Over the next couple of months, I will be taking a closer look at each of the Eastern Conference teams to show what their current status is and where their offseason focus lies. Knowing a team’s strategy should provide extra assistance in any offseason trading or keeper decisions. This week I’ll take a look at the New Jersey Devils.
As a reference, I’ll add each of the teams I’ve covered here at the top in case you’d like to look at some of the other game plans.
UFA: Zach Parise, Alex Ponikarovsky, Ryan Carter, Petr Sykora, Cam Janssen, Steve Bernier, Stephen Gionta, Bryce Salvador, Peter Harrold, Matt Taormina, Martin Brodeur, Johan Hedberg
RFA: Mark Fayne, Vladimir Zharkov
Rostered players signed for next season: 13
Available cap space: $28M
The cap space above (taken from capgeek.com) consists of eight forwards, five defensemen, and zero goaltenders. Of the eight forwards, two (Kovalchuk and Elias) carry NTC’s and two (Josefson and Henrique) are still on two-way contracts. Of the defensemen, two (Volchenkov and Zidlicky) have NTC’s and one (Larsson) is still on a two-way contract.
At forward, the biggest question mark is Zach Parise. If Parise were to walk, the Devils would immediately have an open spot on their top line, currently also featuring Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac. On the second scoring line, Elias and Zubrus are still under contract, while Petr Sykora is hoping to be re-signed, which should be a very realistic possibility.
If Sykora returns, he will almost certainly be paired with Elias. This transforms the New Jersey offense into a three scoring line model, rather than a two-line model, as Adam Henrique continues to prove himself as a top performer in critical situations, but is stuck on the third line for now. If the Devils were to walk away from Sykora, it is more likely that Elias would either fill in on the top line in place of Parise (if he were also to walk) or slide to the left wing on the second line, where Henrique would slot in as center.
If New Jersey is able to retain Parise, it won’t come cheap, which could facilitate a trade shipping out Zubrus and his $3.4M salary, opening the door for Henrique to move up to the second line. This format would give the Devils the strongest attack, retaining their entire top six, with the exception of Zubrus being replaced by Henrique. It should also be worth noting that even if Zubrus stays in NJ, Henrique still might be able to steal a top six spot away from him.
In a nutshell, the Devils have quite a few options for how to handle their 2012-13 team structure. Before factoring in any player acquisitions, their top six will feature Kovalchuk, Zajac, and Elias, and potentially three of Parise, Zubrus, Sykora, and Henrique. For now, the third line should be penciled in with Clarkson and Henrique, but the third wheel (Ponikarovsky) is a pending UFA. The rest of the UFA forwards are made up of Carter, Gionta, Bernier (the entire fourth line), and Janssen. It’s likely that the fourth line will be re-signed, although Bernier may have outstayed his welcome after Game Six performance.
In the system, the Devils have a few bodies who could be ready to contribute if called upon, including Jacob Josefson, Mattias Tedenby, and Joe Whitney. Josefson and Tedenby have both seen NHL time and are much closer to being able to make an impact. Joe Whitney is a name that may be a little less familiar. Whitney played four seasons at Boston College, spending time with Cam Atkinson and Chris Kreider and winning two national titles in the process. In his senior year, Whitney was named captain, but the added responsibility may have been too much to bear, as his performance dropped from 45 points in 42 games to 31 in 39. Last season Whitney turned pro and he performed well, scoring 44 points while leading a relatively weak Albany team in scoring as a rookie. The biggest hurdle for Whitney may be his size, as he is only 5’6” tall and listed at 170 lbs.
At defense, the Devils invested heavily in Marek Zidlicky, and he led the team in ice time during the playoffs. Completing the top pairing is Bryce Salvador, a pending UFA that the Devils would love to bring back. The next pairing features Mark Fayne and Andy Greene, two players who have shown glimmers of hope in their play, but have failed to produce at a consistent pace. Fayne is a pending RFA that has made impressive strides in his development and will likely be targeted to re-sign. Volchenkov, Tallinder, Larsson, and Harrold (UFA) round out the defense.
Zidlicky is clearly being groomed to be the top defenseman for the Devils, but he is more of an offensive defenseman, forcing the Devils to balance their top pairing with someone like Salvador. Both Greene and Fayne have the talent to be fantasy contributors, but at this point neither is worth owning. Larsson is another that should be able to contribute in the future, but his rookie season went a bit tougher than expected. Despite making it to the Stanley Cup Finals, Larsson dressed for only five playoff games, a clear sign that he will need more experience and comfort before he can play in critical situations.
While they might not have many opportunities available due to a full pro roster, the Devils do have a couple prospects in the pipeline that may be ready for call ups, including Éric Gélinas, Matt Taormina, and Alex Urbom. Gélinas is a 6’3” 2009 second round selection who spent most of his career in the QMJHL. Last season was also his first as a professional, and he made the shift quite well, leading Albany defensemen in scoring (16-21-37). His 16 goals tied him with T.J. Brennan and Clay Wilson (listed as D/LW) for most goals by a defenseman. Both Taormina and Urbom have already seen time at the NHL level, but neither have been able to stick. Don’t be surprised if Gélinas ends up passing both on the depth chart.
In goal, the Devils don’t have either goaltender under contract. Brodeur has expressed interest in returning for at least one more year, but has been rather inconsistent in the past two seasons. His playoff performance shows that he can certainly still play, but the question is consistency. Johan Hedberg has filled in admirably when called upon, but if the Devils chose to move on without Brodeur, it would be a risky endeavor to go with Hedberg – a career backup – as their starting goalie. Both Albany goaltenders – Keith Kinkaid and Jeff Frazee – are under contract, but even using one as a backup could be risky at this point of their development.
The most likely scenario is for New Jersey to re-sign both goaltenders. With Brodeur expressing interest to return for another season, it is likely that the Devils comply for two reasons – (1) Marty is a franchise goaltender and they will wish to keep him in their organization rather than move on to another and (2) their succession planning is not quite ready for a replacement. Hedberg should be willing to accept a reasonable salary and remain with the organization as well. At some point over the next year though, the Devils need to seriously look at how they are going to address their goaltending when Brodeur does decide to hang up the skates.
Biggest holes to fill: Top-six roles (Parise) and goaltending (Brodeur)
Priorities: The Devils’ top priority should be to get their captain under contract. The unfortunate truth is that no matter how hard they try, Parise might be ready to walk. There have been rumors that he has been unhappy in New Jersey ever since Kovalchuk came into town, but as far as we all know that is merely speculation and may be inaccurate. Whatever the result, his contract will have a huge impact on the look of the Devils next season.
The next priority should be goaltending. Is Brodeur truly going to return? What will they do when he is gone for good?
If Parise re-signs in New Jersey, the offense continues to be very strong, and fantasy relevant players include everyone in the top six, with a couple third line options (Clarkson, Henrique). The ceiling on these players is higher with Parise on the team as well. If Parise leaves, most of the team (outside of Kovalchuk and Zajac) will see a dip in offensive production, as their opponents will have one less star to cover – don’t be surprised if more attention is paid to guys like Elias and Henrique. On defense, Zidlicky is the top defenseman (for now), and Larsson, Fayne, and Greene are all next on the depth chart from a fantasy point of view, though fantasy contributions will likely be scarce from this group in 2012-13. One player to watch on the blue line that is flying under the radar is Éric Gélinas. In goal, Brodeur will likely return for another season, but the question is how consistent he will be.
Got anything to add? Feel free to add your opinion below.