NHL Free Agency: New Jersey Devils Preview - Take 2

Now that the NHL Draft is over - and feel free to read through this massive overview in case you'd like to learn more - it's time to turn our attention to free agency.  Which begins on Wednesday.  We finally have a salary cap floor and ceiling set for next season, and now is a good as time as any to recap the Devils' current status.  After this welcoming aside:

WELCOMING ASIDE: If you have visited for the first time over the past few days or for today or for tomorrow (yes, this is a message for the future), I welcome you to SBN and to In Lou We Trust!  Feel free to register, leave your thoughts on what is being discussed either in a comment or more extensive thoughts in a FanPost.  If you'd like to point out a link to something interesting and hockey-related, post a FanShot.   Just keep it clean, age-appropriate, and relevant to the Devils.  I'll have a Rules & Guidelines section later going into further detail.  Until then, welcome and I invite you to join on in the conversation.

The title is not to fool anyone.  I've done a more in-depth preview way back on May 1 of all of the Devils' restricted and unrestricted free agents - that was Take 1.  Therefore, this is Take 2.  Much has changed since May 1.

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Pending UFAs: D Johnny Oduya, RW Brian Gionta, C John Madden, G Scott Clemmensen, G Kevin Weekes, LW/C Mike Rupp, D Niclas Havelid, C Bobby Holik, RW Brendan Shanahan

The Devils finished the 2008-09 season with 9 Unrestricted Free Agents.  However, they currently only have 7 to deal with. The 36 year old defenseman, Niclas Havelid, has transferred over to Europe for next season.  He will play for Linkoping in the Swedish Elite League, according to Gulitti, so he is out of the picture.  Bobby Holik will also not return to the New Jersey Devils, but he will be playing for no team.   Holik has retired from hockey - here's the news post broken by Gulitti and here is a post I had thanking Holik for what he did for the Devils.  Therefore, both of their names are crossed out.

Anyway, this leaves the Devils with 7 UFAs.  And according to Gulitti's post today, he explicitly states that Gionta, Madden, Clemmensen, and Rupp are expecting to field offers.  Johnny Oduya is the team's top UFA priority and while Aftonbladet broke news yesterday that the Devils did re-sign him, Gulitti got a quote from Lou yesterday stating that "nothing has been done" yet.  Still, it is true that the Devils are looking to keep him.

As far as Weekes goes, Chere talked to Weekes, who stated that he wasn't sure if he'll return for next season with New Jersey.  It seems to me that he will likely field offers on Wednesday as well.  Lastly, Shanahan or his agent hasn't said anything one way or another about returning to New Jersey - just that he's playing hockey next season, according to Gulitti.

Why hasn't Lou talked to these guys any earlier?  Well, the salary cap floor and ceiling wasn't announced until Friday afternoon, so no GM knew exactly how much they had to play with, which is fair, in my opinion.

Not Included: RW Barry Tallackson (Group VI) - Minor leaguer, not expected to get a NHL contract anyhow.

Pending RFAs: C Travis Zajac, D Andy Greene, LW Pierre-Luc Leblond-Latourneau, C Petr Vrana

Petr Vrana will play in the Czech Republic next season after a disappointing and injury-plagued 2008-09 campaign. While he got a few games up with New Jersey, he didn't get significant minutes in most of them, so he couldn't prove what he could do on the ice.  And a broken leg cut short his season in Lowell.  According to Gulitti, Vrana will play for Vitkovice of the Czech Extraliga, but the Devils will still hold his rights.  Based on Lou's comments in Gulitti's post, he could still have a future with the Devils.

Pierre-Luc Leblond-Latourneau's name is only crossed off because the Devils actually signed him.  According to Gulitti, it was a three-year deal worth $1.575 million total.  He'll make the minimum NHL salary in the first year, with increases of $25,000 every year.  So he's definitely returning, who knows whether he has a spot on the team.

As far as Zajac and Greene are concerned, Gulitti did report that Lou would give them each qualifying offers.   Lou had to do that by 5 PM today but if he said he was going to do it, I would think he had done so.  My understanding of salary rules means that the qualifying offers must include at least a 5% raise in salary for players making between $600,000 and $1 million (Last year: Greene made $600,000, Zajac made $987,000).  I expect both to get that - much more than that for Zajac - and expect both to return.

Not Included: C Patrick Davis - He is a RFA, but given that he's been with Lowell and will likely remain there, I also wouldn't expect a NHL contract.

Salary Cap Space: According to ESPN, the salary cap floor is set at $40.8 million and the salary cap ceiling is set at $56.8 million.   Based on what NHL Numbers has put together, the Devils have 14 players committed to next season with salaries totaling $40.433 million.   This leaves the Devils with $16.367 million to spend, however, the Devils will have much less than that to spend considering that they have to sign Zajac and Greene and it is not expected (or wise) to spend up to the ceiling for next season.  Assuming Zajac and Greene are signed for a combined $5 million, I think the Devils will spend $6-8 million of what's left.

Projected Budget: The Devils spent $55.919 million last year on players according to NHL Numbers.  I would expect the Devils to spend no more than $55 million. In fact, I'd expect a much lower number in anticipation for a falling salary cap ceiling for 2010-11 as well as having money available for Paul Martin and Zach Parise when their contracts end in the next few years.

Key Needs:  The Devils need to upgrade their defense, preferbly with an offensive or two-way defenseman. It is the one type of player the Devils do not have on their blueline.  Up front, fans want to see an upgrade over Dainius Zubrus at centering the second scoring line.  But the needs will really be guided by who does and does not come back to New Jersey. The Devils also need a backup goaltender with both of them being UFAs.  Nobody huge, just someone who can step in and do well occasionally.  Preferbly a veteran.  Oh, and while it's not technically a free agency need, the Devils need to hire a new head coach.

Additional thoughts

Defense: Should the Devils not be able to grab a proper two-way/offensive defenseman, just another top 4 capable defenseman who would be an improvement on Mike Mottau would be very useful.  If the Devils can't keep Oduya, they will need to find a top pairing defender among a FA group that doesn't have too many of those.  Again, keeping Oduya is quite important.

Offense: The Devils will have to fill in spots on their fourth line with Holik retiring, with Rupp and Shanahan as question marks. It gets worse if Madden doesn't return. Should the Devils get a second line center, Zubrus could be moved down and fill in at wing or center elsewhere; but don't be too surprised (or unhappy) if Zubrus is still a center on the top two lines at the start of next season. 

Coaching: I would prefer that Lou wait if it means getting a very good coach for the Devils, rather than going out and signing someone just to have a coach on July 1. Yes, not having a coach for those free agent talks could be a problem; but the agents are dealing with Lou, who can easily relay to the agents what type of coaching their clients can expect for 2009-10.  That's my rationalization, and I'm sticking to it.

Potential Targets: Since May, I have done a series of posts on available free agent defensemen and centers that someone think could be a good fit for the Devils.  I took a stab at analyzing each of them, considering their performance, recent history, style of play, and their potential contract.  Among the posts I've done, I would like the Devils to consider the following players (in no order):

Defensemen:  Mattias OhlundRob ScuderiAdrian AucoinMarc-Andre Bergeron, Francois Beauchemin, Dennis Seidenberg

Centers: Saku KoivuManny Malhotra (for 3rd line position), maybe Jason Williams, and if he's willing to go back to center and if his back is OK for one more year: Steve Sullivan

As far as who Lou is actually looking at, well, I couldn't tell you.  Lou keeps that sort of information to himself as to not reveal his intentions too easily.  If you know, you probably work with Lou - and in that case, I'm sure Lou would like you to keep it to yourself. (And if you're reading this Lou, uh, hi! Welcome! Don't mind me, just offering opinion here.)

What Our Rivals Want: Like anyone else, success.  But as far as free agency is concerned...

I would think the Flyers and the Rangers want to have some actual cap space.  The Flyers did make a big trade for Chris Pronger on Friday (great analysis at Broad Street Hockey). Given that the team struggled with fitting all players under the cap, they will be looking to offload some players for some cap relief.  The Rangers have too many bad contracts as it is. Therefore, if they look to sign anyone, I would think they want some bang-for-their-buck players.  Bargains, if you will.  Unless they can move some of those massive contracts, they won't be going after anyone looking for significant money. I am also assuming the front offices of their respective teams also know what they are doing.  Glen Sather may have figured it out by saying "no" to Nik Antropov's demands, according to the NY Post via Blueshirt Banter.

The Islanders got their sexy, star-studded #1 draft pick, but for free agency, I would expect them to at least get a solid, #1A goaltender should Rick DiPietro become injured yet again.    It's one of the options Dominik has at Lighthouse Hockey about the subject and I agree that it's really their only big need. If they can get someone in that role, the team will be much more competitive, no disrespect intended for Joey MacDonald, though. other than that, the re-building continues on the Island.  Perhaps Scott Clemmensen can be that goalie.

The Pittsburgh Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup.  Now that is over with, I think they need to get better on the wings.  Some signings from last season were dire all season long (namely, Miroslav Satan), some just couldn't get it together in the playoffs (e.g. Petr Sykora, Chris Kunitz). The Pens are set at center, yet they would become a much stronger team with more offensively-threatening players next to Crosby and Malkin.  They may want to snag a defensive defenseman should Hal Gill or Rob Scuderi go elsewhere.

My Thoughts Overall: My thoughts from May actually still remain. It's good that Zajac and Greene will be given qualifying offers; and I think the Devils need to re-sign Oduya.  That's the important goal internally.

I would like Madden and Gionta back but only for less money - and I only expect Madden to do that.  Gionta's spot can be taken by Rolston and I'm convincing myself that Rolston will (have to) be better next season. With the Leblond signing, that could be the end of the Mike Rupp Experience in New Jersey as Leblond can provide energy, hits, and punches to the face just as well as Rupp.   I wouldn't mind Shanahan returning for a little money.  I expect someone else to give Clemmensen a shot a playing time and I would like to see Weekes return then; but I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing if the Devils get someone new as the backup.

Outside of the Devils, I'd like to see the Devils go after a two-way defenseman. If they keep Oduya, they can afford to get a player who isn't as sharp or isn't able to play a ton of minutes. That would be ideal.  Of course, it will all happen on Wednesday, so until then - we speculate!

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