Replacements for 4 New Jersey Devils Who Disappointed in 2013
The ashes of a failed 2013 remain scattered, uncollected. The New Jersey Devils failed to qualify for the playoffs for just the second time since 1996. Radical fans declare Lou Lamoriello is slipping. They scream that the Kovalchuk contract was a mistake. They wish in vain that Zach Parise had re-signed.
When the dust settles from a disastrous 10-game losing streak and a failed season, even the angriest of fans will kindle at least some hope for next year. The general manager, we know, will be as level-headed and practical as he always has been. This lost season requires altering the roster; filling gaps, tinkering here and there and letting players go in a cold, businesslike manner.
The New Jersey Devils are probably not going to be the 2012 Minnesota Wild of the upcoming summer's free-agency soiree. This year's pool is a tad shallow, and a salary cap that lowers to $64 million next season will have a major influence on the courtship proceedings.
But they must improve the roster, especially considering the fact that Marek Zidlicky, Patrik Elias and David Clarkson, three core members of the team, are unrestricted free agents.
It seems like everybody on the roster disappointed in some way or another, but here are four realistic changes that can be made.
Alexei Ponikarovsky Out, Guillaume Latendresse in
Latendresse has size and some skill, and he's just 25 years old.
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Midway through the 2011-12 season, the Devils traded for Ponikarovsky and it was another heralded move by Lou Lamoriello. Ponikarovsky recorded 18 points in 33 games for New Jersey and was very effective in the playoffs. His size and physicality fit into a forecheck model that the Devils rode all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
He signed with Winnipeg after the season, but he went through deja vu in 2013 when he was shipped back to Newark for the final 30 games of the season. He managed just seven points in his second act and reaffirmed the notion that last season's playoff run was a team-wide lightning-in-a-bottle kind of deal.
Ponikarovsky is a free agent again, and he'll probably sign elsewhere, again.
Lamoriello should replace him with Guillaume Latendresse, and not just for his awesome name. The free-agent-to-be is just 25 years old and is big and strong at 6'2" and just 230 pounds. He had six goals and four assists in 27 games for Ottawa in the regular season. The combination of his size, toughness and skill is impressive, as you can see here.
Latendresse made $2 million this season and may require a slight pay increase. Considering Ponikarovsky came in at just $1.8 million in 2013, New Jersey will have to raise the payroll, if only slightly, to make this exchange.
Jacob Josefson Out, Reid Boucher in
Boucher is coming off a 60-goal year in the OHL.
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Jacob Josefson's short career with the Devils has been vexing. After being selected in the first round of the 2009 draft, the Swede has been oft-injured and in general has failed to tie all aspects of his game together. He is a graceful skater who was advertised with good instincts.
It is too early to tell if a broken wrist, a broken collarbone and this year's concussion have derailed his potential, but maybe it is time for a different organization. Josefson is a restricted free agent after this season.
And Reid Boucher can come in and take his spot as a fourth-liner/healthy scratch.
The 19-year-old was drafted in 2011 by New Jersey and is coming off a monster season in the OHL. With 62 goals, he broke the Sarnia Sting team record for goals in a season. The record was formerly held by Steven Stamkos, so clearly there is some talent there.
The question will be how Boucher adjusts to the NHL, which is a huge step up no matter how competitive the OHL can be. He is listed at 5'11" and 185 pounds, so his size is not overwhelming. But Boucher's quick hands and shooting accuracy should show up right away. We'll see if he has the ability to get himself in open space.
It's tough to classify this as an upgrade. But it's exciting. The Devils need offense badly, and giving Boucher a fair chance could be an answer without spending any money.
Anton Volchenkov Out, Andrew Ference in
Ference would help both offensively and defensively.
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Anton Volchenkov is the highest-paid defenseman on the Devils.
He has never been a playmaker in this league and never will. The Devils signed him for his rugged play in the defensive zone. His bone-crushing hits and willingness to block shots are the efforts that make Volchenkov's money. These types of hits were what gave him the nickname "A-train" in Ottawa.
But those numbers were down this year. Over the previous three seasons, the stout Russian averaged 2.3 hits per game.* In 2013 he averaged 1.3 hits per game, a full hit lower.
The numbers don't sound like much, but when hits are being delivered in the fashion Volchenkov is capable of giving them, they are hard to forget.
Forwards know when a defenseman like that is on the ice. There is a little voice in the back of their head, making sure they have their eyes up around the blue line. It affects other areas of a forwards' game. This is Volchenkov's greatest contribution to the game, and it diminished in 2013.
His shot-blocking was way down this year as well.
If this is what the Devils pay him for, why continue to pay that much when they don't have to? Every NHL team can amnesty one player on their roster this year, and one next year. Said player will still receive two-thirds of their contract, but it will not count towards the salary cap. Anton Volchenkov seems like an obvious candidate here.
Boston faces salary-cap restraints next season and will have to let at least some players go. The Devils should make Ference one of them. He makes $2.25 million this season, the last of a three-year deal. If New Jersey can sign him to an almost identical contract, which may be doable because he is 34 years old, they would barely be adding any money to hockey operations, salary cap or not.
He's not bad offensively, too. Ference had 13 points this season and 24 points in the full 2011-12 campaign.
* Hits per game isn't some advanced stat, I just divided the total number of hits by games played using the numbers provided by Yahoo Sports. If I had used the total number of hits, then it would have been misleading because of the lockout-shortened season.
Dainius Zubrus Out, Mike Ribeiro in
Ribeiro will be one of the most sought-after free agents this summer.
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In the two seasons prior to Dainius Zubrus' coming to New Jersey, he had 57 and 60 points. But from 2007 through 2012 with the Devils, the big Lithuanian has averaged just 36 points. That isn't even including 2013, when surgery limited him to 22 games and nine points.
The bottom line is that Zubrus hasn't produced the performances for which Lou Lamoriello signed him.
He is a beautiful skater to watch, sure. But Zubrus was one of the guys who needed to step up in Zach Parise's absence, and he didn't.
Signing Ribeiro is a stretch, admittedly. But isn't this the guy the Devils need to get back to the playoffs? Doesn't Martin Brodeur deserve to get some offensive support as he prepares for his 20th(!) season as the Devils' starter?
Ribeiro is finishing a five-year, $25 million contract. He might command a similar $5 million cap hit considering his point-per-game clip this season and key role in the Capitals' late-season surge. But the Devils have the cap space to make it happen, and if the finances really are in order, prove it.
I'm talking to you, Jeff Vanderbeek.