New Jersey Devils' July 1st Signings - Initial Thoughts & Questions

After witnessing what has gone on throughout the first day of NHL free agency, my mind is simply baffled at some of what's gone on today.  For example: The Philadelphia Flyers signed a bunch of defensemen to not-small money and re-signed Michael Leighton for $1.5 million per year. The New York Islanders remain $12 million below the cap floor.  The New York Rangers follow up a smart deal for signing Martin Biron as a back-up goalie with a multi-year, $1.65 million/year deal to Derek Boogaard, who does nothing but fight.  Of course, he's getting paid more than Biron. I'd say that was awfully dumb until it was reported that the Calgary Flames signed Olli Jokinen.

To that end, I cannot say the New Jersey Devils have had a bad day at free agency. However, I cannot be happy with what transpired.  

Paul Martin was not re-signed, instead he signed a very sensible $25 million over 5 year deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins.   According to Tom Gulitti, the Devils did make him an offer but apparently he wasn't biting, deciding to go with Pittsburgh.   I know on the surface he doesn't seem special, but he truly was the most effective defenseman on the market this summer based on the last two seasons.  When Martin stepped on the ice for New Jersey, the Devils were better in numerous categories - especially shots against per 60.   No, he's not big, he's not a big point producer, he only plays defense incredibly well in his own end and is strong on puck possession.  Defense isn't about big hits or being big, it's about getting stops and getting the puck forward.

My only solace is that Martin decided to go to Pittsburgh and it doesn't appear to me that Lou could have stopped Martin from going elsewhere short of a ridiculous overpayment.  Should this Tom Gulitti tweet be true, it wasn't  about the who offered the most, Martin just wanted to go to Pittsburgh.  Such is the reality with UFAs, it's their call on who to sign with and they have their own reasons.  I can't criticize Lou for Martin making up his own mind.   But criticism can be laid elsewhere, as today's signings leave me with several questions and other concerns.  All of those thoughts and more, after the jump.

The Signings of Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov

Now, remember that I compared the pending UFA defensemen's underlying numbers with Paul Martin in this post. The most important charts there are for even strength, as that is the most common situation defensemen play.   I concluded that Martin was the best all-around defenseman based on the last two seasons among the whole group. Therefore, I cannot say he was replaced today.   That said, Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov aren't bums per the 2009-10 even strength numbers table.

Per Gulitti, Tallinder signed for 4 years for $13.5 million.  Tallinder's underlying numbers, I would say, were good but nothing too special.  He faced strong competition, and the shots against per 60 didn't rise too much when he came on the ice. According to Die by the Blade, Tallinder played with stellar rookie Tyler Myers all season and helped him along.  He was rated well by the Sabres fans there, and they did note that the Sabres did have better goal scoring rates on the ice when he was out there as opposed to not.  I agree with much of what Matt wrote in his post when the news broke; his experience will help the younger players, and his contract isn't so bad.

However, Tallinder's career high on offense is 6 goals and 21 points from 2005-06; and while he's a good skater, there's not a lot of reason to believe he'll boost the Devils' offense from the blueline.  His career high in terms of offensive GVT is 1.9, also from that same 05-06 season, per Tom Awad's list.    He's a defensive defenseman.

You know who else is a defensive defenseman? Anton Volchenkov.  I didn't think he was such a shutdown defenseman last season given how the SA/60 spiked when he came on the ice (GA/60 did go down, though); but he have one of the highest quality of competition values in the league.  In 2008-09, he also faced an extremely high quality of competition and had a great on-ice impact on SA/60 (better than Martin) and GA/60.   Basically, Volchenkov can handle tough minutes like few in the league and still dull their attack.  He's big, he's strong, he'll block shots, he'll throw hits, and do what you want as a defensive defenseman.  Per Gulitti, he signed a 6 year deal worth $25.5 million, or $4.25 million per year with a no-trade clause.

However, like Tallinder, offense isn't part of the deal.  His career high on offense is 4 goals and 19 points from 2006-07, and his highest all-time offensive GVT in a season was 2.3, also from Awad's list.  Again, he's a defensive defenseman and a very good one at that.   When he's healthy enough to play (and you thought you'd get through a post mentioning Volchenkov

On their own, these aren't bad deals and they aren't bad players at all.  The Devils certainly got bigger. They've gotten more physical.  With Tallinder, you can make the argument that they've added some quickness to said physical play on the blueline.   I don't see how this makes them better.

Is Andy Greene Really Going to be the Only Puck-Moving Defenseman?

What makes Martin so effective is that not only does he get stops in his own zone, but he's pretty good at getting the puck up ice.  While he may not get a ton of points - his highest offensive GVT in a season is 3.5 - it's an important skill to have.  One of the areas where the Devils got into trouble in the playoff loss to Philadelphia was that the Flyers were aggressive on their forecheck.  This forced the Devils to make bad decisions getting the puck out, especially when the puck was not on Martin's or Andy Greene's stick.    This was also not a 5 game issue, teams that forechecked aggressively gave the Devils problems throughout the season.

According to this post from Gulitti, here's the plan that Lou revealed:

Lamoriello said that he would have tried to sign Volchenkov even if Martin had re-signed. He said he only decided to sign Henrik Tallinder after Martin signed with Pittsburgh.

Lou was targeting Volchenkov from the get-go; and Lou signed Tallinder after Martin signed in Pittsburgh, making him the backup plan.  Before you type the names "Vladimir Malakhov and Dan McGillis," keep in mind that both defensemen are solid defensive defensemen.  Both will be playing NHL hockey for quite a while.  Yet, there's no reason to believe that Tallinder can really replace Martin's offense.

This puts Andy Greene in a bad spot. With Colin White's no-trade clause and Bryce Salvador's difficult-to-move $2.9 million/year deal, the Devils now have over $13 million tied up into four defensive defensemen.  Given that the qualified Mark Fraser will likely be re-signed, it's a very real possibility that the only two-way defenseman on the Devils could be Greene.  Yes, Greene had a great 2009-10, and his offensive GVT from this past season was higher than anything Martin ever got at 4.8.   Yet, can he honestly repeat or improve upon that performance?  Will he get the same breaks that helped get him to 37 points?  Can he truly lead a breakout on his own?  And if so, who's going to do it when he's not on the ice?

I don't think it's fair to expect a player who had a career year to repeat it out of necessity.   I understand the desire to want a different look on defense after a failed playoff run, but how does replacing a two-way defenseman with two defensive defensemen balance the blueline?  How will they be able to contribute more on offense, an area where the blueline has severely declined over the years?

According to this post by Rich Chere, Lou says that Tallinder has an excellent first pass.  Is this true, Buffalo fans? While I certainly hope it's true, then I have to ask: how come he has been so lacking in terms of production? 

Until I see proof otherwise: color me unconvinced.   The Devils couldn't replace Paul Martin with just one player, so signing two defensemen makes sense.  Signing Tallinder and Volchenkov to deals that even Gabe Desjardens called reasonable is a good thing.  Either one is definitely better than Mike Mottau; who really isn't necessary  anymore despite what Lou said to Gulitti here.  Given Anssi Salmela is on the roster, Tyler Eckford and Mark Fraser will likely be signed, and Matt Corrente and Alexander Urbom will be getting long looks in camp; there's no need for Mottau anymore.  Overall, the Devils got bigger, meaner, and perhaps more aware in their own zone. 

Yet, the major failings of the New Jersey blueline for the past few seasons was that there weren't enough puck-moving defensemen and a lack of offensive production.  These two signings and the loss of Martin does not adress those needs. I cannot agree that the Devils got better for now.  When will the need of an offensive defenseman be fulfilled on New Jersey? 

Apparently, the Man to Spell Martin Brodeur is Johan Hedberg

I have no quarrel with Johan Hedberg.  According to CapGeek he made  $1.0875 million last season.  He certainly earned it as he gave Atlanta 47 games, a save percentage of 91.5%, 3 shutouts, and a goals against average of 2.62.   That's a very good year as a #1A goalie.  Now he comes to New Jersey with a one year deal worth $1.5 million to the cap and a no-trade clause.   Really? A NTC for a one-year deal? For 37 year old backup goaltender?  I guess he needed that security? I don't know?  I'm honestly amused by the fact that he got a NTC.

In any case, he did have a good year and so a raise was justified.  Yet, it's important that Hedberg has to give a similar performance in New Jersey.  According to Lou in this Gulitti post, Martin Brodeur may actually get less starts meaning more time for Hedberg.  The Devils do have 20 back-to-back games and I'm sure other times will come up where starting the backup would make sense. Then again, I'll believe that Brodeur will get less games when I see it; and honestly, I'm not yet convinced he needs to take less games. (And, no, saying that he's 38 isn't a convincing argument.)   Should Hedberg actually get 15 or more games and plays well, then I have no problems with the contract.

Hedberg brings an important intangible: he's good friends with Ilya Kovalchuk according to this Tom Gulitti tweet. Leading me to the following:

If the Devils are in Ilya Kovalchuk Sweepstakes, Who's Getting Moved?

According to Lou in this Rich Chere post, the Devils are still working on trying to keep Ilya Kovalchuk in New Jersey.  I'm really baffled as to why the effort is on-going.  For starters, where's the cap space?  The Devils have less than $4.25 million available and I highly, highly, highly, highly doubt Kovalchuk's going to take a pay cut to stay at the Rock.

I agree he's a brilliant sniper and I do think that a team like New Jersey would be a fine fit to mitigate his shortcomings.   But the only way he's staying is if someone else on New Jersey is getting dumped.  Yes, the Devils do have the 10% bonus cushion, so right now they don't have to trade someone.  However, they'll have to do so before the season starts. All it does is delay the inevitable and create doubt within the system.  That's right the system, as no one's going to take a bad contract off of New Jersey's hands without a draft pick or a prospect to make the deal worthwhile. 

Suppose the Devils do clear space and the Devils keep him. What do you do with 3 top-end left wings?  Jason Arnott was acquired to play center and I highly doubt he moves down just to move Patrik Elias over.  Does one of them go to the off-wing and play on the right?  Moreover, how much space could there possibly be left to bring up prospects, fill in other needs (namely: the third line still needs a center), and call up players for injury replacement after doing all of this?

My big fear is that the Devils feel that keeping Kovalchuk is so important, they may be willing to put themselves in tighter spot for the future to do that.  

Your Take

Certainly, one cannot complain that the Devils didn't do anything this summer.  They've done quite a bit in the last 48 hours!  And there's more to do.  They still have to decide on new deals for their qualified RFAs; the Devils do have a need for a center on the third line as well for some offense from the blueline; and they'll need two forwards on the regular roster to meet minimum roster requirements (Pelley is one, could a prospect be another?).

On paper and as of now, I am skeptical that the moves made today really made the Devils that much better.  I can say they didn't get worse or commit themselves to a really dumb deal like some teams today. That's  my rationalization and I'm sticking to it. 

It's possible the loss of Martin still bothers me. (It does a bit, he's really, really good, and now he's an opponent 6 times a season for the next 5 seasons.) Perhaps I'm looking at this with the wrong perspective.  Maybe there's something I missed.   Surely, there may be some evidence that can allay my concerns about today's signings.  

This is where you come in.  Please let me know what you think, what you know, and what evidence to back up what you say in the comments.   Thank you to Kevin, Matt, and Tom for taking care of free agency business today.  Thank you for reading.   I trust Lou will address the needs eventually.  Until then, did the Devils really get better today?

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