The April 3 NHL trade deadline is fast approaching, and the New Jersey Devils have some decisions they need to make. Currently sitting seventh in the Eastern Conference, the team is poised for yet another a playoff appearance.
With that said, the team has some adjustments that need to be made. Chief among them is figuring out how to replace Ilya Kovalchuk during his injury, but his absence will not be the only weakness on their roster in the days to come. There are positions that need to be filled and players who have run out of time trying to prove themselves.
In the next nine days, the Devils have to figure out where they want to be at the end of the season and then get the pieces needed to achieve their goal. With that in mind, here are some of the options in front of them.
There will be players coming and going in the next week-and-a-half, and there's a decent chance that at least one of the Devils' young Swedish players will be involved.
Jacob Josefson was drafted 20th overall in the 2009 NHL draft. He made his debut as a 19-year-old with the team that season, scoring three goals and seven assists in 28 games.
The next season, his production fell off—two goals and seven assists in 41 games—but he contributed to the team in other ways, managing a plus-10 rating.
This season, however, Josefson has done nothing. He's appeared in 16 games and has just one assist to show for it. Even worse, he's got the worst plus/minus rating on the team at minus-10. Whatever value Josefson had after being drafted has slowly but surely dropped as he plays more.
Mattias Tedenby is a similar story. He was drafted 24th overall in 2008, and he too seemed to be very promising in the beginning. During the 2010-11 season, Tedenby appeared in 58 games and contributed eight goals and 14 assists while finishing with a plus-three rating.
The next season, Tedenby appeared to be a completely different player. Though he got time in 43 games, he scored just one goal and added five assists while finishing as a minus-15. His production struggles continued into this season, where he has just one assist is the four games he's been given.
Tedenby and Josefson both have a lot of natural talent and they both were first-round picks. They seem to struggle when trying to play with the Devils, but there are likely a number of teams who would take a chance on either or both of the fast, hard-working forwards.
It's not entirely clear what value the duo could fetch in a trade, but there's not a lot of downside to seeing them go. After acquiring Alexei Ponikarovsky, Andrei Loktionov, Tom Kostopoulos and Matt D'Agostini this season, the Devils have forwards to spare.
This is a must for the Devils.
New Jersey is an organization identified by its strong defense. For years, Martin Brodeur was guarded by Hall of Famers Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, along with Ken Daneyko, Brian Rafalski and others.
Now though, the team is without any real standouts. Marek Zidlicky probably comes the closest, with a number of good seasons in his past that have included more than a couple campaigns of more than 10 goals and 40 points.
Sadly, he has not produced like that in a while, and he only stands out on the Devils because of their utter lack of other skilled, offensive-minded defensemen. The only other player who an argument could be made for is Andy Greene, but he's plagued by inconsistency.
There aren't going to be any superstars, but there should be at least a few notable defenders available before the deadline—including reputable players like Hal Gill, Pavel Kubina and Kyle Quincey—and the Devils would be wise to inquire about some of them.
The Devils have a lot of very solid defenseman: Marek Zidlicky, Anton Volchenkov, Bryce Salvador, Peter Harrold, Henrik Tallinder, Mark Fayne and Adam Larsson have all proven they can play at an NHL level, albeit with varying levels of success.
There's been a bit of a rotation with the six starters, and it seems coach Peter DeBoer is giving all of his D-men chances to impress. And while that's all well and good, some of the skaters could be put to better use.
A few defensemen have established themselves as crucial to the team. Salvador anchors the defensive end and is also the team's captain. Larsson is one of the Devils' most prized players, and the former fourth overall pick will likely remain with the Devils for at least a few more seasons. Zidlicky and Greene contribute on offense more consistently than anyone else seems capable. Volchenkov could end up being untradeable just because of his large contract; he carries a cap hit of $4.25 million each season through 2016.
That would leave Fayne, Tallinder and Harrold as trade possibilities. All three defenders have been healthy scratches this season, and each has at least some value.
Harrold is 29 years old and spent the first portion of his career with the Los Angeles Kings. He joined the Devils after the 2010-11 season and though his production has been fairly unimpressive, he's been extremely reliable when called upon. He played in 17 of the Devils' playoff games last season and recently made his way back into active duty.
Tallinder is a seasoned veteran with a lot of successful seasons behind him. He's no longer at the top of his game, but he can still contribute a great deal to a younger, less disciplined team.
Fayne might be a tough sell. He's played two seasons with the Devils after they drafted him in 2005. His first season was a pleasant surprise, when he put up four goals and 10 assists while finishing as a plus-10 in 57 games. The following season, he played a full 82-game schedule but only increased his point total by three assists and dropped to a minus-four. This season, he has five assists in 20 games.
None of the three defensemen offer great value on their own, but packaged together (or with Josefson and/or Tedenby), they could earn a good return. Remember, it took just Patrice Cormier, Niclas Bergfors, Johnny Oduya and a draft pick to secure Ilya Kovalchuk.
This is always an option for a GM: When the trade deadline rolls around, just ignore the ringing phones and keep the team you've got.
It doesn't seem like a horrible option. After all, the team made the Stanley Cup Final last season. And though they've lost Zach Parise since then, they've also made some additions that appear to be fitting in with the team.
Is this a team that could repeat last year's success? It's hard to say. Martin Brodeur is healthy again, and he's a goalie that's capable of carrying a team through the playoffs, but he's also 40. He may not be as reliable as he used to.
When Kovalchuk returns, he'll lead an offense of talented scorers like David Clarkson, Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, Andrei Loktionov and Dainius Zubrus. The third line of Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier is consistently looking like a reliable set of two-way players. And the defense, while not spectacular, is definitely solid.
What this comes down to is whether you think the Devils can compete with the squad they have. It wouldn't be far-fetched to believe they could win a round or two, but it's unclear how they'd make their way past a seven-game series with the Pittsburgh Penguins or Boston Bruins.
A significant portion of the players under contract to the Devils will become free agents after this season. These players can be split up into three groups: players to keep, unrestricted free agents to trade and restricted free agents to trade.
The keepers are the players that the Devils can't afford to lose if they want to remain a playoff contender. These include: David Clarkson and Patrik Elias (UFAs), as well as Loktionov and Adam Henrique (RFAs).
There are some fairly good players that could be available, though.
On the pro team, both Dainius Zubrus and Marek Zidlicky will be unrestricted at season's end. Zubrus is currently injured, but he is skating and could return in the next couple weeks. Both players are talented veterans who could bring a lot of experience to a team as well as still having some ability left in the tank. Either of those players could conceivably be rented to another team.
There are others to consider as well. Ponikarovsky and Kostopoulos both joined the team since the start of the season, but either could be part of a package to acquire either a building-block player or a bigger-name rental.
There are lots of players in the Devils system who could also be included. Steven Zalewski, Matt Anderson, Jay Leach, Cam Janssen, Matt Corrente and Tim Sestito will all be unrestricted after the season.
The restricted free agents could also carry some potential value. Besides Josefson and Tedenby, a number of prospects—including goalies Jeff Frazee and Keith Kinkaid—could be included to strengthen an offer.
The most important thing here is that these players could be used without hurting the core of the team.
This is a scenario that no Devils fan wants to see, and one that the Devils have rarely found themselves in before.
The team is currently seventh in the East but stands only five points ahead of the 11th-place New York Islanders. The Devils play four games before the deadline: tonight against the Ottawa Senators, then the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Isles.
The Senators, who are lose to the Devils and are competing for positioning, could prove a difficult team. While Tampa is seemingly out of playoff contention, the Lightning still have a Hart finalist in Steven Stamkos and a dynamite offense backing him up, including Martin St. Louis and rookie Cory Conacher. The Isles will be playing hard to remain in contention, and the Panthers are the worst team in the league, though they played the Devils very closely just two nights ago.
If those four games go poorly and a few other select teams win, it could push the Devils out of the playoffs and even conceivably out of contention. It would just be too late into a 48-game season to lose four straight and have time to recover. And if that happens, things might start to get ugly.
I've already mentioned the "keeper" free agents, but this is where fans would say goodbye to them. I truly believe that Patrik Elias will finish his career as a Devil, and I don't think there's any risk of losing him no matter what happens. But what about a player like David Clarkson?
Clarkson had his breakout season last year, when he exploded for a career-high 30 goals and 46 points. He got off to an even more impressive start this season, netting 10 goals in his first 14 games. He's slowed considerably since then, but still leads the team in goals with 12.
Should the worst happen and the Devils know they will likely miss the playoffs, it would make sense to dump David Clarkson. After losing Zach Parise for nothing last postseason, fans must be wary about losing a top player for nothing again. It would hurt to lose Clarkson in a trade, but it would hurt a whole lot more to have a lackluster postseason and then lose him for nothing.
In this scenario, just about anyone could go. All of the UFAs are on the table (though again, probably not Elias), and the rest of the roster could be considered in play, too. No, the Devils aren't going to dump Kovy or Travis Zajac or Adam Henrique or Martin Brodeur, but they could certainly part ways with just about anyone else.
The Devils wouldn't get much of an immediate return; they'd likely get back picks and prospects for most of their players. Still though, a few high-end prospects in exchange for a few pending UFAs could be quite attractive depending on how things go leading up to the deadline.
This all requires the Devils to be confident they won't make the playoffs, which is not a position they are currently in. But as a last-ditch effort to get something out of a failed season, it's still an attractive out to have.