Truth is, I don't think the Devils need to change their roster very much. They had an excellent year despite playing Scott Clemmensen for over half the year, and they would have gone further in the playoffs had they not stopped playing in the waning minutes of two games.
They've finally figured out how to score some goals, and even if they're not an elite scoring team, they don't need to be. They play good defensive hockey and have the best in the game as their goaltender. They were well-rounded, like they should be.
The problem is that while they may not have to sign many big-name stars, they have a LOT of free agents of their own. And if they want to keep the team the same, they'll need to bring some of them back.
They can't re-sign them all—Lou Lamoriello has already stated that explicitly—so there will be some decisions to make. If I were Lou, here is how I would handle the situation:
1. Re-sign all restricted free agents. Lou has already said he plans to do this, and there is no reason why he wouldn't. Heading this list is Travis Zajac, the young center who continues to improve, and who anchored the team's top-scoring line. He's better than Scott Gomez was, and he must be kept.
Andy Greene and Petr Vrana are here too, and while they're not exactly must-signs, they're not going to be grabbed by anyone else, so we may as well bring them back. Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond is restricted as well, and he should be brought back just for his name.
Plus, with Bobby Holik and Mike Rupp unrestricted, he may become a regular skater next year.
2. Bring back Johnny Oduya at all costs. There are plenty of players to get to, but none are more important than Oduya. He was arguably our best defenseman this year, and while he's not exactly a scoring defenseman, he's the best we've got.
And let's not forget his great defensive play. He was great in Sweden before playing in the NHL, so we know this is for real. We've already seen Scott Nidermayer and Brian Rafalski* walk away, and we can't lose another.
3. Try to retain Brian Gionta and John Madden, but with smaller contracts. Fact is, we can't afford these guys at their current paychecks. Gionta's payday came after his historical 48-goal season, but he's never come close to that again.
This year's 20-goal performance is more in line with what he'll produce. He got four million per year after scoring 48; a few years older and less than half the scoring means his contract should be cut in half. He wants to return, and I'll bring him back at two, two and a half mil per year, no more.
Madden is 36, and showed his age for much of this year. Last year, the Devils signed Jay Pandolfo, a similar player, to a contract similar to one Madden just finished. But Pandolfo slowed down a lot, and the Devils don't want to make that mistake again.
I don't think Madden will have many suitors, so the Devils should be able to bring him back at a discount. He should get a short contract at around two million per year.
4. Let Bobby Holik walk. He was brought in for one year, and we just don't need him anymore. Toward the end of the year, his bad penalties earned him a seat on the bench.
Why pay for an old, slow, penalty-prone veteran who once spurned us for the Rangers? It was kinda nice to have him back this year, but I think we've seen Holik's end in New Jersey, and perhaps even his end in the NHL.
5. Let Scott Clemmensen walk, but bring back Kevin Weekes. This is not meant to downplay Clemmensen's great job this season; in fact, that's exactly why we can't retain him. He'll get to be a starter (or at least split time) somewhere else, but with Brodeur back, the Devils won't be using a backup too often.
For his own sake, the Devils should let Clemmensen go somewhere else, and let him make the money he deserves. Meanwhile, Weekes has been a very serviceable backup to Brodeur, does not complain about how much he has to sit, and is a very affable fellow. He'll be dirt-cheap, and that's just what we need. Retain him.
6. Sign Mike Rupp and Brendan Shanahan, but only if they'll accept pocket change. I think Shanny's career is over (signaled by his return to the team that drafted him), and this point would therefore be moot.
But if he does want to return, I'd take him back. We paid him almost nothing this year, and he outplayed his salary (to say the least), so he'd be worth bringing back at that price, even at age 40. He won't play a ton, but he won't cost a ton, either.
Players like Rupp are dime-a-dozen, so he's not a critical return to the team. We all love him for his 2003 heroics, but he's simply not that good. A solid physical player, but not a very special one, and one who can be easily replaced by Leblond or Rod Pelley, both of whom are already in-house.
If he comes cheap, we may as well bring him back, but there's no reason to shell out any amount of decent cash for him.
7. Say good bye to Niclas Havelid. I don't think this guy fit in well from the moment we traded for him, and even if he wasn't bad the whole time, he wasn't very good either. The Devils got Bryce Salvador last year, and he was good enough to re-sign, but Havelid doesn't warrant that.
His game is similar to Salvador's, but he just didn't pan out. Plus, he's 36. No reason to bring him back, and I don't think the fans will be too upset to see him go.
By the way, Barry Tallackson is an unrestricted free agent too. But I don't think anyone really cares. Next!
8. Figure out the coaching situation. The Devils were well-coached by Brent Sutter this year, and won a team-record 51 games despite missing Marty Brodeur for a 50-game stretch.
NHL writers were moronic enough to snub him as a Jack Adams finalist**, Devils fans are aware of his impact. But there have been rumors abound that he might quit, so that situation must be monitored. I think I speak for all Devils fans when I say: Please come back, Brent!
9. Sign some remaining pieces. Like I said, the team doesn't need to change too much, but some additions would be helpful. A scoring defenseman would be nice, as Paul Martin and Oduya are not exactly of the Mike Green variety.
The Devils will likely make a run at Florida's Jay Bouwmeester, but then again, so will every other team in the league, and he won't come cheap.
Derek Morris and Christian Backman are also available, and they've both been linked to the Devils in trade deadlines past. And while I don't think the returns of Sean O'Donnell or Ken Klee are in the cards, how about Scotty Nidermayer? He may be old and always flirting with retirement, but he's still got it, and the Devils talked about bringing him back this year.
His brother Rob—the reason he signed with Anaheim in the first place—is unrestricted as well, so he doesn't have that same incentive to return. Maybe the Devils sign both?
The Devils could also use a second-line center, and there are a few of those available:Nik Antropov, Mike Cammalleri, Henrik Sedin, and Brendan Morrison to name a few, not to mention to aforementioned younger Niedermayer. While some may be more unattainable than others, the Devils do have what to look at.
The Devils' offseason plans are pretty straightforward, and I don't think you'll find too many dissenting opinions from the fans. By the way, for a great second (or first) opinion, why not check out John Fischer's?
*Niedermayer left to play with his brother, and took less money to do so. You can't blame Lou for that one. But Rafalski was lowballed by the Devils, and took issue with that, so he bolted for his hometown of Detroit. No games, Lou. Sign Oduya.
** OK, the three finalists did a damn good job, so I can't complain too much. Still, Sutter did a tremendous job, and I can't help but think his season was more impressive than Boston's. I mean, would they have been the same with Scott Clemmensen? Whatever, no knock on Julien, he did a great job, but Sutter deserved the nomination, is all.
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