5 Offseason Moves the Devils Need to Make to Get Back to the Playoffs
The New Jersey Devils can't afford to go into next season with the same roster. Not if they want to avoid missing the playoffs for the third time in four years—something seemingly unthinkable for hockey fans of the past 20 years.
The offense doesn't scare anyone. The team is just plain old. Changes need to be made, and there are realistic ways to do that.
Lou Lamoriello and ownership probably aren't going to blow anybody away with a seismic trade or free-agent signing. This year's crop is thin to begin with.
In house, there are some crucial decisions to be made regarding their own free agents. Patrik Elias, David Clarkson, Dainius Zubrus and Marek Zidlicky are unrestricted. It is highly unlikely all of these players will be back. Selectivity will be key.
If Ilya Kovalchuk can stay healthy and the organization applies the lessons learned from 2013 into the offseason, New Jersey can return to the playoffs and restore balance and order to the universe.
Here are five moves the Devils would be wise to make.
Re-Sign Patrik Elias
Is Patrik Elias in his prime anymore? No. He is 37 years old and has lost some of his jump. Such is life.
But he is still a very effective player, and losing him in free agency would be a big blow to the offense. Elias led the team in points this season with 36 (full disclosure: He played in 11 more games than Ilya Kovalchuk).
Obviously there is a sentimental factor here as well. Elias is the franchise's all-time leader in every major scoring category (points, goals and assists). He and Martin Brodeur are the only remaining links to the Stanley Cup years.
Even if you ignored the history and looked at this situation objectively, New Jersey simply cannot afford to lose yet another top scorer. There still has been no answer to losing Zach Parise. How bad could the offense get if Patrik Elias walked as well?
He is older, sure. But he has missed exactly two games in the last three seasons. Not to be underestimated is his leadership in the locker room, which might be as important as his playmaking ability.
Of course, Elias' fate is contingent on New Jersey's approach to its other free agents, namely Marek Zidlicky and David Clarkson.
Clarkson had an inconsistent season, and it is tough to know exactly what kind of player he is at this point. Is he a tough guy who has had some puck luck the past two years, or has he truly developed a scoring touch? Zidlicky is a defenseman and finished third on the team in assists.
There will be many decisions to make, but re-signing their 2013 points leader must be priority No. 1.
Amnesty Anton Volchenkov
As per the rules of the infamous CBA that cost fans 34 hockey games, each NHL team can amnesty two contracts on its payroll. This is to keep teams from being suffocated by the diminishing salary cap next season. When a player is bought out, he still receives two-thirds of his contract, but it won't count against the cap.
The Devils are a frugal organization, so the fact that two-thirds of the check is still due doesn't exactly give them a clean slate. But the fact remains that Anton Volchenkov has to go. He is the highest-paid defenseman on the team with a $4.25 million cap hit.
For a marginal offensive contributor with diminishing physicality, that's too much. Symbolically, Volchenkov being the wealthiest blueliner just looks wrong.
How much of that money New Jersey will reinvest in the salary cap is hard to tell. But at least it gives more flexibility to Lou Lamoriello.
Trade Defenseman for Offense
Aside from giving Anton Volchenkov the pink slip, New Jersey has a surplus of defense in the organization. All season long Pete DeBoer said he had eight NHL-caliber defenseman on the 25-man roster. We saw that to be true when the likes of Henrik Tallinder and Mark Fayne were healthy scratches.
Marek Zidlicky and Peter Harrold are unrestricted free agents. Bryce Salvador, Adam Larsson, Andy Greene, Tallinder and Fayne are under contract for next year.
In Albany, Alexander Urbom and Eric Gelinas may be ready to make the leap to the NHL. Jon Merrill and Damon Severson are talented prospects with bright futures.
Whether it be from the 25-man roster or the AHL club, these names are good trading chips. Swap some of this surplus to supplement a weak offensive attack.
Get Younger at the Goaltender Position
For two years Johan Hedberg was everything you could ask for in a backup goaltender.
But maybe New Jersey kept him around for too long. Like bench players in baseball, it may be best to approach the backup role with a lot of turnover. Fresh faces and novelty often work best in this scenario.
When Martin Brodeur went down for a month, Hedberg started all 13 games. The Devils went 3-8-2. He finished the season with a .883 save percentage.
To be fair, starting 13 straight games is not the typical responsibility of a backup goaltender. But Martin Brodeur is 41 now, and it is not unreasonable to be prepared for an injury like the one he suffered in 2013 (pinched nerve in his back) to bark, tweak or squawk again.
Hedberg is under contract for next season, and as of last month he still expects to play next year, according to this article in the Newark Star-Ledger. But like Brodeur, he is also four decades old. What will happen with these two a year older and a full 82-game season to play?
Letting Hedberg go would be a cumbersome situation for Lou Lamoriello, considering his contract, will to play and the level of class he embodies.
But 81 years combined at your goaltender position is a lot.
Increase the Payroll
The Devils spent around $59 million on their roster this season. The salary cap was $70 million.
Next season the cap drops to $64 million. With Elias, Zidlicky, Clarkson, Dainius Zubrus, Peter Harrold and a slew of restricted free agents off the books, New Jersey is locked in for just $39 million for 2013-14.
Even when some of these free agents are re-signed, management will have a lot of room to work with, even more so if Volchenkov or another bulky contract is amnestied.
This is where the Devils must add a forward in free agency. If the organization's shaky finances really have been addressed, then Jeff Vanderbeek and Ray Chambers need to prove it. Zach Parise's production was never filled and neither was his salary cap room. If they lose Elias or Clarkson, then recruiting a forward becomes all the more imperative.
Again, the free-agent pool is thin. Mike Ribeiro sits on the top shelf with his point per game production this season. Pascal Dupuis and Michael Ryder will be coveted players as well. But all three of these guys are 33 or older. Even if the Devils are willing to spend money, is this the direction they want to go in?
Brad Boyes had 35 points for the Islanders and was a bargain at just $1 million. At 31, he is slightly younger entering free agency.
If the organization looks at the situation and says, "If Ilya Kovalchuk doesn't get hurt then we make the playoffs," it will be a mistake. This team won just 11 of its final 35 games. It was a bad team for a bulk of the season.
The Devils need fresh faces, both youthful and experienced.