Despite his shortcomings since his historic 48-goal season, I have always been a tremendous fan of Brian Gionta.
Since setting the team record for goals in a season in the 2005-06 season, Gionta has mustered only 25, 22, and 20 goals in each of the three seasons to follow. But his contract reflects the single great season, the one in which he put up numbers we may never see again.
That contract is set to expire after this year's Stanley Cup finals, but whether or not it is renewed is a big mystery.
As a fan, I would love to have Gionta back.
I've followed him since he was a scrappy, nameless kid, taking beatings and getting up again, and somehow putting up 21 goals in the 2003-04 season without anybody really noticing.
I loved him for his paltry frame, for his relentless attitude, and for his unheralded scoring ability.
But the 05-06 season changed everything.
Gionta's magical ride put him on everybody's radar, and he instantly went from scrap to sniper. He was a source of goals that defenders had to watch, and a big-time scorer that deserved a big-time paycheck.
And, soon enough, Gionta reverted to what he was before: a scrappy player who could manage 20-plus goals a season, but no more. But, because he was expected to score, (and was getting paid to do exactly that) his output was no longer sufficient.
As a free agent, he presents a conundrum.
He's almost certainly going to get a pay cut, (unless he goes to the Rangers who have a penchant for overpaying their players) but how much of a cut does he deserve?
Sure, a 20-goal scorer won't get nearly as much as a 40-goal scorer, but we've all witnessed Gionta put up elite numbers.
Does he still have it in him?
Might he be worth a slight overpay on the chance that he regains that form?
As a Devils fan, I honestly believe we will never see another season like that from Gionta. His goals have declined every season since the big one, and, while I don't think that downward trend continues, I also don't think we can count on another tremendous spurt.
The likelihood is nearly impossible.
But even so, is he worth overpaying to retain?
He has a following among Devils fans and 20 goals is nothing to laugh at. While other teams might not be willing to shell out three million dollars to sign him, the Devils may approach that number to keep him.
The conundrum, however, worsens when one considers that the Devils really have nowhere to put him. He's not a top line player, and the right wing position on that line is currently filled by Jamie Langenbrunner, who not only had a better year than Gionta last season, but clicked with rising stars Zach Parise and Travis Zajac.
Gionta is not replacing him up there anytime soon.
He could return to his second-line position, but that slot will likely be filled by last year's free-agent prize, Brian Rolston. Rolston struggled last year, but is a proven scorer, and suffered from an early injury and playing on non-scoring lines.
The Devils are not going to let a 35-goal scorer flounder on the third or fourth line again, and he will fill Gionta's spot on the second line.
So, where does that leave Gionta?
He could fit on the third line. His 20 goals could be a nice boost there, and his scrappy style of play may work well on a third line. But, he's not exactly a checker thanks in part to his diminutive stature.
He may be able to take a hit, but that doesn't mean he can deliver one. A third-line situation has potential, but only if he's skating with proven forecheckers—perhaps John Madden and Jay Pandolfo, circa 2007.
Of course, the Devils could let Gionta walk. The four million dollars they'd save could be used to sign a second-line center, a position they're sorely lacking.
Players like Nik Antropov, Martin Havlat, and Mike Cammalleri are available and would put up numbers that match or improve on Gionta's.
But, more importantly, they play a position that Gionta does not. The Devils need a center, not a right wing.
Assume for a moment that the Devils choose this path and use Gionta's money to bring in one of the unrestricted centers.
Their top two lines would look like this:
No matter who fills that second-line center role, the Devils would be sending out two excellent lines every night next year. All six players would be able to score with consistency, giving the Devils an unprecedented scoring ability (at least from the organization's standpoint).
They might need to lose Gionta to do it, but the alternative has Dainius Zubrus once again filling the second-line center role, and either Gionta or Rolston wasting away on the third line.
As difficult as it might be to let Gionta walk, it might make the most sense for the team.
Of course, the Devils may want to re-sign him and let John Madden walk, using Madden's money to sign that center. With Zubrus sliding into the third-line center role, Madden may be expendable.
If Zubrus centers that line and carries Jay Pandolfo on the left wing, Gionta could line up on the right. However, considering Pandolfo's decline, this line could be extremely weak. Madden may be getting up there in age, but his defensive ability is still superior to Gionta's, and he'd be more useful on the third line (with someone like David Clarkson manning right wing) than Gionta.
The fourth line, meanwhile, currently holds Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond and nobody else. The Devils and left winger Brendan Shanahan seem mutually interested in one another, and he'd bring a welcome bit of scoring to the fourth line at a low price.
The right wing position is still wide open, but there are many options to fill it. The Devils could re-sign the unrestricted Mike Rupp, or put Clarkson in that spot if they sign Gionta to play right wing on the third line.
Or, they could have Zubrus or Leblond man that role with the other playing center, if Madden returns to center the third line. Or, perhaps the Devils will call up a young player, such as Rod Pelley or Matt Halischuck, to fill the role.
Regardless, it is easily filled no matter who the Devils bring in.
But the Devils are also in the market for an elite defenseman, and money is going to be a serious issue, especially with the salary cap expected to go down. If the Devils do sign either Madden or Gionta, they may not be able to bring in a big name blueliner and a second-line center.
And, don't forget, Johnny Oduya is in for a nice pay raise as well. The Devils have to think about what is best for the team, and that may very well be to let both players walk.
There has been talk of buying out Zubrus or Pandolfo, (or both) and that would open options for bringing back Madden or Gionta. Assume for a moment that Zubrus and Pandolfo remain under contract and that the Devils let Gionta and Madden walk to bring in a defenseman...
The lines would look like this:
The third line is a little sketchy, but otherwise, the team looks very, very good. There are two elite scoring lines, and the fourth line has both grit (Leblond) and a little scoring (Shanahan), at least enough to make it a serviceable fourth line.
The third line isn't terrible, especially when you keep in mind that Madden's absence is replaced with an elite defenseman.
Plus, consider the following: Madden is getting old and seems to have lost a step; he's not the same player he was two years ago. The Devils certainly regret re-signing Jay Pandolfo by now, and Madden could cause the same exact regrets.
While the third line currently doesn't inspire confidence, Madden might not even help matters at all. (And if Pandolfo does return to his old form, the third line improves significantly.)
Madden's impact is best felt on the penalty kill, and, in that regard, he's more valuable to the team than Gionta, who has been marginal on special teams since his glory season. But, considering that Madden's PK ability is on the decline, he may not be worth re-signing.
To sum, as much as it hurts to say this, the Devils are probably best off without Brian Gionta. His 20 goals are nice, and he's someone we'd all love to retain, but the team has nowhere to put him. He'd be best on the third line if anywhere, but the money could be better spent on a second-line center who'd have a bigger impact.
The Devils could also consider parting ways with John Madden in lieu of an elite defenseman, but this leaves the third line and the penalty kill in danger. Still, considering the way Madden is declining, he may or may not have a huge impact on the PK anyway.
Parenthetical note: I know Madden improved as the season went along, but he still never reached his old levels of production, and, considering how quickly Pandolfo showed his age, it may be wise to anticipate a similar decline with Madden.