Watching the Stanley Cup Finals now, I can't help but think how it should be us. We should be watching the Devils battle the Red Wings right now, and we very well might be had the team not decided to sit back as if they still had the likes of Stevens and Daneyko to save the day. But now that the offseason is unfortunately upon us, I’d like to try placing myself in the GM’s chair with regard to the decisions that need to be made. Here is what I would do in dealing with free agency and why.
Oduya should be priority #1 for the Devils this offseason. Rather underrated, and the only major piece of our defense set to become unrestricted, he will command—and deserves—a significant raise from the $600,000 he made in ‘08-’09, and will deserve every penny of it. He’s only going to get better, and with every team needing good offensive defensemen, we’d be wise to lock him up now. Taking a look at our defense, keeping him together with Paul Martin will be critical in the coming years.
Zajac is set to become a restricted free agent, and Lou has already said he will make every effort to sign him long term. He and Zach Parise are our one-two punch of the future, and he should be treated and signed as such. His play dropped off toward the end, but early on in the season, he really broke free from his sophomore slump, and as he ages his play will become more consistent. With his new contract, however, he should be given a gym membership. He really needs to get stronger to become more effective.
I have nothing against Gionta, but this is a conditional “keep,” the condition being how much money he wants. Lou will have his maximum value set well in advance, and should Gionta want more, we can use his cap room for better things, while giving offensive youngsters like Nicklas Bergfors the chance to finally prove themselves in the proper environment, i.e. NOT 6 minutes a night on the fourth line, as was the case early this year. Gionta is a tireless worker who needs to produce more, but if he stays at the right price, it will be worth giving him that chance.
This is another conditional “keep,” and for the same reason. Madden is one of the best defensive forwards in the game, an alternate captain, and an all-around team player. He is without a doubt one of our core players who must be re-signed, but only at the right price. Unfortunately, Jay Pandolfo is making $2.5 mil per year, which may dictate what Madden will ask for. It is hard to believe Madden and Gionta will both be back, but individually it should depend on how what they want will fit into our cap structure.
An upcoming RFA, Greene has followed up a potential-filled first year with a couple of steadily improving performances. Greene is a keeper as long as he will not be relied upon to play like a top-four defensemen. Andy Greene is a third-pairing defensemen at best, and should be paid as such. No need to break the bank on him, if he really thinks he’s worth more then let him go, but as a member of the 5-6 pair on defense, you can’t do much better.
Rupp is in a conditional state as well. Pierre-Luc Leblond has emerged as a replacement, and although Rupp has the size advantage, Leblond may prove to be cheaper. Time will tell, but I am fine with either one of these two players or both returning. Someone needs to give David Clarkson some backup.
Like Nicklas Bergfors, Vrana deserves to play in the role he was designed for, which is not low-minute nights on the fourth line. Sign him and keep a spot for him open, especially if John Madden will not be returning. Vrana has always been called a mini-Madden, and if John thinks he’s worth more money than we’re offering, now would be the perfect time to begin grooming Vrana for the role long-term.
(note: Vrana has reportedly signed with a contract to go play in the Czech League, therefore taking him out of the situation. It's too bad, I really think this was the year he made the team for good.)
You were waiting for this one, weren’t you? Which goalie to keep when both are UFA’s? Weekes will require less money, and is the ultimate teammate when he’s not playing. Unlike Clemmensen, he has no delusions of being a starter anymore. Clemmensen, meanwhile, has played phenomenal, but wants to become a full-time starter now, and that opportunity cannot come in New Jersey. I will say this, however: if Clemmensen is willing to sign on as Marty’s full-time backup again, then I would keep Clemmensen instead. I just doubt that is going to happen
I love what Leblond brought to the lineup this year, and I think he is on the verge of becoming a full-timer. He is most likely a cheaper option than Mike Rupp, and should be signed long-term. Leblond will prove to be a key building block for the future.
Havelid is, by far, the worst trade deadline acquisition in Devils history. Sure, it looked good at the time, but he just never fit in on this team. Always out of position, always making stupid plays that you wouldn’t expect a veteran to make. I will personally drive him to the airport if it means he never has to appear in a Devils uniform again for the rest of time.
(note: Havelid has signed a contract to play in Sweden next year. Thank you dear god.)
It’s time for Holik to inform the post office that his mail is to no longer be forwarded to the Devils penalty box. His stupid penalties cost us far too many times this year, and if we honestly expect to have a better fate next season, there’s no way he can be part of that.
(note: Holik has officially retired. He knew all along he wasn't coming back apparently.)
You can read the explanation above under why we should keep Kevin Weekes, but I will summarize by saying that if Clemmensen decides he is willing to return as Marty’s backup, I’d rather keep him. I just don’t believe he is willing to do that.
I put him here because he’s probably going to retire anyway, but also because we’re a very old team right now, and that’s how you get yourself into salary cap trouble. I loved the concept of Shanahan coming back for this year to help us make a run, but now we need to start getting younger like everyone else. If, at the end of the summer, we have the cap room to bring him back for one more season, however, I am not opposed to it.
Let me just clarify that I do not expect every single player on the keep list to return next season. Many of them are on there because they should be considered for being kept, but with the salary cap situation the way it is, all of them will not be brought back, nor should they. For example, Madden is on there because it would be great if he stays, but Vrana is up there because it’s very likely that Madden will choose to leave. So interpret the list with caution.
So now that we did all that, what do we need to add to make the 2010 Devils even better? The key is defense, defense, defense. If this year taught us anything, it’s that you cannot rely on a group of minor-leaguers to fill out an NHL defense. Our top four of Martin, Oduya, Salvador, and White were capable, but those last two spots need a serious upgrading. It’s not that Mottau played bad, but our top six needs to be stronger and more talented. I would focus my efforts this summer on signing a veteran stalwart defenseman, who can give our backline a higher profile. Stay-at-home or puck-mover, it doesn’t really matter. The bottom line is that any effort in free agency should be spent on making our defense corps far better.
Other than that, I like the pieces we have, and as long as some of those prospects that have been stewing in the minors for four or five years finally get the chance to prove themselves, I don’t think we need to do a whole lot else.