July 1st is less than a week away and the NHL Entry Draft is hours away. Rumors seem abundant for 29 other teams in the NHL, while what little news regarding the Devils is scarce and broad. Is this another instance of the Devils living up to their reputation of confidentiality or Lou sitting on his you know what picking his fingernails?
We all know who the members of the Devil's upcoming free agent entourage are and what their roles mean to the team. For the most part, there's a split in who we as fans seem to be happy, indifferent, or upset about leaving. Unless Lou has been maintaining covert negotiations and plans for the summer, it looks like none of the team's unrestricted free agents are returning for the 2009-2010 campaign. Assuming this is true or at least one or two players stay, the roster will have a lot of open slots available.
It looks like the Devils are on the path towards an interesting predicament. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe the Devils have something between $14 million- $17 million in cap room to play with this summer, assuming they don't re-sign their unrestricted free agents. As the team stands, many would agree the Devils are in serious need of improving their defense, a weakness that was exposed at the end of the season and in the playoffs. The offense was solid this season and produced its highest output in years, but is currently set to lose four roster players, having already lost one to retirement.
Like I said, many would agree the Devils are in serious need of strengthening their defense, but considering the losses they could amount up front at least makes me sit back and think where the Devils should primarily focus on improving, assuming Lou actually plans on doing something this summer. With the salary cap and pending availability of quality players, Lou would likely be able to only significantly improve either or. Realistically, I can see Lou making his usual mediocre signings along with adding a rookie or two into the mix, which would probably make the Devils no better than they are now.
On defense, Paul Martin and Johnny Odyua, who is currently becoming an unrestricted free agent, are the Devils top defensemen. On most teams and teams of Devil's past, these two are second pair defensemen at best. New Jersey's defense has repeatedly been described as mediocre, which was proven at the most important times for the team. With Niclas Havelid signing in Sweden and Johnny Odyua's status unchanged, it leaves the defense in a worse position now than last summer. With Paul Martin as the No. 1 man, the Devil's defense would consist of Colin White, Bryce Salvador, Mike Mottau, and Andy Greene. Overall, this is a below average defense with virtually no offensive presence, not to mention a relatively old assembly as well. Martin and Mottau are entering their contract years, combining for over $5 million in salary next season, while Salvador and White are under contract for three more years, combining for around $6 million.
Over $11 million is tied between four players making it hard to make any meaningless subtractions to make room for a huge addition. The defensemen under contract are serviceable, but don't fulfill the team's needs for the blue line. They are in need of a puck moving defensemen and a shot from the point. Such commodities are currently available, but come at a price whether they can be signed or traded. It is numerically possible to fit the salary of such a blue liner or two under the cap and improve the defense at the cost of keeping their under contract defensemen and probably using up most of the cap space, which would prevent the Devils from acquiring justifiable replacements for the departures of their forwards.
If this is the case, the losses amounted on offense would probably be replaced by rookies and an affordable mediocre or below average signing or two. Although I think giving the kids a shot is a plus, you don't want to take it to the point where you unintentionally set your team up to take a step back when they have the main assets to remain competitive. As rookies learn and develop, the Devils would probably be a low scoring team with one legitimate scoring line that would be easy for opponents to shut down, and have no reliable support for Patrik Elias, who would end up with an output similar to his from two and three seasons ago. With so much reliance on youth, there is also no guarantee how skilled these players will be if they end up being any good at all.
On the other hand if Lou is active and reliable this summer, what if he focuses on the offense? As it stands, the Devils would have vacancies in a second line wing and center (if you want to be technical about it), a third line center, and have no fourth line. Assembling a fourth line is effortless and irrelevant to time, where mediocre signings and relying on youth is appropriate. Unless Lou turns to the rookies, finding a third and second line center and wing is where skill is relevant and how much he is willing to pay for it. If Lou wants to keep the Devils competitive, he has the opportunity this summer to fill those voids with equal or greater talent than their previous occupants. That means finding legitimate players and throwing big bucks over an extensive period of time at them in exchange for their services.
Ominously, the "however" that was foreshadowed comes into play. If you focus on solidifying the offense, any remaining cap space won't be enough to improve a weaker or unchanged defense that was the main reason behind the past two consecutive first round playoff exits and late season losing streaks. With so many changes up front, there is no guarantee that players will click instantaneously and form consistent chemistry with each other, which would lead the team to struggle in the beginning or better part of the season. If this is the situation, the best additions on defense would be any youth that can be salvaged from the minors, whose inexperience would be greatly exposed in their first year or two on a mediocre or below average blue line that is the ultimate line of defense for an aging goaltender, who I would not be surprised plays 70-75 games this upcoming campaign.
What I am trying to say is the Devils have opportunities this summer to significantly improve their offense and defense, respectively and potentially at a cost. There are advantages, disadvantages, risks, and realisms involved in solely improving certain parts of the team, whose effects can benefit and break the Devils regular season success and chances at making a deep playoff run in 2010.
Some league ramblings...
So many rumors out there, but it seems to me we hear about the same teams and the same players. This summer, I have a dark horse that I would bet money on, is going to surprise the hockey world and make some sort of jaw dropping splash. That team is the Washington Capitals. My reasoning is, their roster remained virtually unchanged since last summer and the departures of Sergei Federov and Victor Koslov leave a pair of voids on offense. I'm assuming the Caps have plenty of available cap space, which I can see them taking advantage of to obtain some reliable support for Ovechkin up front and/or on defense.
At this year's NHL Entry Draft, there are a couple of big names rumored to be dealt during. Three that come to mind are Danny Heatley, Thomas Kaberle, and Chris Pronger. My questions are out of these three, who do you think is most likely to be traded first, who do you think is most likely to not be traded at all, and are there any chances two of these three could wind up on the same team? The future is unpredictable and uncertain. What's so great about the unknown is that anything can become of it.
On the Heatley front, a thought came to mind. Wherever he may end up and depending on the team's cap situation this coming season and next summer, when Illya Kovalchuk can become an unrestricted free agent, could it be possible that Heatley's destination has any influence on where Kovalchuk might want to sign or be traded to is he's viable to do so? Heatley and Kovalchuk put up good numbers in Atlanta and gave the organization a lot of recognition. I could see Kovalchuk willing to reunite with Heatley to try and achieve success together on a different team that they could not achieve in Atlanta.