New Jersey Devils: Strong Play from 4th Line Will Cause Free Agency Trouble

Peter MillsContributor IIIMay 1, 2012

NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 24:  Steve Bernier #18 and Stephen Gionta #11 of the New Jersey Devils celebrate with their teammates after Bernier scored a first period goal against the Florida Panthers in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Prudential Center on April 24, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils are currently playing in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

As a Devils fan, it feels good to write that sentence.

The Devils got past the Panthers for a number of reasons, not the least of which were Martin Brodeur's clutch goaltending and Travis Zajac's awakening as the offensive leader.

However, important as anything else has been the strong play of players who had, up to now, not played significant roles in games.

Stephen Gionta, Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter—the trio currently making up the Devils' fourth line—have played extraordinarily well in the playoffs so far.

Each has three points (Bernier and Gionta each have two goals, Carter has one) and average a plus-three rating as a unit. Ryan Carter has even won nine of 10 faceoffs—an area where the Devils generally suck*.

With all of that, you'd think maybe they'd get more playing time, but they own the three lowest ice times on the team: Bernier manages 9:31 while Carter and Gionta are only given 7:35 and 7:12, respectively.

Meanwhile, Peter Harrold has earned himself a regular playing spot on the roster on the defensive end. He's allotted more than 15 minutes per game, and he's assisted on three goals while maintaining a plus-two rating.

What do those four players have in common?

Well, unfortunately, they're all unrestricted free agents after this season.

For the Devils, there's no question the biggest concerns this offseason will be retaining Zach Parise and finding a goalie.

Many, myself included, believe the Devils can re-sign Zach, but where the team's cap situation will be still seems very up in the air, as many contracts are coming off the books and it's not clear who will be returning.

The most notable free agents are Parise, defender Bryce Salvador and goalies Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg. Late-season acquisition Alexei Ponikarovsky will also be a free agent, as will Petr Sykora and Cam Janssen. Mark Fayne will be a restricted free agent.

With Gionta, Harrold, Bernier and Carter all coming off the books, they'll presumably be seeking better deals, given their strong performance of late.

However, if the Devils have any chance of getting Parise and a quality goalie, they won't be able to be generous with anyone else's contract.

That might mean goodbyes to most of the aforementioned players.

Just as troubling is many of the players who might be called on in their absences will also be free agents. Matt Taormina, Tim Sestito, Brad Mills and Jay Leach will all be UFAs.

The Parise situation will be stressful enough as is, but it would be nice if the Devils didn't have so many players play their way into bigger contracts on other teams.

And of course, there are other complicating factors.

Once this year's free agency nightmare is worked out, the Devils will get to look forward to next offseason, when they lose just about everyone else on their offense.

After the 2012-13 season, Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, Dainius Zubrus, David Clarkson and Eric Boulton will be UFAs, as will Marek Zidlicky. Adam Henrique and Jacob Josefson will be RFAs, joined by many Devils' prospects, including Matthias Tedenby, Dan Kelly and goalies Keith Kinkaid and Jeff Frazee.

With so many players hanging in the balance over the next two offseasons, there may be some very rapid changing to the Devils' future landscape. This year's free agency will set the team up for dealing with next year's, and that means the Devils will have to be smart.

In this case, being smart may mean making some pretty tough decisions, and it will be interesting—not to mention infuriating, depressing, elating or nerve-wracking—to see how GM Lou Lamoriello will navigate the field.

As a Devils fan, I've often stuck to the adage "In Lou We Trust."

I still believe in it, but these next couple years may be the Lamoriello's most difficult test yet.


*There's no point in sugarcoating it. The Devils are terrible at faceoffs. They are last among playoff teams with a 45. 4 win-percentage. During the regular season, they were the second worst team at 47.1