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Off-Season Game Plan: New Jersey Devils

Scott Cullen
6/3/2013 1:22:04 PM
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The New Jersey Devils missed the playoffs for the second time in the last three seasons, though those seasons were sandwiched around an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Devils team that needs to get younger and add more skill if they are going to be a perennial playoff team, like they were for the 13 seasons prior to the last three.

When making decisions this summer, GM Lou Lamoriello may be inclined to try to keep a lot of familiar faces for one last go in the Martin Brodeur era. After losing Zach Parise as a high-profile free agent last summer, the Devils have to contend with Patrik Elias and David Clarkson (among others) being two of the more attractive free agents in a relatively thin market and with eight unrestricted free agents overall, there is the opportunity for some serious roster turnover.

At the same time, filling out a roster with a smattering of free agents from around the league isn't an easy task, just as it may not be easy to keep Clarkson, a 29-year-old who will be widely sought-after for his combination of goal-scoring and toughness.

Lamoriello is in a tough spot (it's his own doing, but that's the situation in which he finds himself). Aside from Elias and Clarkson, the Devils' top returning scorers (including RFAs) are Ilya Kovalchuk, a 30-year-old coming off one of his worst seasons, and centres Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique, who had 20 and 16 points, respectively (defenceman Andy Greene also had 16 points). For the record, 16 points in 48 games is the equivalent of 27 points in and 82-game season, and the Devils are currently looking at a roster with three forwards and one defenceman that met that low threshold last season.

That suggests it's time for major changes in New Jersey, the kind that might take another year or two of suffering before a re-modeled Devils squad is really ready to resume their place as a contender.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

GM/COACH
Lou Lamoriello/Peter DeBoer

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Ilya Kovalchuk 71.98 37 11 20 31 -6 $6.667M
Travis Zajac 63.00 48 7 13 20 -5 $5.75M
Ryan Carter 61.65 44 6 9 15 -2 $775K
Steve Bernier 60.54 47 8 7 15 -7 $775K
Stephen Gionta 60.19 48 4 10 14 +2 $563K
Krystofer Barch 50.31 22 0 0 0 +1 $750K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Patrik Elias 70.58 48 14 22 36 +5 UFA $6.0M
David Clarkson 67.97 48 15 9 24 -6 UFA $2.667M
Andrei Loktionov 64.40 28 8 4 12 -2 RFA $817K
Adam Henrique 64.33 42 11 5 16 -3 RFA $854K
Dainius Zubrus 61.12 22 2 7 9 -3 UFA $3.4M
Steve Sullivan 59.60 42 7 10 17 -12 UFA $2.6M
Alexei Ponikarovsky 57.75 42 4 5 9 -1 UFA $1.8M
Matt D'Agostini 56.43 29 3 3 6 -5 RFA $1.65M
Tom Kostopoulos 54.00 15 1 0 1 0 UFA $600K
Jacob Josefson 52.94 22 1 2 3 -10 RFA $900K

Devils Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com

For better or worse, the Devils cast their lost with Ilya Kovalchuk and the results have been so-so -- 89 goals, 201 points, minus-32 in 222 games with New Jersey -- so far. He's 30-years-old, missed 11 games last year due to a shoulder injury, and his 0.84 points per game in 2013 was his second-lowest in the last 11 seasons.

At the same time, Kovalchuk could use help. His cast of linemates last season wasn't ideal for bringing out the best production in a player who can still fire the puck like few others.

Despite solid puck possession numbers Travis Zajac struggled to 20 points in 48 games. He's a solid two-way player and, given his track record, Zajac should be able to produce more.

In a shortened season, checking centre Ryan Carter earned a career-high 15 points while playing a career-high 13:03 per game. He's an honest player with limited upside.

Prior to the start of the 2013 season, 29-year-old Stephen Gionta had played 13 regular season games, and 24 playoff games, in his NHL career. Like Carter, he played more than 13 minutes per game last season and it's fair to question whether the offensively-challenged Devils might have been forced to rely too much on the fourth line that had contributed to their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012.

The third member of that trio, Steve Bernier, has a little more offensive upside, having five double-digit goal seasons in his career, and can be a physical presence on the forecheck.

Enforcer Krystofer Barch is a part-timer, playing fewer than six minutes in 22 of 48 games last season, scrapping half a dozen times when the Devils need a heavyweight.

The Devils did make a savvy pickup last season, acquiring Andrei Loktionov from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for a fifth-round pick. Loktionov needs to get stronger, but he has potential thanks to puck possession skills and he chipped in 11 points in his first 18 games with the Devils before slumping late.

Adam Henrique surprised a little with his offensive production in 2011-2012, but there was a dramatic difference in his playmaking success in 2013, when he managed three even-strength assists in 42 games. Henrique plays a sound two-way game, but for the ice time he gets, he needs to produce more offence than he did last season.

Only a couple of years ago, Matt D'Agostini scored 21 goals and 46 points for St. Louis, but had just three goals and six points in 29 games last season. Unless he willingly takes a paycut, it's difficult to fathom that he would get a qualifying offer at his current pay.

A first-round pick in 2009, Jacob Josefson has been coming along slowly, putting up 22 points in 91 games over the last three seasons. He doesn't figure to be a big scorer, but could be a solid two-way pivot. At least that's the hope.

The Devils face the prospect that they could lose two significant unrestricted free agents this summer. Patrik Elias, the 37-year-old who has played 1252 games (regular sesaon and playoffs) for New Jersey, was still the team's leading scorer in 2013 and David Clarkson, a feisty winger who has 45 goals over the past two seasons, could both go to the highest bidder on the open market.

Obviously, losing both Elias and Clarkson would create major holes but, even if they stay, the Devils have some spots to fill up front.

On the plus side, the Devils have plenty of cap room available to address those needs. That can make them a player for significant free agents, including wingers Nathan Horton, Michael Ryder, Pascal Dupuis or Pierre-Marc Bouchard. They could have the cap room to go after the likes of Jarome Iginla, but this isn't a roster that should be spending significant money on free agents in their mid-30s.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Andy Greene 70.94 48 4 12 16 +12 $3.0M
Mark Fayne 65.78 31 1 5 6 +6 $1.3M
Adam Larsson 63.55 37 0 6 6 +4 $925K
Anton Volchenkov 63.07 37 1 4 5 -1 $4.25M
Henrik Tallinder 62.32 25 1 3 4 0 $3.375M
Bryce Salvador 58.75 39 0 2 2 -12 $3.167M

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Marek Zidlicky 67.27 48 4 15 19 -12 UFA $4.0M
Peter Harrold 62.50 23 2 3 5 -8 UFA $525K

Devils Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com

Andy Greene enjoyed a strong season on a Devils team that wasn't particularly strong as a whole. Greene logged more than 23 minutes per game for the second time in his career, had strong possession stats, and was a team-best plus-12. He's undersized, but a good, professional defenceman. It's probably not ideal if he's the team's best defenceman.

While Mark Fayne has good size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), he could use it more effectively, perhaps playing with a little more bite. However, he was quite effective when he got into the lineup last season, so maybe at the very least he's re-established his place as an everyday part of the defensive rotation.

The fourth overall pick in 2011, Adam Larsson has had a hard time breaking into the lineup. He played 18:06 per game in 2013, down two-and-a-half minutes from his rookie season, and he was a healthy scratch for 11 games. He's still just 20-year-old and has the size and skills to be a prominent part of the Devils' defence, but it hasn't been the smoothest transition. Next year should be a significant season for his development.

It wasn't so long ago that Anton Volchenkov was among the top blueliners in hits and blocked shots on an annual basis, but that hasn't been the case in New Jersey. On one hand that could be because the Devils have had some good puck possession numbers, including in 2013 believe it or not, but it's also indicative of Volchenkov's decreasing role. He played just 16:03 per game last season, his lowest time on ice since 2003-2004, and a far cry from the days he was playing more than 20 minutes per game in Ottawa.

Leg troubles have been an issue for Henrik Tallinder over the last couple seasons, and he's played just 64 of a possible 130 games as a result. Tallinder's ice time was down, to a career-low 17:34 per game, but he was effective in that limited role. If he's healthy, he can be a useful contributor.

Bryce Salvador was such a vital part of New Jersey's run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012 that it's understandable the Devils invested in him. Then he played a career-high 21:20 per game as a 36-year-old and the results were less than ideal. He had such an impressive return in 2011-2012, after missing the entire 2010-2011 season, that a bounceback should be possible for the stay-at-home defenceman.

The Devil have some prospects that could earn a look, especially if Marek Zidlicky departs as a free agent. Zidlicky has been the Devils' best offensive defenceman, so if the 36-year-old does move on, that would leave a role to fill on the power play.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Martin Brodeur 68.38 29 13 9 7 2.22 .901 $4.5M
Johan Hedberg 53.86 19 6 10 3 2.76 .883 $1.4M

There's no denying how great Martin Brodeur's career has been, and he's signed for another season so there's no point pretending that he won't be the Devils' goaltender next year, but it's worth considering that, over the last three years, the now 41-year-old has a .905 save percentage, ranking 29th out of 31 goalies (ahead of only Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon) that have played at least 100 games in that span.

Considering that the Devils had strong possession stats and yet were on the outside looking in at the postseason, goaltending is one of the reasons for coming up short and, without improvement, it could pose a problem next season too.

40-year-old Johan Hedberg had been coming off a good three-year run prior to last season, but then he delivered a career-low .883 save percentage. The goaltending problem for the Devils wasn't just on Brodeur but, as the roster stands right now, they will go into next season with a pair of goalies on the wrong side of 40 coming off subpar seasons.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Jonathon Merrill D Michigan (CCHA) 2-9-11, +3, 21 GP
Stefan Matteau LW Blainville-Boisbriand (QMJHL) 18-10-28, +19, 35 GP
Damon Severson D Kelowna (WHL) 10-42-52, +43, 71 GP
Alexander Urbom D Albany (AHL) 0-8-8, -3, 68 GP
Eric Gelinas D Albany (AHL) 6-16-22, +1, 57 GP
Reid Boucher LW Sarnia (OHL) 62-33-95, +13, 68 GP
Harri Pesonen LW Albany (AHL) 14-17-31, +7, 64 GP
Reece Scarlett D Swift Current (WHL) 9-40-49, +14, 67 GP
Keith Kinkaid G Albany (AHL) 21-17-6, 2.72 GAA, .905 SV%
Brandon Burlon D Albany (AHL) 1-16-17, +9, 53 GP

It was a rocky road for Jonathon Merrill at Michigan, playing just 40 games over the last two seasons due to injuries and off-ice issues, but he's a big defenceman who can handle the puck and contribute on the power play. He had eights points (and a minus-8 rating) in a dozen games with Albany at the end of the season and has a chance to be a significant upgrade for New Jersey's defence. Given how little he's played the past couple years, some time in the AHL will due Merrill some good, but it could be tempting to bring him to a team that hasn't received much offence from the back end in recent seasons.

The 29th overall pick last summer, Stefan Matteau made the Devils' roster and played 17 games, scoring three points, with the big club before he was sent the QMJHL, where he didn't have an ideal finish to the campaign, quitting after he was benched for undisciplined play in the playoffs. He's 19-years-old and certainly possesses the size and skill to be an NHL player, so it may just take some time and maturity before he's ready to make his mark.

A second-round pick last summer, Damon Severson finished a strong season in the WHL, with Kelowna before playing a couple games (and recording a couple points) with Albany. He's 18-year-old and there are several on the depth chart ahead of him, but a few years from now, Severson could be a really nice piece on the Devils' blueline.

6-foot-5 blueliner Alexander Urbom has three seasons of AHL development and has played 14 games with the Devils, yet is still just 22. He should contend for a job in New Jersey next season.

A 6-foot-4 defenceman with offensive skill, Eric Gelinas can still use some work on his game without the puck, but the 22-year-old is making progress and saw his first NHL action last season. His bit shot from the point could be an asset to New Jersey's power play, but if Gelinas doesn't make the team right out of camp, he is a prime candidate to fill in for injuries.

There are lots of things that 19-year-old Reid Boucher can work on as he embarks on his pro career, but his calling card already is his ability to shoot the puck and his knack around the net. He scored 62 goals in 68 games for Sarnia and added three goals and five points in 11 games with Albany in late-season AHL action. With a couple of years in the AHL, he could be one of New Jersey's better options up front.

A solid winger who had modest scoring totals in his first AHL season, 24-year-old Harri Pesonen earned a four-game audition with New Jersey late in the year. If the Devils need depth up front, he's a prime candidate for a call-up.

Drafted in the sixth round in 2011, Reece Scarlett has added more offence to his game in the two years since, scoring 98 points in 138 games. He'll need time to get stronger before he's ready to challenge for a spot.

If goaltending is a problem at the NHL level, Keith Kinkaid may be the top in-house solution. The 23-year-old has good size and received the starter's workload in the AHL, but he has a .905 save percentage in two AHL seasons; not exactly busting down the door for a spot in the NHL.

Brandon Burlon was a second-round pick in 2008 and made some nice progress in his second AHL season. He's a strong skater, but has plenty of competition among New Jersey's defence prospects.

DRAFT
9th - Sean Monahan, Bo Horvat, Max Domi.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Devils have approximately $38.2M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 14 players.

Check out my possible Devils lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: Four top nine forwards, two top four defencemen, goaltending.

What I said the Devils needed last year: Three top nine forards, two top four defencemen, two goaltenders.

They added: Stefan Matteau, Krystofer Barch.

TRADE MARKET
Jacob Josefson, Henrik Tallinder, defence prospects.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.



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