New Jersey Devils Offseason Activity: Change is Here

I was expecting minimal activity by the Devils on July 1st and thought we wouldn't have that much to talk about.  Wow, was I wrong.

Shortly after the acquisition of Jason Arnott, Lou Lamoriello was quoted in a post by Tom Gulitti with the following: 

"We haven't won in the last couple of years, so there will be changes and it has to make the team better."

Everyone handles change differently.  Some of us relish change, and the opportunities it may bring.  Others, who like consistency tend to resist change.  With sports teams, we enjoy change primarily because it's fun to debate, gives us an outlet to escape from our stressful daily lives and because it is likely that your team didn't win a Stanley Cup (hey, only one team can win each year, right?) and has to make some personnel changes based on play.  After the jump I look at the offseason moves and evaluate how the moves were made to impact the team both on and off the ice. 

Of course the Devils are always making changes (coaching, non-essential player personnel) like every other NHL club but they have not made sweeping changes in recent years.  Judging by his actions so far in this offseason, I think Lou Lamoriello has acknowledged the need for substantial changes to the Devils' roster in not only talent, but the character/culture of the team.   Three consecutive first round playoff losses with the same roster calls for an infusion of new talent and character if the team intends to make a long playoff run.  I can accept my sports teams not being as good as another team.  What I can never understand is when a team plays well below expectations, which I believe the New Jersey Devils have done for the past three seasons. 

A long playoff run is something that has been lacking for the Devils in recent years.  We all know what happened in April but if you feel like you must, you can re-read about the past season's early exit here, here and here.  As a longtime fan, it was embarrassing to see a team with proven playoff veterans lose the way they did.   You can't expect your team to win all the time, but it is not too much to ask that they show that they actually wanted to win.  The Devils have had numerous tough losses over the years, but the effort put forth in the playoffs was unacceptable.  One quote that I can't forget was one by Martin Brodeur as the Devils were about to play game 4 in Philadelphia down in the series 2-1.

So, it’s going to say a lot about our team after this game."

Well, there wasn't really a lot to say was there?  The Devils were out hustled, out coached and lacked any intensity in their game.  Besides Ilya Kovalchuk, the team looked like it was playing a November game against the Florida Panthers.  I have tried to forget game 4 but John had a great summary of it here that called into question some of the effort and leadership of the team, and I do suggest you take a look at it.

After the series and the season there was snipping back and forth by Jacques Lemaire and Jamie Langenbrunner (I loved Lemaire's quotes the best) in separate articles by Rich Chere you can view here and here.  If you haven't read the articles, you should, they are well worth the read and give you a little insight into the locker room atmosphere of the Devils toward the end of the year. 

It can be best described, from an outsider's point of view, as toxic.   The most troubling aspect of the locker room issues to me was the impact it would have on the younger players who are eventually expected to take leadership roles.  How did David Clarkson, Travis Zajac and Zach Parise view the situation and will this be how they 'lead' the team in the future?  Were new personalities needed in the locker room in order for the team to take the next step?

AfterJohn MacLean was named Devils head coach back in June both MacLean and Lamoriello expressed faith in Langenbrunner as a leader.  However, it seems Lamoriello wanted to shake this team up from the second the playoff series ended.  You don't necessarily have to remove the Captain to shake up a roster.  You can move smaller pieces around and bring in some quality leadership to make that Captain more accountable for the locker room culture.  

The first move to change the roster was to bring former Stanley Cup hero Jason Arnott back to New Jersey for prospect Matt Halischuck and a 2011 2nd round pick.  Most of us know that Lamoriello likes bringing back ex-Devils to the team, and initially this seemed no different.  Arnott fills a need at center and his presence allows Jacob Josefson and Adam Henrique to develop gradually instead of being forced into an important role.   To me, it speaks volumes that  the first move of the offseason was to acquire a positive locker room presence in the former Captain of the Nashville Predators. One, who is not the most talented offensively, still pushed the future Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks pretty hard in the playoffs.   During his time in Nashville and per this post, Arnott seemed to be a lighting rod for angst among Predator fans. On the Forecheck had a nice summary of his Captaincy:

Best of luck to Jason Arnott, though, who stepped into a leadership void in 2007 and led the Preds to an unexpected playoff berth in 2008. He was often criticized by local fans for a perceived lack of effort or leadership, but the one thing we've always heard about the Predators is that they have a solid locker room and a deep commitment to team play, which has to, in part, be credited to the team leadership.

Solid locker room?  Team play?  Exactly the type of player to help promote a culture of change. Lamoriello knows Arnott and the type of person he is, and after the misguided signings of Bobby Holik and Brian Rolston (in fairness at least Rolston had many other suitors) I don't think he would have brought back a former Devil for nostalgia's sake.   

At first there were smaller moves that changed the roster after the year, and while they won't have a huge impact on the team on or off the ice in 2010-2011 they should be mentioned. There were the departures of Ilkka Pikarinen, Cory Murphy and then later Martin Skoula to leagues overseas.  Only Skoula played a substantial role on the team last year and was a serviceable 2nd/3rd pairing defenseman.   He played well, but with younger defensemen in the system, Skoula did not need to be re-signed.   Additionally, in mid-May the entry level signings of Mattias Tedenby and Jacob Josefson, who Lamoriello thinks are ready for the pros, add some talented, but young, players to compete for spots on the roster.  John had a writeup of both players after they signed that should be checked out.   They both played in a highly competitive league (you can view how leagues stack up against one another here, courtesy of www.behindthenet.ca) and if both or one of them make the team in the fall it could start the turnover of a roster that is due for some new blood.   New, young players competing for spots on the roster is a good thing, it brings added intensity and energy to training camp, and both the prospects and the Devils will benefit from the chance.  

Leading up to the free agency frenzy that occurs on July 1st we also saw the Devils sign high energy Tim Sestito to a two way deal that will provide a potential fourth line player for the Devils or depth for the Albany team.  Devils fans also were able to breathe a sigh of relief when it was announced that fan favorite David Clarkson had been inked to a 3 year contract at an average annual value of $2.6MM   Clarkson, at least if his quotes are any indication, is very happy to be a Devil for the next three years. 

"I've very excited and happy about the way things went and looking forward to the season," he said. "My agent and Mr. Lamoriello have been talking for a while."  

I think Clarkson brings a great presence to the team.   His positivity for being a Devil I think is genuine, plus I love the fact that he calls the GM Mr. Lamoriello.   Clarkson is a fan favorite for a reason and it wouldn't shock me if he should have an A or even a C on his chest in a few years. 

The same day as the Clarkson re-signing also marked the last day of Jay Pandolfo's official career with the New Jersey Devils.   Both Pandolfo and Andrew Peters were put on waivers with the intent of buying out their contracts if they were not claimed by another team.  It was a request by Pandolfo to Lamoriello and one that seemed to be in the best interest of both parties.  If what was reported was true (his being informed via text that he wasn't playing in a playoff game after being told he was) it is unfortunate that he had to leave on those terms.   That said, at a $2.5MM salary he was a player/salary the Devils could afford to lose.  His departure will open up more opportunities for younger players and give him the opportunity to find a team with a use for his penalty killing expertise.  Before his shoulder injury last year he was playing well and I can do nothing but wish him well wherever he may play next (even if it is the Rangers).

The Devils also re-signed forward Rod Pelley to a two year deal at a cap hit of $550K per season to serve on the 4th line again.  Pelley didn't fulfill his role as the replacement for Madden last year, but he was a serviceable player who will be physical and at times provide a spark.   You could live with him on the third line for a few games as well. 

Now, I had thought Lamoriello's 'changes' quote to Gulitti as nothing major at the time, but even before the events of July 1st this team had taken some major steps to add talent and change the team's culture.  That said, I wasn't expecting a big shake up on July 1st considering everything that had already happened.  In the age of the salary cap it's tough to make sweeping changes without really pushing the limits of the team's salary cap.  After the Arnott trade, I supposed that the Devils would re-sign Paul Martin, and despite Lamoriello's quotes here,  I assumed that the Devils were totally out of the running for Kovalchuk. 

Leading up to July 1st, it seemed more and more likely that Martin would hit the free agent market. I had hoped it might just be posturing and Martin would be signed on June 30th or early on July 1st to an extension in the neighborhood of $5MM-$5.5MM, but after some quotes by Martin which I summarized  here, I personally thought his chances of remaining a Devil were at best 50/50.   At that point it was understood that the Devils and Martin's agent had talked but there was no confirmation that there had been an offer yet.   There were also quotes from Martin stating that he wasn't sure he wanted to be a 'Devil' and that caused me concern as well.

July 1st came and the news broke quickly that the Penguins had a deal with Martin, and the question in most Devils fans' minds then became:  What happened?  Per a Tom Gulitti post here you get the sense that we will never know the entire story of the negotiations. As John's article states, it was clear that Martin was the most effective defenseman in the FA market.   If that is the case, and the Devils had almost two months to sign him what happened?  The only reason we are left with -as he himself has stated- is that Martin wanted to play for a team that is close to winning it all. 

The counter move after Martin signed in Pittsburgh was the signing of Henrik Tallinder.  A move made to immediately replace Paul Martin it certainly took most Devils fans by surprise.    Besides his solid play on the power play/penalty kill and his decent puck moving skills, Tallinder brings some nice intangible qualities to the club, per Lou Lamoriello and NHL.com:

 "We played against him enough in Buffalo. In particular, for me, he came to the forefront on the job he did playing alongside Myers and how he helped him along. There was another factor in that: we have three young Swedish players, one defenseman in [Alexander] Urbom and two young forwards in [Mattias] Tedenby and [Jacob] Josefson, who will be given every opportunity to make this team. We thought he would be just perfect in helping them develop and come along."

At $3.375MM a year, there were differing opinions on the signing all throughout the blogosphere, with some saying it was excessive and others thinking the deal was a bargain.  Jordan Leopold might have been a better investment for the money/term -he ended up receiving $3MM/3 years- as he would have helped fill the puck moving defensemen need more than Tallinder.  That would have been the better 'statistical' signing.   But in an effort to help infuse youth into the team can you put a price on what Tallinder did for Myers last year and what he could do for our top defensive prospect in Alexander Urbom?  This move, like the Arnott move, was about making the team better both on and off the ice. 

After Martin's departure, Lamoriello's defensive priority this offseason was to sign a true #1 defensive defenseman in Anton Volchenkov.  It is clear that Volchenkov was not a replacement for Martin but he was signed to add a defensive presence to the team that has been missing one for a few years.  He is not Scott Stevens -even though Lamoriello thinks so- but he will help an inconsistent penalty killing unit (more on this to come in a separate post)  and will help to punish forecheckers in the defensive zone.   I was pleasantly surprised to see all of the positive comments in this post on the Silver Seven website but to me, this quote is most impressive.

But with the departure of the A-Train means a lot of Senators fans will have their hearts broken. He was an outstanding warrior for the Senators, left everything he had on the ice and rarely had injury problems despite the punishing style he played.

He is a penalty killing force, a guy who can clear the crease and deliver big hits.  I have a feeling Devils fans are going to love Volchenkov.  Lamoriello wanted to make this defense tougher and after seeing the way the Flyers pushed us around, it was obvious the Devils needed more size and tenacity on the blue line. Similar to his stay in Ottawa, he will lead by example and those leaders are sometimes just as important as locker room voices.    Besides all of his abilities he brings on the ice, I feel that his style of play will be infectious among the younger Devils' defensemen like Matthew Corrente and Mark Fraser.  Corrente especially, who plays with a high level of energy all game (one of the many reasons he lined up at forward a few times) will have a positive mentor in Volchenkov.  

It also brings a top FA to this team, one at a manageable cap rate of $4.25MM a year.  While Lamoriello has shown boldness in acquisitions at the trade deadline, July 1st typically was a slower day, unless former Devils were involved.   To bring an outside presence to the team, especially to shore up the major part of the last 20 years of success in his defense, is something that hasn't been done in a long time.  

Just as our heads were spinning with the Tallinder and Volchenkov signings, it was then reported and confirmed that the Devils signed free agent goaltender Johan Hedberg from the Atlanta Thrashers.   Since this is a signing for big dollars for a backup to Martin Brodeur (and also making the total cap hit for the team's goalies at about $6.7MM) it is being said, at least now, that Hedberg will play.  Hedberg gives the Devils a quality backup that at 37 years of age, will be accepting of the role of Martin Brodeur's backup. He averaged around 30 games per year played over the last 4 years with the Atlanta Thrashers and I would think the Devils will try to get him into at least 20-25 games.  Forcing Brodeur to the bench, at least for a mental break, should have a positive effect on the team.  With an experienced backup in Hedberg, the team will also feel that they will have a good chance to win even when Brodeur is not in net.  Hedberg will act as a high quality (and cost) insurance policy for Broduer, who is 38, and only two years removed from a major injury.

When Lamoriello said there would be changes to the Devils in the offseason, he certainly was being truthful.   More surprisingly the changes are apparently not over with:

Lamoriello said Urbom, a 6-4, 215-pound Stockholm native (same town as Tallinder) is, "our top prospect" and expects him to compete for a spot on the NHL team in training camp.

"I see a couple of these young kids playing pretty quickly," he said. "But I can also see us doing some other things."

Lamoriello also mentioned Matt Corrente is in the defense plans for next season and hinted that a veteran defenseman might be moved.

"There's a lot more to be done," he said.

Right now we have Volchenkov, Greene, Tallinder, Colin White, Bryce Salvador, Mark Fraser, Matthew Corrente, Anssi Salmela and Alexander Urbom in the mix for 6-7 defensive spots this fall.  Out of the above the only ones who could or should realistically be moved are Salmela and Salvador.  

That said, it would look like Salvador would have to move if there were to be any more major moves.  There is only about $4.78MM for the Devils left to add in total salary per Capgeek for 5 roster spots (pending any announcement on Ilya Kovalchuk's status) Those 5 roster spots look to be filled by Urbom, Corrente and either Jacob Josefson or Adam Henrique, (one of whom could make the team).  Those roster spots would also include Rod Pelley and Mark Fraser.   So unless the Devils go with nine defensemen on the roster there should be additional changes, but how much 'more' can the Devils do and why would they do it? 

There will be plenty of speculation (and hopefully action) on that question in the coming days and weeks.   One thing that is clear though is that the intent of Lou Lamoriello and the New Jersey Devils this offseason was to both bring talent to this roster and improve the mental makeup of this team.   With the three straight first round playoff exits and the issues in the locker room this past season between the Captain and the Coach, change was clearly necessary in New Jersey. 

To add a former Captain in Arnott, a tough defensemen in Volchenkov who plays his heart out on the ice and a quality top 4 defensemen in Tallinder who will help develop young prospects all speak to the need to add talent , youth and most importantly some new faces to the New Jersey Devils.  Other important steps like, bringing Tedenby and Josefson to training camp to compete for a roster spot, re-signing David Clarkson, providing Brodeur with a quality backup in Johan Hedberg and parting ways with aging veteran Jay Pandolfo should also provide the roster with the turnover needed to be successful in the upcoming season.   This team is far removed from those that made deep playoff runs and while some of the players remain (Patrik Elias, Martin Brodeur) the Devils never replaced the leadership qualities of a Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko or Scott Niedermayer.   The older teams may have lost in the first round of the playoffs a few times, but they never quit or put forth such a miserable effort like the 2009-2010 team did.   While the acquisitions of Arnott, Tallinder and Volchenkov may not put the Devils over the top when you project the team's performance with advanced statistics, it may add some intangible qualities that we sometimes forget about and it ideally it will allow the team to work as a more cohesive unit.  

At this time the free agent status of Ilya Kovalchuk is still up in the air.  Whether he re-signs or not change has come to the New Jersey Devils' roster and it was needed and there seems to be more change on the horizon.  Lou Lamoriello does everything for a reason and In Lou We Trust, so I am now hoping his many offseason changes provide the Devils with the character they have been lacking. 

So what does the community think?  Am I reading too much into minor quotes and perception or do you agree the team needed a mental shake up?   Sound off below!

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