The tough decisions that Devils GM Lou Lamoriello (and Jeff Vanderbeek) must be careful with

It is safe to say every member of In Lou We Trust is aware of Zach Parise's contract, and if you're not, here it is in a nutshell: Parise is in the final year of his current deal, he makes $5 million this season, and his cap hit is $3.125 million.  Because he is not an unrestricted free agent (this is his sixth season in the NHL), the New Jersey Devils would have the opportunity of matching any offers that other teams make to try to sign the all-star winger, however if the Devils somehow lost Parise to free agency, they would likely receive four first round draft picks in upcoming drafts, as long as his cap hit was more than $5.3 million in his new contract.  With that said, Parise is a presence with the Devils, he has become one of the favorites not only in New Jersey, but across the United States, as he was briefly the U.S.'s Olympic hero in Vancouver earlier in 2010.  Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello faces a lot of difficult decisions in the near future regarding his hockey team, and Parise leads topics of discussion.  The first topic, however, may not be as publicized.

Lou Lamoriello has always had his share of 'power' during his reign atop the Devils' franchise, and most owners have not interfered with Lou's train of thought.  That may not be the case anymore.  Jeff Vanderbeek, who has been a season ticket holder with the Devils for over 20 years, wants to be involved in everything. He meets fans at Penn Station to hand out playoff rally towels, he walks through the Championship Plaza to greet fans with Devils' alumni, he created a road tour that held Q&A sessions and he is certainly making his presence known regarding on-ice happenings.  It is fair to say that Vanderbeek cares about the organization, and wants to take the franchise to the next a franchise. The thing with Vanderbeek is that he wants to make the Devils'name prominent in the metro area.  He sees Ranger fans at the Prudential Center during games between the Devils and Rangers, he knows that once you get to Long Beach Island or so, Philadelphia Flyers fans own most of southern New Jersey.  This does not sit well with the Devils' owner.  Vanderbeek has also learned from the best, George Steinbrenner himself, when both worked for the YankeeNets company that owned many of the metro area's sports teams, including the Devils.  Technically speaking, Steinbrenner owned the Devils and Vanderbeek owned the New York Yankees...sort of.

In order to market a franchise, there must be marketable pieces. You could argue that General Motors (had) the Hummer to appeal to consumers looking for off-road and larger trucks, while also providing the Corvette for sports car enthusiasts, plus sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and of course, sedans.  To a certain extent, Jeff Vanderbeek is trying to make the Devils more appealing to the casual hockey fan, or maybe even appeal to a sports fan living in the metro area that would not normally be interested in hockey.  Since hockey's biggest stars (i.e. Ovechkin, Crosby, Kane, etc.) are locked up long-term and not going anywhere, Vanderbeek went after the biggest free agent prize early: Ilya Kovalchuk.  Twice a 50-goal scorer and with over 330 goals to his credit since 2001, Kovalchuk became the first 1st overall pick (2001) to ever play for the Devils franchise, and (February 4th, 2010) as of the date he was acquired by the Devils, no Devil had ever had as many goals at the time of a trade (31).  Lou Lamoriello drove down to Washington D.C. (Kovalchuk's' Thrashers were in D.C. at the time) and picked he and Anssi Salmela up (Salmela was also acquired in the trade) himself.  Lamoriello stated that it was his decision to acquire the Russian sniper and that his team needed a dynamic offensive presence on the team.  It did not show and Kovalchuk finished his season (27 games) with 10 goals and 17 assists with the Devils, but was a +8 defensive rating.  Unfortunately for him, his team was eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs (Kovalchuk had 6 points in 5 playoff games).

The summer that followed was one of the more interesting, confusing and at times frustrating summers in recent memory for hockey fans.  Once the complicated Kovalchuk contract was finally settled (if you must re-live the details, search the archives), it was clear that Lou Lamoriello was throwing all of his eggs into one basket and trying to win, and win now.  Lamoriello knows that Patrik Elias, Martin Brodeur and Brian Rolston are getting older (nobody's really getting younger...), and captain Jamie Langenbrunner's contract expires following the 2010-11 season as well as then recently-acquired Jason Arnott's contract.  In addition, surprise defenseman Andy Greene is also anticipating free agency.  But how much of the "summer of Kovy" was Lou Lamoriello?  Signing shot-blocking and incredibly physical Anton Volchenkov made lots of sense, considering the Devils' roots, and Lamoriello also turned to Henrik Tallinder to replace the absent Mike Mottau and Paul Martin.  Backup goaltender Johan Hedberg was signed to a heavy $1.5 million contract, which had many believing Martin Brodeur's duties would be limited (through 18 games, it is certainly not appearing that way) and John MacLean was brought in to bring more offense to the New Jersey Devils, which made sense considering the parts the team had.  Parise, Elias, Langenbrunner, Zajac, even David Clarkson, now Ilya Kovalchuk was added long-term to the mix.  What could go wrong?  Following a long run into the playoffs, the Devils would let Langenbrunner and Arnott go to clear salary cap space for Parise and then lock him up for the rest of his career.

Well, Jeff Vanderbeek opened his checkbook and shelved away $100 million for Kovalchuk...for 15 years.  The fact that many reported that Lou Lamoriello knew that the initial 17-year contract would be rejected is enough evidence to believe that Kovalchuk was Vanderbeek's prize.  After all, this was a player Vanderbeek could market around, and with Zach Parise already on board, the team could become an offensive powerhouse comparable to Washington's forwards, Pittsburgh's forwards and Chicago's forwards.  Jersey's team still has a new arena in the Prudential Center and Vanderbeek put a lot of effort into adding Championship Plaza to the site.  Now that Kovalchuk was a Devil, practically for life, all he needed was a taste of Lord Stanley's Cup.  But something seemed wrong.  Lou Lamoriello gets what he wants.  It frustrates NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, because the Devils did win in a very systematic, defensive way for years, and Bettman hated every minute of it.  Bettman went as far as locking the entire league out just to frustrate the Devils by making rule changes (okay, slight exaggeration...) that took away many of the Devils' weapons.  From the trapezoid to new penalty calls and even the salary cap, which indirectly led to Scott Niedermayer's departure from the Devils organization, nothing went right off-ice for the Devils after the 2004-05 lockout.  But through all of that, Lou Lamoriello could find a way to get what he wanted.  The fact that he submitted a contract that got rejected and then had the organization get fined because of that contract is very un-Lou-like.

Lou Lamoriello now faces a decision.  The Devils have become an older team (when healthy), despite a talented young core of forwards.  Does Lamoriello want to continue to build this New Jersey team that is struggling so mightily at present, knowing that his owner is watching his every move over his shoulder?  Maybe Lamoriello is in his swan song, and once his current contract with the Devils is up, he'll be done.  Perhaps he is setting up Chris Lamoriello to assume duties once he is finished, or maybe (this is a stretch) Vanderbeek is going to be the next Jerry Jones.  Vanderbeek was an athlete too, while not professional, he knows what it takes to build a team, but will he desire to put a marketing stamp on the organization hamper his on-ice success?

Regardless of who the general manager of the Devils is moving forward, the team faces many difficult decisions in the short-term.  First of all, with Parise's contract situation still looming, the Devils need to look at the situation at hand and determine what the best way to move forward really is for this franchise as a whole.  Do the Devils have enough pieces in place to keep pushing forward?  Would clearing cap space for one puck-moving defensemen or a new head coach solve this team's current problems?  Should the Devils re-sign Parise and then spend a year or two rebuilding the defense and forward groups, or even do it without Parise or is there a full "blowup" in the near future?  Well, whatever the case may be, an answer must be found sooner rather than later, because if nobody gets traded and the team does not make a playoff run, it will be damaging to this franchise.

With just five wins in eighteen tries this season, the Devils are buried deep in the standings, although still within reach of a playoff spot.  Considering how injuries have plagued this team since training camp (Bryce Salvador, Anton Volchenkov, Jacob Josefson, Matt Corrente, Mark Fraser, Zach Parise, Brian Rolston, even Langenbrunner, Brodeur and others with shorter injuries), nobody has truly been given a chance to see the group of players Lamoriello intended to put on the ice at the same time yet.  Additionally, there is obvious talent on the Devils' roster, considering that Ilya Kovalchuk has not scored less than 40 goals since he scored 38 in his second NHL season, Parise has scored 45 goals and 38 goals leading up to this season, and Travis Zajac had just one assist fewer than Jonathan Toews of the Cup champion Blackhawks (both scored 25 goals, both were the same +/- rating).  That does not include Langenbrunner, who despite his age, usually gets to 55-60 points and the franchise's all-time leading scorer Patrik Elias still on the roster.  Defensively, the team looked as strong, if not stronger than the previous season that won the Jennings trophy for best team defense.  Volchenkov and Salvador block tons of shots, Tallinder brings size to the blue-line, Andy Greene was coming off of an upstart season, while other younger defensemen filled in the vacant spots.  Despite losing Paul Martin and Mottau to free agency, the Devils did not have Martin's services for 50 games last season, so how could this group not at least mirror the previous season's stats, especially considering Martin Brodeur did not appear to be slowing down.

Looking at the big picture, Zach Parise continues to highlight the Devils' priorities as the season rolls on.  If the Devils are to undergo a rebuilding process, even without the full blowup, will Parise be a part of it?  Is Parise worth more than four first round draft picks to the franchise?  While scouts say the 2011 NHL Entry draft may not be as strong as the 2010 draft was (a draft that the Devils did not have a first round pick for), but there will be young talent for the taking, and the Devils need to put Parise into perspective.  What is the best way to move forward in the short-term and long-term?  If the Devils lose Parise, does that set Vanderbeek's marketing efforts back at all?  Obviously the loss of Parise could set the Devils back on-ice, at which point trading franchise cornerstones such as Elias and Brodeur must be considered, especially since both players could potentially draw at least a 2nd round draft pick each (that is probably optimistic, but that is my standard).  Right now, the Devils need to get younger, since the trend in the NHL has become youth.  Speed and youth dominate the league's successful teams, and maybe the Devils see something in that and will wait for teams like Pittsburgh, Washington, Chicago, even the Ducks, Islanders and Oilers (Toronto too?!) to age and then add younger players to the Devils' roster.  The truth is, with the Devils, Vanderbeek or Lamoriello, nobody really knows where they will go from here.  What is known is that whatever direction the Devils move in within the next one to three years could dictate the team's long-term success.  Maybe it's time to put the marketing on hold and rebuild, or maybe it's time to market now and win now.  It is a difficult decision that management cannot afford to run away from, but the "wait and see" approach has expired.  It's time to DO something.

The Devils have talent, and depending on how the organization decides to build around the current talent, this group of younger players could have long, successful careers in New Jersey.  But this is not the end of the process, it is just the beginning.

All FanPosts and FanShots are the respective work of the author and not representative of the writers or other users of In Lou We Trust.

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