays although it doesn’t show on the score sheet and is reliable for heavy minutes, having played as much as thirty plus in some games for the Sabres during the playoffs.
In what was arguably this summer’s free agent splash to date, the Devils also signed highly sought after defenseman Anton Volchenkov to a six-year deal with an annual salary of $4.25 million. Arguably the best defensive defenseman in the league, the twenty-eight-year old is reputed for his punishing hits, ability to block shots, and clear out the front of the net. He adds an established presence to the Devil’s they’ve lacked since the days of Scott Stevens and Ken Danekyo as described by the Star Ledger and anchors the defense as well, although he isn’t the puck moving defenseman the team sorely needs. Volchenkov is also a career plus sixty-one, having gone plus two last year.
The Devils signing goaltender Johan Hedberg (aka Moose) also says a lot, which has to be backed by action throughout the coming season. Lamoriello said Hedberg was brought in to have Brodeur play less (shocker) and one thing that differentiates Hedberg from the last handful of Marty’s backups is his proven legitimacy in net and years of experience, which seemed to have given Lamoriello and Maclean the confidence and hope for Hedberg to start 15-20 games, while not affecting the team’s momentum or status in the standings.
Going into next season, the Devils have five defensemen under contract (Andy Greene, Bryce Salvador, Colin White, Anton Volchenkov, Henrik Tallinder). Compared to last year’s group, I want to say the Devil’s blue line has improved, however my only question is who the looked upon puck mover will be…? As I’ve previously stated, I’m not sold on Andy Greene just yet, and Tallinder is a notch or two below Paul Martin’s skill level (let’s consider Tallinder Mottau’s replacement). Mark Fraser and Anssi Salmela are likely to compete for roster spots in training camp, along with prospects Tyler Eckford, Matt Corrente, and Alexander Urbom, which leaves me to believe Lou is hoping a second puck moving defenseman can be developed from within, a plan that shouldn’t come as a surprise to most Devils fans. Between four potential defensive defensemen in Fraser, White, Salvador, and Volchenkov, you have to wonder if Lamoriello or Maclean really want that conservative of a defense, especially with the likeliness that Maclean will instill some offensive punch to next year’s style of play.
I can’t see any desirable free agent chips remaining on the market that Lou would seek interest in, unless they’re brought in for depth purposes. Lamoriello claimed he isn’t done changing his team so what potential routes can he utilize?
How about the trade market?
My readers should know I’m not one to be speculative because I hate getting hopes up, but there’s no denying there seems to be an abundance of available defenseman that suit the Devil’s needs. The most talked about trade chip is Tomas Kaberle of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He’s a shoe in for forty plus points and gets the job done in all three zones. He doesn’t shoot often, but sets up plays that frequently have favorable outcomes for his team. Burke seems dead set on getting a deal done where his team will come out on top and has conflicted with his potential trade partners. Sheldon Souray was waived by the Edmonton Oilers, who’ve made their intention of ridding him in any way public. There’s no denying his offensive abilities and his rocket of a shot that’ll spike any team’s power play, but he’s a traffic cone in his own end, which along with his health issues ultimately make him a high risk high reward acquisition. A source told me the Devils made an offer for Minnesota’s Brent Burns, who’s showed flashes of skill during his brief career, but has been plagued with health issues the past two seasons and arguably hasn’t reached his full potential. A healthy burns can get 13-15 plus goals and has size, however his plus/minus has been on the decline the past two years. What could a change of scenery on a winning team do? I’m sure Chicago would love to unload more cap space and have been rumored to make Brian Campbell available-just kidding!
If the Devils filtering of old and new faces aims at a finalized product featuring a blend of veteran and younger players, who could be on the outs? Two favorites amongst Devils fans have been Colin White and Bryce Salvador. White has an NTC with two years remaining on his contract that pay him $3 million per. White’s been a career Devil and with minimal league interest being likely, I think White’s a Devil until 2012. Salvador doesn’t have an NTC and with an annual cap hit of $2.9 million for the next two seasons, he could be the odd man out. Salvador praised Lamoriello for agreeing to an extension in 2008 because he expressed desire to settle down. I’ve heard rumors the Devils have been talking trade with St. Louis and the Islanders, both of which seem like sensible destinations for the nine-year veteran.
I’ll end this write up by asking…could the Devils be on the path to resurrecting their defense’s former glory? Could the days when New Jersey was reputed for their versatile defense, capable of shutting down opponents, while generating offensive bursts on a nightly basis return? Seeing the squad on paper and ice lead to two entirely different expectations and while next year’s set of defensemen may not be at the skill level of the “old crew”, it could be what the Devils need to ascend out of the mediocrity they’ve been plagued with since winning their last championship.
And yes…my minimal mention of the Kovalchuk drama was deliberate.