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New Jersey Devils Have Decisions to Make About Bottom-Six Forwards

Adam Braun@abraun_15Contributor IMay 1, 2015

Steve Bernier tries to chip the puck past Karri Ramo of the Calgary Flames.
Steve Bernier tries to chip the puck past Karri Ramo of the Calgary Flames.Andy Marlin/Getty Images

It is no secret that the New Jersey Devils did not exactly get stellar performances from most of their forwards this season. 

In 2014-15, New Jersey was 28th in the NHL in scoring, its leading scorer had only 43 points and it had only one player with more than 20 goals.

But there was some good news amid the struggles. The poor play and subsequent benching of players like Martin Havlat and Michael Ryder opened the door for some of the Devils' bottom-six forwards to take on bigger roles, and many of them excelled. 

With New Jersey looking to add scoring this offseason, though, there may not be enough room in the everyday lineup for players like Jordin Tootoo and Steve Bernier when the 2015-16 season begins. So if the Devils do add two scoring forwards—which general manager Lou Lamoriello told Tom Gulitti of Fire & Ice is his plan—they will have several decisions to make about the team's third and fourth lines. 

For the sake of argument, I will assume the Devils end up adding two new forwards and re-signing Scott Gomez, leaving them with a top six that looks something like this:

Michael Cammalleri-Travis Zajac-New Player

Adam Henrique-Scott Gomez-New Player

Which leaves the following players fighting for the last six forward spots in the lineup:

NameGames PlayedGoalsAssistsPointsPlus/MinusPenalty MinutesContract Situation
Patrik Elias69132134-2034One year remaining, $5.5 million cap hit
Steve Bernier67161632228Unrestricted free agent
Jordin Tootoo6810515172Unrestricted free agent
Tuomo Ruutu777613-328One year remaining, $3.8 million cap hit
Stephen Gionta615813412One year remaining, $850K cap hit
Jacob Josefson626511024One year remaining, $800K cap hit
Dainius Zubrus744610-942One year remaining, $3.1 million cap hit
Stefan Matteau (AHL stats)61121527940Two-way contract
Paul Thompson (AHL stats)73332255567Yet to be signed to an NHL contract

Patrik Elias waves to fans after being recognized as one of the three stars of the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs in February.
Patrik Elias waves to fans after being recognized as one of the three stars of the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs in February.Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Elias registered full-season career lows in points and plus/minus rating during a difficult 2014-15 season. There is no doubt age has begun to catch up with the Czech forward, but his struggles were also a factor of poor linemates. He spent much of the season playing with either Havlat or Zubrus, both of whom struggled even more mightily than Elias.

Dropping down to the third line seems to be the inevitable next step for the 39-year-old. While he is not what he used to be, Elias can still bring some offensive firepower to New Jersey's lower lines, allowing him to still fill an important, though different, role.

Bernier was perhaps the Devils' most pleasant surprise at forward during the 2014-15 season. After a miserable 2013-14 and starting this season in the AHL, Bernier bounced back with career highs in both goals and points. If he were under contract for next season already, he would be a lock for a spot on the opening day roster, but as a pending unrestricted free agent, Bernier's future is slightly less clear. 

Still, it seems unlikely that Bernier, after four years in New Jersey that included his best ever offensive season and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, would want to leave. It seems equally unlikely that the Devils, short on primary and secondary scoring, would turn away a player who scored 16 goals last season.

Jordin Tootoo (center) celebrates a goal with his teammates.
Jordin Tootoo (center) celebrates a goal with his teammates.Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Tootoo's offensive contributions were perhaps even more surprising than Bernier's. After playing only 11 games in the NHL during the 2013-14 season, Tootoo revived his career in New Jersey. With his speed and toughness, it would be surprising if New Jersey does not bring Tootoo back next season.

Ruutu and Zubrus both had a disappointing 2014-15, and it is hard to see either player turning it around. Ruutu has not had more than 10 goals or 25 points in a season since 2011-12 and is 32 years old. Zubrus will be 37 by the time the 2015-16 season starts and has 36 points in his last 156 games. His minus-nine rating and 42 penalty minutes reflect his inability to be effective even in a non-scoring role.

But these two players will take up a combined $6.9 million worth of cap space during next season. This financial fact may play a role in each player's future.

Gionta missed a chunk of the season due to injury but was the epitome of role player when he was in the lineup. He killed penalties, stayed out of the penalty box and led the team in plus/minus rating. It is hard to imagine a situation in which he does not start the 2015-16 season on New Jersey's fourth line. 

Josefson had the most successful NHL season of his young career during 2014-15, setting career highs in games played, goals, assists and points. Of course, this is not to say he set the world on fire, but his play on the penalty kill was solid, and his speed is a rare commodity among New Jersey's forwards. 

At 24, Josefson may or may not have already hit his ceiling. If he has not, he may deserve more playing time and a chance to prove himself. If he has, it is unclear if he brings enough to the table to earn regular playing time next season amid this crowded picture.

The view from inside the goal as Stefan Matteau scores his only goal as a New Jersey Devil this season.
The view from inside the goal as Stefan Matteau scores his only goal as a New Jersey Devil this season.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Matteau and Thompson are wild cards going into next season. Matteau is still only 21, but his size, aggressiveness and speed were impressive in his brief stint in the NHL at the end of the 2014-15 season. He is never going to be a huge goal scorer, but he could be a useful role player who contributes 10-15 goals a season. Whether or not New Jersey thinks he is ready to make the step up to the next level is unclear, though.

Thompson led the AHL's Albany Devils in goals during 2014-15 but was signed to an AHL-only contract, so he could not join New Jersey. But as Rich Chere of NJ Advance Media reported, the Devils do plan to sign Thompson to an NHL contract for 2015-16. 

Though Thompson, a 26-year-old who has been in the AHL since 2010-11, led the Albany Devils in goals this season, there are doubts as to whether he can contribute at the NHL level. In 200 games in the AHL prior to joining Albany in 2014-15, Thompson played 200 games and scored 39 goals. In 73 games this season, he had 33 goals.

So was Thompson the beneficiary of a lucky season, or is he just a late bloomer? With his NHL experience limited to a single training camp at the start of the 2014-15 season, it is tough to say. Until the Devils get a better understanding of the answer to that question, though, he will remain in the picture.

Some fans may question why Matteau is a part of these considerations, but Reid Boucher, New Jersey's other top forward prospect in Albany, is not. Put simply, Boucher is not a bottom-six forward. If Boucher is ever to become an NHL player, it will be as a goal scorer. He is not big or physical enough to play on a checking line, nor should he be asked to, given his potential as a goal scorer. 

It may be the case that Boucher is more talented or more NHL-ready than Matteau, but Boucher cannot fill the same role Matteau can. 

Early Predictions

With the above thoughts in mind, I will close by presenting two predictions for the team's third and fourth lines. First, I will give my own opinion on what I think the Devils should do, then predict what the Devils will actually do.

If I were in charge of the Devils, this is what I would do:

Elias-Josefson-Bernier

Matteau-Gionta-Tootoo

Though Elias may make a better center than left wing at this point in his career, New Jersey's embarrassingly thin ranks at left wing leave little choice. That may seem like a counter-intuitive stance, as neither Zubrus nor Ruutu, both left wings, make the cut. But neither player deserves to be in the lineup after wasting countless opportunities last season. For either player to take a spot from Josefson, who is younger and more deserving, would not be right.

If Matteau turns out to be not quite ready for the NHL, either Zubrus or Ruutu can fill in on the fourth line in his place. 

Now, here's my prediction for what the Devils will do with their third and fourth lines:

Zubrus-Elias-Bernier

Ruutu-Gionta-Tootoo

The Devils seemed committed to leaving Elias in the middle for most of 2014-15, so it seems unlikely they would change their thinking on that at this point. 

Zubrus and Ruutu will most likely make the lineup because New Jersey's staff will not be eager to have nearly $7 million scratched or playing in the AHL on a nightly basis. If 2015-16 turns into as big a disappointment as 2014-15, then perhaps they will eventually be treated as Ryder and Havlat were this season. But until that point, I do not see the Devils keeping them out of the lineup regularly.

Salary information courtesy of Spotrac.com. Stats courtesy of NHL.com.

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