Amid all the Ilya Kovalchuk contract discussion - something that will finally lead to some conclusion in the coming week - I realized something very odd about the current New Jersey Devils lineup. It's an issue the team will have to address this preseason, if not this summer, regardless of what happens to Kovalchuk.
The New Jersey Devils do not have a third line center.
You can actually take it a step further and say they have no fourth line center either. However, for the sake of argument, let's assume Rod Pelley in that role. He's already signed, he's played the position before and while not great, I think he could handle 8-10 minutes spelling other forwards.
Still, that the Devils have no third line center penciled in the lineup really shouldn't be shocking. The Devils waited until late September to sign Rob Niedermayer, last season's third line center. Whilst Jay Pandolfo played himself out of a starter's spot on the third line and John Madden moved on in Chicago, Niedermayer was one of the few constants in a lineup that was shuffling in someway or form. He was a defensive-minded center, he constantly centered that third line, and for a player on a $1 million/1 year contract, one really couldn't complain about what he brought to the team.
With Niedermayer now a member of the Buffalo Sabres and Pandolfo bought out, the third line could easily be Brian Rolston and David Clarkson as the wings for an unknown center. It's quite possible that this season's third line may not be a defensive-minded unit. For most of the past decade, the Devils third line would feature Pandolfo and Madden with either a gritty right winger (e.g. Turner Stevenson, Grant Marshall) or two-way right winger (e.g. Jamie Langenbrunner). This was the case until this past season and in a few short months, it could be something completely different.
What's really shocking was how this situation has happened in stages. In retrospect, Madden signing with Chicago as an UFA last summer was the first step. The Devils signed Niedermayer as a veteran option near the end of preseason realizing that none of the other centers in the system were ready for the NHL. He was a stop-gap; but second step was Jacques Lemaire's usage of his first line. He preferred to match top line against top line, as shown in the increased QUALCOMP (numbers from Behind the Net) of both Travis Zajac (0.039 -> 0.069) and Zach Parise (0.03 -> 0.099). Given that the Devils didn't get pounded in their own end last season via the fact they allowed the fewest goals in the league in 09-10, I think it's fair to say the strategy wasn't a bad one. The third step was the decline in Jay Pandolfo's performance. He basically lost a step and since his main function of shutting down the team's top right winger was replaced, he wasn't needed. Therefore, he requested a buyout earlier this summer - which he got.
That leads us to now. Interestingly enough, how the Devils address this issue is tied directly to what happens with Kovalchuk. I've come up with a few options after the jump on what the Devils can do about third line center void.
Option 1: Free Agency
This is what the New Jersey Devils went with last season. They weren't comfortable with the centers in the system for the role, so they went out and got Rob Niedermayer. Well, who is to say that can't happen again? There are plenty of unrestricted free agents available as of this writing (view a full list of UFA forwardss at CapGeek here). A number of them could take on a third line role like Eric Belanger,
Dominic Moore (Update: Nope, he's signed to Tampa Bay), and Kyle Wellwood for example. As the season comes closer, anyone who is still UFA is likely going to available for cheap. So this option doesn't necessarily make it an expensive one.
However, it would represent another stop-gap for another season as the other centers in the system develop for another season. Signing someone like Belanger (which wouldn't be necessarily bad idea, see here and here) may not even bring a checking center, but a two-way center. So things would still change, only with a veteran. A long-term deal for a stop-gap would only make sense if the Devils' center prospects really do need more time to develop, or if the Devils don't want to use them in a third line role. The latter makes little sense to me unless whoever they sign will be instructed to think defense-first.
This is also the option where Kovalchuk's contract really would have an immediate effect on it. If the NHL's rejection is overruled, the contract is accepted as-is and the Devils will be over the salary cap by about $2.3 million. The Devils would have to dump salary at that point and cannot possibly consider signing anyone until they do so. Given the contracts I think the Devils should dump, I don't think free agency is even worth considering unless they clear out a lot of space. That said, if the Devils have the space in late September and really do need another center, then this option becomes viable.
But they may not have to considering that the Devils do have a few centers in the system:
Option 2: Centers in the System
The first (and second) names that may come up in some fans minds are Adam Henrique and Jacob Josefson. Both are centers. Both are young. One is coming off a torrid season in Windsor, where they won the OHL championship, the Memorial Cup, and even went to the World Junior Championships to represent Canada. The other is coming from a Swedish Elite League team that lost in the finals to HV71, having played in a second line role in a professional league all season. There's reason to be excited for both center prospects; to the point where maybe they're ready to jump into the NHL. There's a spot available, why not let them learn on the job?
However, it's not just them in the system. You have to consider Tim Sestito, who would only cost $500k to the team's cap, has more experience in pro hockey then both, and could be more willing to play a checking style if the team requires one. You have to consider Patrick Davis, who got an 8 game call up last season and has every reason to be hungry in camp to compete for any kind of spot. You have to consider even David McIntyre (who will be going into his first season of pro hockey) and Michael Swift (coming off) as they are centers who could be added for less cap space than either Henrique or Josefson.
Yes, Henrique and Josefson are very talented. I am hoping they become not only New Jersey Devils players but quality New Jersey Devils players. However, there are multiple options within the system and both prospects will have to prove that they are better than them first. Plus, if the Devils feel that third line center should be a defensive center and they don't think either Henrique or Josefson should have that role, then others will be considered. This isn't new - it partially explains why Niclas Bergfors didn't make it to New Jersey until last season. The Devils wanted him in a scoring role.
Should the Devils need to build from within and get younger, this option makes the most sense. There's a third, crazier option, however.
Option 3: Move Brian Rolston or Dainius Zubrus to Center
Dainius Zubrus would probably be the initial choice for most Devils fans if the decision came down to just these two players. Zubrus has played center at times last season, and mostly at center in 2008-09. Zubrus hasn't shown much production, but his ability to win pucks, get into space, use his size to his advantage, and win more battles along the boards than one may realize is valuable. For those reasons alone, the Devils could move Zubrus down to center the third line, put a scoring winger prospect up at right wing in the top 6 to replace him, and move on.
I don't think you should count out Rolston, though. Don't laugh, he's played the position before. Granted, that was way back when he was a Boston Bruin (last season as Bruin: 2003-04, 1,205 faceoffs, 50.6% won)
Still, Rob Niedermayer came to the Devils after several seasons on Sami Pahlsson's wing in Anaheim, and they found it fit to use him at center all last season in New Jersey regardless of how long ago he played the position and how not all that great he was at faceoffs. It's not that Rolston has ever been a poor defensive player, so it's not like he's going to be a sieve all of a sudden. If anything, he'll bring more offense than Niedermayer and further establish that the New Jersey Devils' third line is not strictly a checking line. Plus, the Devils would have an open spot at winger. If the line's not going to be a defensively minded line, then what better spot to insert a prospect? The Devils have plenty of winger prospects of various types and all could fit while being "protected" by the veterans Clarkson and Rolston.
That said, making the transition could be difficult. Rolston's 37 and this option is asking him to do something he hadn't done since he was 31. Could he win 50% of his faceoffs just like Niedermayer did last season in New Jersey (50.6% out of 945) all of the sudden? Could he handle the additional responsibilities that come with the position? Most of all, why would the Devils attempt this now? The Devils were weak at center going into 09-10 and yet they didn't consider Rolston at center - surely, that means something, doesn't it?
Regardless of who the Devils decide here, what makes this option more interesting is that it is an internal option. Yes, it'll create a hole elsewhere in the roster, but the sheer number of prospects in the system at wing outnumber those at center. It's a more easily filled hole, and if a prospect falters or isn't ready for a full season, then he is more easily replaced by someone else in the system.
Ultimately, the Devils can take their time on this issue. What happens with Ilya Kovalchuk will have a big effect on what they can actually do with respect to their roster and their salary cap. However, we're going to find out what happens to Kovalchuk within this week. The Devils have about two months to figure out what they want the third line to do and who they want to center that line. We could see a repeat of last year where a free agent will be brought in late to take the spot (Option 1) or the Devils can go in a different direction either from the system (Option 2) or from within (Option 3).
In the meantime, I'd like to know what you'd think. Do you think the third line should be a defensive-minded unit? Or do you want a more two-way line? What would you do about the third line center void if you had a say in the matter? Which of these three options do you like the best? Is there a fourth reasonable option I haven't considered? Please let me know your thoughts about this issue - and not any other issue - in the comments.