John has done a great analysis on Ilya Kovalchuk and the free agent centers who could conceivably be targets for the Devils, but a question which really needs to be considered first is, "Should the Devils spend to the cap limit this year?"
The big issue is the need to re-sign free agents NEXT summer, namely Zach Parise and Andy Greene. Whereas the summer of 2012 will bring HUGE cap relief with Rolston, White, and Salvador coming off the books (and Marty taking a likely pay cut to finish his career with a few more years with the Devils), the summer of 2011 comes first and will be difficult to navigate. Zach currently earns 3.125 mil and is going to command a pay raise of 3-5 mil. Whether Zach has a good year or a bad year probably won't affect his cap number. We all hope he does the selfless thing and only asks for around 6.5, a la Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Toews, and Kane, but Lou has to be prepared for the possibility that Zach asks for 8 mil, because that is what franchise cornerstones make in today's NHL. Humor me and let me assume that Zach gets a 3.875 mil pay raise to make it an even 7 mil.
Then let's consider what Andy Greene would have to be paid if he replicates the success of last season. He currently earns a paltry $737,500. Last summer, Lou paid 3.5 mil for 3 years to keep Johnny Oduya. Andy carried the Devils D-corps while Martin was out and looks, for at least one season, like a more complete player than Oduya. Realistically, I don't think he will have as good a year as he did last season, but again, you prepare for the possibility. And the possibility is that he earns himself a raise ranging wildly from 1.5 if he returns to the Andy Greene of old to 4 million dollars a year if he starts looking like the second coming of Brian Rafalski. My guess is that he has a decent year and earns himself something similar to Oduya money - 3 mil a year more than he is making now.So those two players will likely command raises of almost 7 million dollars, which is enough money to buy you a player like Kovalchuk or Marleau. The Devils' other free agents-to-be in the summer of 2011 are Jamie Langenbrunner (2.8M), Jay Pandolfo (2.5M), Vladimir Zharkov (850K, RFA), Matt Corrente (821.7K), Anssi Salmela (612.5K, RFA), and Andrew Peters (500K). The last four are playing for a trifle more than the league minimum, so letting them walk wouldn't bring any cap relief (a couple of them they may even play their way to a raise). You could easily let Pandolfo walk, but you'd only save 2 mil by signing a player at the league minimum salary to replace his roster spot. And say what you will about Langenbrunner's late-season tantrum - he has provided terrific value at 2.8M, can contribute anywhere from the 1st line to the 3rd line, and he's our best right winger. I would expect him to be re-signed at a similar cap number for 3 more years, and even if you replaced him with a younger player, again you'd only save 2 mil.
In sum, if you make a multiyear pitch to a big-ticket UFA like Marleau or Kovalchuk at 7 mil a year and spend up to the cap limit, you can let Pandolfo walk and replace him with a league minimum player, you can let Langenbrunner walk and replace him with a prospect, and the salary cap could go up a generous 2 mil and you'd STILL be short a million dollars to compensate Parise and Greene appropriately. Alternatively, you could make a multiyear pitch to a less-proven UFA center and spend about 3-4 mil short of the cap, hope for a 2 mil bump in the salary cap next year, and perhaps be able to keep this center, Langenbrunner, Parise, and Greene all in the fold next summer. But what if the players ask for more money than you expect? You'd have to let either Langenbrunner or Greene walk, and their contributions will be difficult to replace with prospects.
I don't think it would be wise to sign a free agent center to a multiyear contract worth more than $2.0M - and you can't get a good checking center for that kind of money, much less a second-line center. The solution, in my mind, is to target less desirable, older free agents who would be willing to take a one-year contract (i.e. over 35 years of age, since younger players will not settle for a one-year contract). The issue isn't the amount of money you give, it's the term of the contract. I would have no problem with spending to the cap limit - as long as you have 6-7 mil worth of expiring contracts at the end of this season (including Pandolfo's, but not Langenbrunner's)
We also need to give guys like Tedenby, Josefson, and two out of the trio of Corrente, Eckford, and Urbom enough ice time to develop appropriately over the next two seasons. I know this sounds like a "rebuild", but the fact of the matter is that in the new NHL you need to develop good young talent that can handle the spotlight. Keeping the status quo and injecting some youth into the team may not give you a bona fide Stanley Cup contender this year, but this team will make the playoffs and who knows, anything is possible once you make the playoffs.
Don't get me wrong, this team definitely needs a makeover, but the summer of 2012 is the time to give this team that makeover, because that's when bad contracts come off the books. You don't want to be stuck in a salary cap squeeze in 2011 and be left having to let go of players who give you great value. By 2012, Tedenby and Josefson will be comfortable in a second-line role. You can go get yourself a stud defenseman, a nice complementary (not superstar) scoring right winger, and still have money left to fill in the holes that will inevitably happen when players don't develop as quickly as you would like. In 2012 your lines would look like this, giving you tremendous scoring depth on three lines and a youthful, puck-moving presence from the backend:
Zubrus/Clarkson on the fourth line
Stud, Martin, Greene, Urbom, Corrente, Eckford
In 2013, Elias will re-sign for less money than he is being paid now, Zubrus will come off the books, and you can use that money to bring in another scoring right winger (leaving you with elias and langenbrunner on the 3rd line), fill in a hole on D, or to groom Marty's successor. The return to dominance is not far off, friends, but it does take some patience. I welcome your comments and criticisms.
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