This is a pivotal off season for the New Jersey Devils. After another "red bull" season, the Devil's weaknesses were exposed greatly after the trade deadline and in the playoffs. This, along with the need to hire a head coach, handling the upcoming draft, and his annual free agent situation puts a lot on Lou's plate. This off season may be the most important one for the Devils since the lockout because the Devils can benefit from it or initiate their anticipated downfall.
I could have deemed last summer as the most important off season for the Devils, since they are practically in the same situation now as they were then. The difference between now and last year is there are more options to instill change. With two players already not returning and seven roster players set to become unrestricted free agents July 1st, it leaves a lot of important roster spots open and a lot of cap money to play with. One of the reasons behind the Devil's playoff mishaps is they have relied on the same core of players for almost a decade. In the new NHL, where youth, speed, and skill dominates, the Devils have amounted to tremendous regular season success with a core of aging players, whose decline in skill and stamina shows at the end of the season and continues in the playoffs.
This summer, players like Brian Gionta and John Madden, whose roles have been reduced or were not living up to expectations may be relinquished of their tenure with the team, let alone role. This, along with potential departures from Johnny Odyua, Mike Rupp, Brendan Shannahan, and the two backup goalies present Lou with a set of options that he has experienced perhaps for the first time as general manager.
The way I see it, Lou can do one of four things this summer. He can either re-sign most of his UFAs and leave the roster as it stands, let his UFAs walk, and replace the roster holes with the alleged "pool of prospects" he occasionally raves about, or replace departing players with other UFAs. Odds are Lou will commit to the fourth option, which is a combination of the previous three.
This may pose a problem.
Whenever Lou acquires a player by trade or free agency, it's always a modest addition that won't make the front page of TSN.ca or stun the hockey world. For years, he has been lauded and envied for building teams from within and making small to moderate roster tweaks that were the final touches to championship squads. That method worked back when the Devil's prospect pool was humming and they had a young, energetic, and skilled player core. As the glory of those days fades and the quality of those players whither, the question of change emerges. As the long time core players of the Devils depart and age year after year, Lou's strategy of utilizing the fourth option loses its credibility. It is being viewed as a mere patch job of what should be done and provides a false guarantee of seasonal success.
Currently, the Devils are in a fragile state. It is critical of who stays, goes, and arrives on this team this summer, and what roles they will play. If Lou uses the fourth option once again and suffers another significant loss in player talent to free agency, it could be a recipe for disaster. Guys like Gionta, Madden, and Odyua are viewed as current core players, who know the system, and play it well. If two or all three players walk this summer, it provides another example of the quality of the Devil's core changing for the worse, while the team's philosophy stays the same, especially if their replacements consist of a combination of low end players and one or two upcoming rookies.
What I am trying to say is Lou cannot utilize the fourth option this summer. If he chooses to go with the first option, we should expect a similar outcome next season that we had this season. Lou should either fill his roster holes with other unrestricted free agents or give the kids a chance, while keeping at least one or two of his top free agents. Whether or not this makes or breaks the Devil's 2009-2010 campaign will be determined by the quality of the incoming players and their roles on the team. Change is needed on this team, but sometimes too much change does more harm than good. Despite signing high quality players, the New York Rangers struggled for a good part of this season, mainly due to their inability to produce consistent offense, and experienced a first round exit in the playoffs like the Devils. The Tampa Bay Lightning gave their roster a complete makeover and brought in all sorts of different players. They currently have the No. 2 pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
Along with change comes risk, because when you bring several different players on one team, it can take one or several seasons before things start to click and the team produces as a whole. I hope what I said made sense. What I'm trying to say is Lou needs to be very careful about the moves he makes in the upcoming months and consider his roster situation. You would think by now he'd realize trying the same thing and getting the same results year after year put the team in the situation they are now. This summer Lou needs to commit to this team to one path. Either get this team some quality talent for another cup run, or go young and give the roster slots to the youngsters. The window of opportunity is closing quickly for the Devils, whose chances of redeeming their past years were greatly reduced after this year, and could close completely or expand depending on how this team is modified for next year's run.
Some league ramblings...
Right now the biggest question in Devil land is who our next head coach is going to be. It's kind of becoming a theme each summer to see who our new coach is. Anyway, my top five choices are as follows: Guy Carbonneau, Mike Haviland (Just read up on him), John MacLean, Larry Robinson, and Peter Laviolette.
One of the most talked about UFAs this summer is Montreal's Mike Komisarek. I see what people are saying about him and I hear the rumors about teams offering as much as $4-6 million to sign him. I don't see what the big fuss is over him. Yeah he's young (27), 6'4, and is a physical force that'll drop the gloves, but you can get a guy like that anywhere. Looking at his numbers, he does not score much from the point, might average 10-15 points a year, and his +/- throughout his career raises some concern for me. Maybe he's worth $2-3 million, but surely nothing more than that, and I don't think he should be in the Devil's plans for this summer either.
Tomorrow night (Friday, June 12th), the last game of the 2009-2010 NHL campaign will be played in an invigurating game seven between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings. A Stanley Cup Finals game seven is always fun and exciting to watch, and considering the two teams that are competing in it, this one is just about perfect. The beauty of a game seven is the fact that anything can happen in one. Tomorrow is no exception.