With the playoffs drawing to an end, a lot of questions surround the New Jersey Devils as the beginning of the off-season nears. The major questions being asked by fans, bloggers, and analysts are mainly routine questions that come up every year, but there are a few that stand out more than others, whose outcomes can affect this Devils team in different ways.
What is going to happen to Brent Sutter?
Sutter was the first coach since Pat Burns to complete two full seasons behind the Devil's bench. When he was hired, everyone deemed the beginning of the "Brent Sutter Era" in New Jersey, thinking we finally found our long term coach. There were even talks that Sutter might be the successor of Lou Lamoriello when he retires. If things go the way they're going, the Brent Sutter era looks like it may last no longer than an American congressman term. We've read the headlines. Brent Sutter admitted he is considering stepping down and not returning for the final year of his contract because he misses his life back in Red Deer, Alberta. I understand what Brent is going through and respect his feelings. Brent misses his family and wants to be with them, especially with his daughter entering senior year in high school. Brent is obviously a committed family man with sentimental values, but if he does not return, I think the team is losing the best thing that happened to them in years. They benefited from his system phenomenally this season, he is respected in the locker room, and got the best efforts out of his players. As it stands, it does not look like Sutter will return to New Jersey for the 2009-2010 campaign, a hard blow for the team to take. If that's the case, who will replace him? Odds are it will be John MacLean, who has patiently waited for the spot for the past couple of seasons. MacLean is no Brent Sutter, but it seems he'll be the only one willing to take the job because I doubt anybody else will considering the history New Jersey has with coaches.
Is there any chance the Devils can re-sign Scott Clemmensen?
Clemmensen proved his worth this season and showed he has a shot at becoming a No. 1 goalie. The overwhelming odds point to Clemmensen bee lining out of Newark to a team where he is guaranteed a shot at becoming a full time starter, because we all know he will never get that opportunity in New Jersey. Despite the likeliness, what can Lou do to keep Clemmer in a Devil's jersey for a couple more years? Marty is 37-years old and is not the dominant force he once was. Clemmensen is younger and the time he spent in New Jersey, along with his surprising breakout season makes him the perfect man to split goaltending duties with Marty. For Clemmensen to stay in New Jersey, I think the only things that can convince him stay is a substantial salary increase, and a guarantee he will appear in at least 20-40 games a year. Apparently, Clemmensen's mindset is becoming a full time starter, the No. 1 guy on a team. While re-signing Clemmensen would benefit the Devils greatly, I don't blame Clemmer for putting his interests first.
What improvement needs the most focus?
After the way it ended for the Devils, the answer should be clear...Defense! Defense! Defense! The days of Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens. Ken Danyeko, and Brian Rafalski are long gone and Paul Martin and Johnny Odyua are good defensemen, but are not No. 1 material. Our defense has been mediocre for two seasons, which has taken its toll on the team's success. The team's offense appears to have solidified this year as the Devils finished top ten in scoring, and 14th in power play percentage. With no promising impact prospects in the minors, Lou needs to actually go out and acquire one or two top defensemen. I know I sound like a broken record, but look at the facts. The teams who went deep in the playoffs the past two seasons have identifiable No. 1 and 2 defensemen patrolling their blue lines. When you have a tired aging goalie, the defense is the main and last line of defense before he gets tested. A couple of hard shots from the point would help too. The defense scored 21 goals as a whole this season, the highest being seven by Johnny Odyua...some defensemen scored more than that this season alone! Improving our defensive corps this year is imperative and when I mean improve, I mean with quality, not quantity!
Are we in for a very different or another indifferent off-season?
We know a typical Lou off-season. His big free agents leave, he waits two or three days to respond, signs a third or fourth line wing, a third pair defenseman, waits last minute to sign his RFAs, and creates the illusion we have a Stanley Cup team going into the season. Nonetheless, each off-season has been unique in its own way for the Devils and this upcoming one is no different. With John Madden, Brian Gionta, Johnny Odyua, Brendan Shanahan, and Mike Rupp set to become UFAs, the salary cap prevents the Devils from bringing everybody back, if they want to. Between Madden and Gionta, it is unlikely both will return next season, which leaves at least one major roster spot open. The situation with Odyua will be fun to watch, whose future with the team depends on the salary he demands. The way I see it, this upcoming summer is a make or break opportunity for Lou and the Devils. Who Lou will re-sign, if he plans on signing any UFAs, or if he is going young next season is unknown. I know Devils fans are fantasizing about Jay Bouwmeester, Marian Hossa, and Marian Gaborik in Devils jerseys next season and seeing players like Danius Zubrus and Colin White playing elsewhere. Great as it would be, we all know such actions go against Lou's "philosophy", no matter how much it would benefit the team. One thing for certain is changes should come in the upcoming months with the roster situation the Devils have. What these changes are and how they affect the team will determine if we experience a different or indifferent off-season.
Overall, how can the Devils 2008-2009 campaign be ranked?
There is a lot to consider. Problems plagued the Devils from the start, injuries to players like Brian Rolston, Bobby Holik, Paul Martin, and Martin Brodeur. The team banded together and finished third in the conference. The offense had its most productive output in three years, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Jamie Langenbrunner had career years, Patrik Elias had a comeback season, and the power play improved tremendously. Scott Clemmensen will be remembered for stepping in when Brodeur was injured, and Marty returned to break the all-time wins record. It's not all that glamorous. The Devils failed to improve significantly for the playoffs at the trade deadline and suffered a six game losing streak at the season's end that should have cost them the division title. Then the playoffs started...need I say more. Although the 2008-2009 campaign ended bitterly, a lot of good came out of this season...however the latter half of the regular season and the playoffs still leave a bitter taste in my mouth. Overall, one could argue the outcome of this season was unlike any other Devils season since the lockout. They were definitely a better team than last year, but their weaknesses were greatly exposed at the worst times. Although another division banner gets raised to the rafters and they appeared in the playoffs for the twelfth consecutive year, my letter grade for the Devil's 2008-2009 campaign is a B-. There more highs than lows this season, but the outcomes of the lows resulted in monumental consequences that cannot be overlooked.