On Sunday, April 10, the New Jersey Devils season came to an end. But for the first time since 1996, the Devils season did not end with a playoff game.
Instead, a 38-39-5 season, despite a furious second-half run, came to an end without a playoff spot, which is unfamiliar territory for the boys from the Garden State. This unfamiliar territory will lead to one of the more interesting offseasons in Devils' history, which began with the announcement after the last game that Jacques Lemaire will not be returning next season.
Let's have a look at the several different areas that need to be addressed by the Devils in this upcoming offseason.
One serious order of business that the Devils need to address, is who will be behind the bench next season? Jacques Lemaire announced after the final game that he will not be returning next season, which leaves a huge void for the Devils to fill.
Lemaire filled in and did a tremendous job in the second half of the season and nearly led the Devils to the playoffs after a horrendous first half under John MacLean.
But now Lou Lamoriello and the Devils must move on and find a new coach. Who will be the next coach?
The most obvious choice that comes to mind is Ken Hitchcock. Hitchcock is a veteran coach, who is known for being defensive-minded, which fits the Devils' philosophy perfectly. Hitchcock has won a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars and has a tremendous track record of getting his teams to the playoffs. (Heck, he even took the Blue Jackets to the playoffs once!)
Other candidates include Montreal assistant Kirk Muller and former Atlanta Coach Bob Hartley (who was Kovalchuk's coach for most of his career). But with the Devils, you just never know who it will be, as we all know how Lou Lamoriello likes to be bold!
Let's face it. The most intriguing part of the summer that lies ahead is whether or not the Devils are able to keep Zach Parise in New Jersey.
Parise, who is an integral part of the Devils, missed almost all of this past season due to a torn meniscus in his knee, but he has fully recovered and even took the ice in a game on April 2nd (he was shut down after, since the Devils were eliminated from the playoffs).
Unfortunately for the Devils, Parise's contract is up, and he will be a restricted free agent if the Devils don't re-sign him by June 30th.
You can call me biased, but I honestly do not see any way that Zach Parise is not in a Devils uniform next season.
He's said all of the right things and seems like the type who's comfortable here in New Jersey and wants to win (which with the exception of this season, is something the Devils do often).
One problem the Devils will potentially run into is how much cap room they'll have to sign Parise. They were able to unload the contracts of Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner this past season, which freed up about $5 million in cap space.
As it stands right now, according to CapGeek.com, the Devils have a little over $7 million in cap space. If the Devils are to re-sign Parise, it's likely that he'll carry a cap hit somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million (when you consider that Kovalchuk and Elias are the team's two best players besides Parise, and both have cap hits of over $6 million).
That may seem like the Devils have more than enough space to get Parise signed, but when you look at the amount of both restricted and unrestricted free agents the Devils have this summer, they may need some more space. Matt Corrente, Vladimir Zharkov, Anssi Salmela, Jeff Frazee and Matt Taormina are important RFA's that the Devils will look to re-sign.
Johan Hedberg, Andy Greene, Adam Mair and Tim Sestito are all unrestricted free agents who the Devils would probably like to re-sign.
So when the Devils attempt to re-sign Zach Parise, they'll have to keep in mind that there are other players who need to be taken care of as well.
Last week, the Devils, who had just a 3.6 percent chance of winning the NHL draft lottery and moving up from their eighth position in the standings, defied the odds and won the draft lottery, and have moved up into the fourth pick in the draft.
This is the highest pick the Devils have had since 1991, when the Devils had the third pick and took a defenseman by the name of Scott Niedermayer. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that pick worked out pretty well for the Devils, as he played for the team until 2004.
But the question is, what position do the Devils address in the draft this year?
The obvious answer for a team like the Devils is defense, but the Devils could also use some help at forward as well.
A good choice for the Devils would be to take a center. Travis Zajac is a solid center, but the Devils could use some more depth at that position, as Patrik Elias may not be around for too much longer. The website MyNHLDraft has a mock draft, which has the Devils selecting center Jonathan Huberdeau with the fourth pick.
Other Center possiblities include Sean Couturier, from Drummondville of the QMJHL and Ryan Strome of Niagra of the OHL.
If the Devils choose to go defense, it'll depend on who is available. The mock draft which I linked to above, has Adam Laarson, the top defense prospect in the draft going No. 2 to the Colorado Avalanche. The Devils could also try to snag Ryan Murphy from Kitchener of the OHL, who would be the ideal offensive defenseman that the Devils are looking for.
Or, the Devils could trade the pick. You never know, especially with Lou Lamoriello.
Ah, the man, the myth, the legend, Martin Brodeur.
Brodeur, who holds almost every important goalie record that there is in the NHL, including wins, shutouts, minutes played, etc, is nearing the end of his long but great Devils career. Brodeur will be 39 in May and has one year remaining on his contract. He has said repeatedly that he will play next season for sure but does not know about afterwards due to the impending labor situation after next season.
Brodeur had a slow start to his 2010-11 campaign (as did the entire Devils team) but finished the year strong (also, as the entire Devils team did). In the second half, he showed that he can still play at a high level, which is certainly good news for any Devils fan going into next season.
There's no question who will be starting in goal next season. But who will be backing him up, and who will the heir to one of the best goalies of all-time be?
Johan Hedberg played exceptionally well as Brodeur's backup last season, but he is a UFA, and it's unclear as to whether he'll even play next season, much less whether he'll re-sign with New Jersey.
If Hedberg comes back, it will be a huge help to the Devils, as they saw exactly how valuable he was last season in backing up Brodeur. If the Devils are able to put together a playoff season next season and are able to rest Brodeur more often (like they did this season, although he was hurt a couple of times), it would be a huge plus going into the playoffs next year, to have a rested Brodeur.
But if Hedberg doesn't come back (which I think is the most likely scenario), the Devils will have a huge void at backup. It's anybody's guess as to who the backup would be, and I'm in no position to speculate who it would be.
As for life after Brodeur (which shockingly, could come as early as after next season), it's unclear as to who Brodeur's heir will be. Jeff Frazee, who was long considered to be Brodeur's heir, played in the AHL with the Albany Devils this past season, will be an RFA this summer. The Devils drafted two goalies in last year's draft, Scott Wedgewood and Maxime Clermont, in the third and sixth rounds, respectively.
In more recent developments, on Monday, the Devils announced that they had signed undrafted goalie Keith Kinkaid, out of Union College. Kinkaid put up excellent numbers at Union, but who knows what he'll be competing for when he reaches Devils' training camp in September.
In Lou Lamoriello's career, he's been known for mostly good things. But one of the few blemishes in Lamoriello's career as the GM of the Devils, was the ridiculous, $5 million-per-year contract that he gave to left winger Brian Rolston in 2008.
The thing is, at the time, you couldn't really fault Lamoriello for doing what he did. Rolston was coming off three-consecutive seasons of 30 or more goals in Minnesota and has had a very good NHL career.
But things have not turned out quite as planned in his second go-round in New Jersey. Rolston had just 32 points in his 2008-09 campaign with the Devils and missed 18 games. He played 80 games in 2009-10 but still underperformed with only 37 points.
Midway through this past season, when the Devils hit rock bottom and were last in the league, Lamoriello even tried to put Rolston on waivers to see if someone would take the $5 million-per-year contract off his hands. Not surprisingly, nobody did.
But luckily for the Devils, Rolston performed much better in the second half of this season, although he only finished with a total of 34 points. Anyone who watched the Devils on a consistent basis and saw him play in the second half, could tell Rolston was a much different and better player than he had been in his first two years here.
And because Rolston was much-improved in the second half, it begs the question: Could the Devils actually trade Rolston this off-season?
Granted, Rolston is 38 years old, and his best days are behind him. But he showed this past season that he still has something left, and his veteran leadership would be beneficial to a lot of teams.
Another thing is that this is the final year of Rolston's contract. Teams may have originally been scared away by Rolston's $5 million cap hit, but there may be a team out there that's willing to take the risk, assuming they have the cap room for it, knowing that it's only a one-year thing.
If the Devils are able to successfully move Rolston, be it through waivers or a trade to another team, it would suddenly put the Devils in tremendous financial shape, as they'd have over $12 million in cap space. Not only would they have enough money to sign Parise, but they'd have the money to maybe add or re-sign a few other key people (such as Andy Greene, Johan Hedberg, etc.)