The New Jersey Devils have just three games left in their schedule before a long offseason rest. The team will miss the playoffs for the second time in three years, a frustrating result from a franchise that failed to make the playoffs just once between the 1989-90 season and the 2009-10 season.
The Devils were dealt a tough hand when captain Zach Parise departed via free agency prior to the beginning of this season, and the team has never really been able to overcome that loss.
Now the Devils will enter a long offseason where management will need to attempt to stop the bleeding. With a handful of valuable free-agents-to-be, an aging roster and a lack of firepower at almost every position, there will hopefully be lots of activity slated for GM Lou Lamoriello.
There's lots of work to be done to make the team competitive again, and the future of the franchise may depend on Lamoriello's ability to get some of the following done.
All stats prior to 4/23 games. Statistics obtained via NHL.com, Hockey-Reference.com and Capgeek.com.
Of the Devils' pending free agents, David Clarkson is priority one. The 28-year-old winger has spent the last couple seasons developing into a legitimate scoring threat, and the results are impressive: Over the past two seasons, he's scored just three goals fewer than superstar teammate Ilya Kovalchuk.
Clarkson's combination of scoring and physicality makes him extremely valuable, especially on a team like the Devils where both scorers and hitters are hard to find. Lamoriello decided not to deal him before the trade deadline, meaning that he could potentially leave the Devils with nothing.
The Devils have two forwards locked up long-term: Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac. Clarkson might not be the ideal third piece of that puzzle, but he's a proven scorer who can greatly impact a game. If it takes giving him a longer or larger contract than he might deserve, the team needs to just bite that bullet.
What it comes down to is that the Devils team is not deep or talented enough to lose another skater capable of 30 goals a year while getting nothing in return.
Martin Brodeur has been the starting goalie for the New Jersey Devils for nearly two decades. He's broken most of the records out there for goalies and continued to be impressive late into his 30s.
Unfortunately, Marty will be 41 in early May, and his age is starting to catch up with him. He can still add some value to a team, but he's no longer a goalie who a team can be built around––his .900 save-percentage can attest to that.
Brodeur has another year left on his contract, and there's a fairly good chance he stays on through next season, but his role will have to be reduced, for the team's sake.
Sadly, backup goalie Johan Hedberg also seems to have hit the age wall recently. The soon-to-be 40-year-old also has a year left on his contract, but abysmal play this season––5-9-3 with a 2.73 goals-against average and a .886 save-percentage––has made him an unattractive candidate for the job.
What the Devils need is a goalie they can begin to lean on moving forward, who could eventually and conceivably become the team's starting goalie. They don't need the finished product now, but they need someone who can play half a season and who will get better with time.
This is behind David Clarkson only because the Clarkson re-signing needs to happen fast, preferably before he can test the open market. The Devils may need to think on their goaltending problems for much of the offseason, but they desperately need a goalie that one can confidently assume will still be playing in four years. The longer they put this off, the more pressing the problem becomes.
As stated before, David Clarkson is the top priority. He needs to be signed and locked down before he can field overwhelming offers from other clubs. The story is different with a few other guys.
Patrik Elias will be an unrestricted free agent at season's end. The Devils' all-time leading scorer isn't quite ready to hang up his skates yet, and he's still got a lot to contribute offensively––he currently leads the team with 33 points.
It's hard to believe that Elias would sign anywhere else. He's been a Devil for his entire career, and it's been beneficial for everyone: The Devils have reaped the rewards of developing and featuring the Czech forward and in return, Elias has given an arguably Hall-of-Fame career exclusively to New Jersey. This might be his final contract coming up, but there's no reason to suspect he or the team want out of this relationship.
Meanwhile, Adam Henrique and Andrei Loktionov will both be restricted free agents. Henrique made his name with last season's campaign, which culminated in recognition as a Calder finalist. While his production slowed this season, he is still one of the bright, young stars of the Devils.
Loktionov was acquired earlier this season, but he has fit in perfectly with the team, contributing eight goals and four assists in 26 games. For a while, he'd even earned a spot on the top line next to fellow countrymen Kovalchuk and Alexei Ponikarovsky.
These players are considered lower-priority because less of it is up in the air: Elias seems like a reasonable bet to re-sign, and while it would be ideal if Henrique and Loktionov return, the guarantee of compensatory draft picks is better than losing them for nothing.
Still though, these players are crucial to the future of the team. Henrique and Loktionov have both shown themselves capable of playing top-line hockey with Kovalchuk, and on an offensively-challenged team, they're all the more valuable.
The Devils' chief issue right now is scoring: Of the 30 teams in the league, they currently stand 28th with 2.31 goals per game.
Re-signing Clarkson and Elias are big parts of maintaining the offense, but the team needs to do more than just tread water; they need to dramatically improve.
This season's free-agent class isn't the richest, but there are some quality players to be found. Nathan Horton, Andy McDonald, Nik Antropov, Tim Connolly, Mike Ribeiro, Jarome Iginla and yes, even Jaromir Jagr are all set to be free agents in a couple months.
The Devils don't need to get the biggest or best name, but they need to get at least one new scorer who can change the game and give the team something to work with.
There are a lot of New Jersey Devils who will be free agents after this season: Dainius Zubrus, Marek Zidlicky, Peter Harrold, Ponikarovsky, Steve Sullivan, Tom Kostopoulos and Tim Sestito will all be unrestricted, and Matt D'Agostini, Mattias Tedenby and Jacob Josefson will be restricted.
There are no players there that it would kill the team to lose, but they are losing a significant number of role players and solid grinders. The team doesn't necessarily need to re-sign Zubrus or Poni or Zidlicky, but they need to keep the general level of talent high, and if they lose too many players, that will be pretty difficult.
Lamoriello is among the most respected GMs in the game, and he'll have to prove himself this postseason: He'll be required to almost entirely rebuild the team, with a few pieces already in place. The team's free-agent list is a good place to start, but he'll also need to pull off some additional signings or trades to fill out what is currently a pretty thin roster.