2010 Free Agency Primer for the New Jersey Devils

Will Paul Martin return to the New Jersey Devils this summer? Here's hoping. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

It's been a main point of discussion for over 2 months, and on Thursday, July 1, 2010, all of the looming questions, overreaching concerns, and made-up proposals will all be answered, reconciled, and laid to rest.   This Thursday marks the end of the 2009-10 contract year and free agency will open, allowing teams to make official offers to unrestricted free agents.  On Thursday, the offseason truly explodes with activity throughout the league.

The New Jersey Devils have two big free agents that may hit the market this summer: defenseman Paul Martin and trade-deadline acquisition Ilya Kovalchuk.    Of course, much of the discussion has centered on which one the Devils will try to re-sign; who should be re-signed to replace them if necessary; and what other moves the Devils should make.  As both are unrestricted free agents, either one or both may decide to test the market themselves and try to get maximum value for their services.  This is their right as UFAs and such a decision does not necessarily mean Lou made a bad offer or no offer at all; it's entirely up to the player regardless of what Lou does.

The futures of those two in New Jersey are not the only decisions they will have to make.  There are a number of restricted free agents to sign, most notably David Clarkson.  As reported by Tom Gulitti earlier today, all RFAs except for Brad Snetsinger and Myles Stoesz were qualified, so there should be no concern for the Devils to lose any NHL caliber RFAs to the market.

What follows after the jump is a primer of the Devils' free agency situation.  Please feel free to discuss what you think the Devils should do on Thursday, be it which players to try and keep, which players should walk, and how much a player should be re-signed.  Please do not use this post to discuss stupid and unrealistic trade options like the rights of Ilya Kovalchuk to a team for a player; or any proposal that involves a Devil with a no trade or no movement clause.

The 2010-11 Devils Roster as of June 28, 2010 per CapGeek:

Roster Size: 16 players under contract - 11 forwards, 4 defensemen, 1 goaltender

Payroll: $45.6 million; $240k in bonuses (Vladimir Zharkov)

Players with clauses: Patrik Elias (NMC); Brian Rolston (NTC); Jamie Langenbrunner (NTC); Jay Pandolfo (NTC); Colin White (NTC); Martin Brodeur (NTC)

Cap Space: $14.04 million

Expected Budget: As much as Lou feels is necessary.  Given the hard lessons learned of 2005-06 and 2006-07, I doubt Lou will go right up to the ceiling; but there's no constraint outside of the cap itself.

Pending UFAs: Ilya Kovalchuk; Paul Martin; Rob Niedermayer; Mike Mottau; Martin Skoula; Ilkka Pikkarainen; Yann Danis; Ben Walter; Dean McAmmond; Cory Murphy; Tim Sestito

Pending UFAs Already Elsewhere: Martin Skoula (signed with Avangard Omsk of KHL) Ilkka Pikkarainen (waived, moved to CSKA Moscow of KHL); Cory Murphy (signed with Swiss team, Zurich Lions)

Only three of the pending UFAs from New Jersey made over a million dollars last year: Kovalchuk, Martin, and Niedermayer.  The rest on this list did not, with Mottau being the only one who may command a seven figure salary for proving that he can play defense somewhat well sometimes in the NHL.   After all, he is not a backup goaltender like Danis or AHL caliber players like Walter and Sestito.

I've discussed Martin and Kovalchuk at length on this blog, so I'll repeat my cases in summary.  I've argued that Paul Martin has stacked up quite well with other defenseman in the last two seasons at even strength (08-09; 09-10); as well in comparison with other New Jersey Devil defensemen.  Among all of the UFA defensemen this summer, Martin was the most effective out of all of them who weren't named Nicklas Lidstrom.   When Martin steps on the ice, the Devils improve in both shooting and scoring at both ends of the rink at even strength.  No other defenseman on the market can do that - only one or the other at most.  Replacing Martin would be really difficult regardless of the sentiment that he's not a true #1 defenseman, therefore if the Devils are going to let any defensemen walk, it should be Mottau - who is more easily replaceable.

Kovalchuk, on the other hand, is an interesting case.  He's a fantastic shooter with reason to believe he'll be more productive next season, his defensive contributions are better than what most may think, and yet he isn't the big impact player on the ice as Zach Parise has been.  Ultimately, the issue with re-signing Kovalchuk has to do more with the fact the Devils already have two excellent left wings in Parise and Elias, and in order to retain Parise through an extension, money would have to be made available.  Signing Kovalchuk would undercut that, not to mention create the problem of figuring out who gets prime minutes at LW between Kovalchuk and Parise and figuring out what to do with Elias.  

In this awesome post that further highlights the money issue, Quisp at Jewels of the Crown ran the numbers with assumed salary of $8.5 million for Kovalchuk.  He concluded that the Devils could fit him in, but not without going cheap at everywhere else.

Personally, if it were up to me, I'd sign Paul Martin, sign a replacement defenseman for Mottau or consider bringing up a prospect, and by not re-signing Kovalchuk, I can get a third line center and still have plenty of money to commit to Parise.  That's right, I would not retain the services of Niedermayer or McAmmond. As useful as they were and as much as I wouldn't mind either one - but not both - in a fourth line role, the Devils really do need a longer term solution for the third line center.  If they aren't retained, perhaps Walter or Sestito can be given a shot for the fourth line role if they are interested in coming back.

As far as the backup goaltending position is concerned, I would have absolutely no problems bringing Danis back for another season.  If he's not interested, expect the Devils to sign a cheap goaltender off the market.

Pending and Qualified RFAs: David Clarkson, Mark Fraser, Rod Pelley, Tyler Eckford, Patrick Davis, Olivier Magnan-Grenier

The big question: how much does David Clarkson sign for? Kevin Sellathamby asked this question earlier and posed his thoughts.  Among all of the RFAs, Clarkson is the sure-fire, one-way, seven figure dollar contract. Will he get more than $2 million? How much more? How long?  Clarkson won't be making minimal money, so how much he wants will certainly play a role in how much Lou can offer to UFAs. 

Fraser, Pelley, and Eckford could all be given two-way deals, as all three are on the ends of the New Jersey depth chart, but would be near or at the top in Albany.  Given Fraser's longer experience, I would guess that he'd be the most likely to get a one-way deal on top of a little raise.  Though Eckford among other defensive prospects could push Fraser out of a spot in camp.   I wouldn't be terribly surprised if Pelley is given a one-way deal. Though since he is a fourth liner, the competition in camp may push him out.  The concern is that if there's reason for the Devils to believe Fraser or Pelley won't be locks to make the New Jersey roster, then tying them to one-way deals make no sense.    Still, all three will likely sign with New Jersey.

Davis and Magnan-Grenier were AHL players for the most part, though each got a taste of the NHL last season.  They will likely remain with two-way deals until they can show they're prepared for the next step.  That will have to come in camp, after contracts are signed, so for flexibility purposes they should get two-way deals.

Non-Qualified RFAs (Or Soon-to-Be UFAs via Non-Qualification): Brad Snetsinger, Myles Stoesz

Both Snetsinger and Stoesz were AHL players and will either re-sign with Albany or go elsewhere.  Snetsinger hasn't shown too much at the AHL level to really consider him for any future as far as I can tell.  Stoesz is a "tough guy."  The Devils can let them walk without missing much, in my opinion; though Albany may want to retain them.  According to Gulitti, Stoesz may sign a different deal per Lou; so Snetsinger may be the only one walking.

Key Needs: Third line center, puck-moving/offensive defenseman

With the trade that brought Jason Arnott back to New Jersey, I figure he can fit in just fine as the team's second line center.   I've discovered that he will be a big help if he can stay healthy and contribute to the Devils' offense as he did to Nashville's offense last season.   Therefore, the Devils really only need to find a new third line center. Based on the analysis I've done of the UFA centers, I definitely wouldn't mind Manny Malhotra.   He's great on faceoffs; he contributed a respectable amount per GVT in San Jose; and when he was on the ice, the Sharks' shots against per 60 went down by a good amount at even strength.  Feel free to make other suggestions, but I think Malhotra would be a great fit.

As far as defense is concerned, even if the Devils re-sign Martin, who else can move the puck well? Andy Greene? Risk a prospect?  Mike Mottau was never great at it, but replacing him with someone who does have good offensive skills at the blueline would be a benefit.  The Devils could get away with a cheaper option like Carlo Colaiacovo over someone like Joe Corvo, put him in the #5 spot as Greene takes Mottau's old role, and still result in a swifter blueline. 

If the Devils are able to respond to both needs adequately while retaining Martin and filling the roster, then I think the offseason would have to be seen as a success.

Rivals Needs:  Truthfully, I need all of the Devils' division rivals to fail and fail miserably.  But seriously, here's what I think:

The New York Rangers would probably need secondary scoring to support Marian Gaborik since Vinny Prospal may be gone.  They could possibly use some defensive help if the Marc Staal talks continue to falter.  Yet, in all seriousness, they really need a new GM more than both. I'm not even being snarky, Glen Sather and his deals have hamstrung the Rangers more than helped them.  Blueshirt Banter is a place to learn what's up with the lesser of the three NYC-area teams.

The Stanley Cup Final losing Philadelphia Flyers are interested in a new goaltender.  One possibility is Evgeni Nabokov (who will be 34, not 35, at time of signing).  Another possibility has been Marty Turco, tthough he apparently rejected a proposed offer already.   The Flyers may be players in terms of a trade, since their cap space isn't all that welcoming; perhaps Jeff Carter will be unloaded to another team?  Go check out Broad Street Hockey to learn what Philly may be doing.

The Pittsburgh Penguins really could use some wingers not named Bill Guerin to really take some of the load off of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.  Especially wingers who could be adept on a power play, as that was a bane of the Penguins' game all season long.  Should Sergei Gonchar be on the outs, the Pens will need to sign a big minutes defenseman who can also salvage some of the offense that his absence may create. Want to know more? Please visit Pensburgh.

Lastly, I come of the New York Islanders who need to sign some players to meet the cap floor.  Ideally, this would include defensemen and other depth players.  With all due respect to a rival, the Isles are putting together a nice, young, hard working team that's difficult to play against.  If Garth Snow can give Mark Streit additional support on the blueline, and if Rick DiPietro gets healthy and returns to "form," then this will be a team that can make some noise.  Will they pull the trigger though, and if so, for who?  Read up more about the Isles at Lighthouse Hockey.

Your Turn

First off, thank you for reading.  Second, please feel free to discuss what you think the Devils should do on Thursday and this summer in the comments. 

This can include but is not limited to which players to try and keep, which players should walk, and how much a player should be re-signed.  This can be both for New Jersey and Albany, since a number of free agents are AHL players.   If it has to do with the offseason, then let your voice be heard here.  Please do not use this post to discuss stupid and unrealistic trade options like the rights of Ilya Kovalchuk to a team for a player; or any proposal that involves a Devil with a no trade or no movement clause.  Please stay on-topic as usual, and remember that past history shows that it's a good idea to trust Lou.

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