A Quick Overview of the Impending Free Agents of the New Jersey Devils for 2011

While the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin tonight, this is the third day of the 2011 offseason of the New Jersey Devils.  Last night was a reason for celebration, as the Devils won the 2011 NHL draft lottery and have moved up in the first round to draft 4th overall.   As exciting as it is to have a great shot to get a great prospect, I want to turn attention to the other main feature of the offseason: free agency.  

Every team in the league, from the Stanley Cup winners to the 30th-place dwellers, has to answer difficult questions with their roster.  Here are a couple that come to mind: Which restricted free agents do they re-sign, and for what terms? Who among impending unrestricted free agents will walk on July 1?  What needs must be addressed by the open market and what can be addressed from within?  How do they manage their salary cap for the upcoming 2011-12 season?

Even though it's still April, you can believe the Devils are considering of these questions right now.  Assuming the salary cap does rise to $62.2 million for next season as reported here by James O'Brien at ProHockeyTalk, the Devils will have approximately $10 million in cap space to re-sign impending free agents and to acquire available players after July 1.  According to CapGeek's salary chart, the Devils have 17 players under contract on their NHL roster. The Devils don't have to sign too many players, but considering who's up for new contracts, they could stand to add a few.

Today, I want to give a quick overview of each impending free agent after the jump.  I did something like this last season, though I will be organizing this one a bit differently. As a point of clarification, this is not meant to be a final decision on what I think the Devils should do with each impending free agent. This is just a gut-reaction, a brief thought over who I want to stay in the organization, who I wouldn't mind stays in the organization, and who I wouldn't mind going elsewhere.   More detailed analysis will come later in the offseason.  Unfortunately, we have a lot of a time for it now.

The Current Situation as of April 13, 2011

Per CapGeek's team chart, the Devils have 11 forwards, 5 defensemen, and 1 goaltender on their NHL roster. Combined, they take up $52,177,500 in salary.    According to their reserve list, 30 spots on their 50-man reserve limit are taken up.   The team has 10 impending restricted free agents (RFAs) and 11 impending unrestricted free agents (UFAs).  The Devils cannot just re-sign everyone available, as that will violate the limit on the reserve list.  That should be fine since they really shouldn't just re-sign everyone.

Note: All of the following salary information comes from CapGeek.

Non NHL-Roster Impending Restricted Free Agents

The Devils have four non-NHL roster impending RFAs for this summer: forward Alexander Vasyunov (2010-11 NHL Salary: $850,000); goaltender Jeff Frazee ($541,667); forward Nathan Perkovich ($515,000); forward Steve Zalewski ($500,000).  All are on two-way contracts; only Zalewski is not coming off of an entry level contract.

I can see the Devils retaining all four of these players, though they may be qualified just to stay in Albany.  Vasyunov was the only one who played in the NHL last season.  He got 18 games, scored 1 goal, got 4 assists, and played an average of 11:28.  Vasyunov didn't look completely out of place, but he wasn't particularly impressive.  Therefore, he could be stuck in the numbers game at forward at training camp in the fall. 

It's unclear whether or not Frazee has a future in New Jersey as a goaltender. While he suffered from injuries last season, he's turning 24 in May and who knows if he'll be anything more than an AHL goalie at this point.   Perkovich played his second season of pro hockey with Albany, where he may remain to bolster that roster. Zalewski was acquired in a trade with San Jose.  He has largely been an AHL player in his career and if he doesn't mind that, he could help bolster the Albany roster. Though, Tom would be a better judge on that front.

I wouldn't mind seeing all of them retained, but I wouldn't get too attached to them on a long-term basis.

Non NHL-Roster Impending Unrestricted Free Agents

The Devils have seven impending UFAs not on New Jersey's roster: defenseman Tyler Eckford (2010-11 NHL Salary: $550,000); forward Brad Mills ($505,000); defenseman Olivier Magnan ($500,000); forward Tim Sestito ($500,000); goaltender Mike McKenna ($500,000); forward Chad Wiseman ($500,000); and defenseman Rob Davison ($500,000).  All were on two-way contracts except for Davison, who was on a one-way deal.

Due to the Devils' injury woes in the first half of the season, most of these players got some time in the NHL.  Eckford, Mills, Magnan, Sestito, and McKenna all played at least one game. I don't think any of them are NHL-quality players.  Eckford and Magnan did little on defense.  McKenna got one game based on a "gut feeling" from John MacLean.  While he was OK, there was no reason to think he could move up in the system. Sestito (36 games, 2 assists) lasted the longest and didn't bring much to the proverbial table. The only one among them who looked intriguing to me was Mills but he doesn't seem to be much more than a banger with a cool last name (take him...to the Mills).  I wouldn't expect any of these guys to at least get two-way deals unless it's the only way they'll remain in the organization and the Devils want to keep them.

That said, I don't think most of these guys will return.  Eckford, Magnan-Grenier, and Davison don't have a real future with New Jersey and I can only see Davison sticking around as a veteran depth player.  Physical players are readily available and I question whether Albany needs Mills all that much.   I could see two of Sestito, McKenna and Wiseman re-signed, but only to really play for Albany. All three are veterans and can possibly help the AHL affiliate to be more successful next season.  Wiseman was productive with Albany; Sestito could be useful in a checking role; and McKenna could do better in a split role with Frazee.  But if either of them (or all of them) don't return, I wouldn't be too torn up about it. Wiseman has been an AHL journeyman, while McKenna and/or Sestito may want to try his luck cracking into the NHL with a different organization.  Again, Tom would be a better appraiser of what Albany needs to not be a last place team next season in the A.

NHL-Roster Impending Restricted Free Agents

The Devils have six impending RFAs currently on their NHL roster: forward Zach Parise (2010-11 NHL Salary: $5,000,000); forward Vladimir Zharkov ($610,000); defenseman Anssi Salmela ($625,000); defenseman Matthew Corrente ($600,000); defenseman Matt Taormina ($510,000); and defenseman Mark Fraser ($500,000).  Zharkov, Corrente, and Taormina were on two-way deals and coming off an entry level contract.

The decision to re-sign Zach Parise is very simple; he should definitely be re-signed.  The decision for how long and how much are far more difficult. It will undoubtedly impact what the Devils do for their other free agents this summer and whether they trade anyone for cap relief.  What we can expect is that Parise's next contract will take up a big chunk of whatever cap space the Devils may have for next season.

I'm admittedly a Zharkov fan and I think he brings more to a fourth line than, say, Tim Sestito.  I hope he's re-signed.  But he's got 11 other forwards plus guys in the AHL to compete with for a spot next season.  It'll be interesting to see if he signs a short-term, lower salary deal like Fraser did last season. That should help his chances from a salary cap point of view.

Even if Zach Parise , the other four impending RFAs aren't easy decisions either.  All are defensemen who are on the bubble, so to speak.  Salmela came back from injury and was a regular on the blueline.  Some nights, he was miserable to the point where you wonder if he truly belonged.  On other nights, he looked like more than just a bottom-pairing defenseman.  I wouldn't go so far to say that he's an offensive defenseman, but he doesn't look totally out of place on the attack.  I think he'll be re-signed but not to a very long deal.  The Devils may have a similar, and possibly superior, defender in Matt Taormina, who was a regular on the blueline prior to Salmela's return who showed some at-least-decent offensive skills.  I would have loved to see what Jacques Lemaire would have done with him, but a significant injury made that impossible.  I think he'll be re-signed but also to a short deal.  This coming season may be the deciding point for whoever the Devils go with.   I think one of them will eventually win out - probably Taormina at this point - but that remains to be seen.

Mark Fraser and Matthew Corrente are also similar players: physical, stay-at-home defensemen.  Fraser has been around for a few seasons and you know what you're going to get from him.  He'll throw his body about, show a little temper, and give decent enough defense on a third pairing while prone to some errors due to inexperience.  I could say the same thing for Corrente.  Corrente had his season cut short due to injury.  As unfortunate as that is, he's not getting any younger and nased on what I seen of Corrente, I'm not sure what he does that Fraser doesn't already do on the ice.    While I think they'll be re-signed, I have a feeling these two will be victims of the numbers game on defense sooner rather than later. 

Above all else, I hope the Devils do not give one-way contracts to all four of these defensemen if only to preserve some roster flexibility. There is no need to have as many as nine defensemen on one-way deals.  If the player isn't willing (Fraser and Salmela, who are on one-way deals), then maybe it's time to cut them loose.

NHL-Roster Impending Unrestricted Free Agents

The Devils have four impending UFAs on their NHL roster: goaltender Johan Hedberg (2010-11 NHL salary: $1,000,000); defenseman Andy Greene ($750,000); forward Adam Mair ($515,000); and defenseman Jay Leach ($500,000).  Leach was on a two-way contract.

Johan Hedberg played very well as a backup.  He was awesome in February, he filled in for Martin Brodeur when he was injured, and the only thing about him that bothered me is his game outside of the crease.   The Moose was fine. However, he's 37 and it's unclear as to whether he'll even play hockey next season.  Moreover, it's a buyer's market for goaltending; the Devils could (and should) get a viable backup for less than seven figures.  Then again, Hedberg may be willing to come back on the cheap and if he can still "go" at 38, then I wouldn't mind one more season with him as the #2 keeper.   I'm not holding my breath, though.

Andy Greene deserves a raise.  He will be making seven figures after July 1.  The big question is how much. Greene played out of his mind and filled as much of the injured-Paul-Martin void as one could hope for and more two seasons ago.  In this past season, he didn't play nearly as well - but he wasn't bad at all.  He got big minutes under Lemaire, and he did it with Anssi Salmela as his partner.  Greene is also one of the few two-way defensemen on the roster, and perhaps the only one who could play 20+ minutes without being exposed every night. 

However, Greene may be able to maximize his money elsewhere and the Devils have a crowded blueline.  The team does have 5 defensemen already signed, 4 RFA defensemen, Alexander Urbom competing for a spot, and Bryce Salvador (hopefully) coming back from a serious concussion.   Greene would definitely be on the roster despite all of the bodies given what he can do on the ice and what he has done in the last two seasons. That said, he's not irreplaceable.   I could see him walking on July 1, though I'd rather have the Devils dump other players to keep Greene for at least another season or two. 

I wouldn't mind if the other two UFAs went elsewhere.  Unlike Tim Sestito, Adam Mair had some flashes of usefulness.  However, like Sestito, he didn't bring much to the table on the fourth line.  Since the Devils have David Steckel for another season, he can center that line with David Clarkson, (hopefully) Zharkov, and Rod Pelley as a spare player.  I don't think he's needed and so he should not be re-signed.  Leach may be more palatable if he's willing to be a veteran presence down in Albany. If he's retained, it should only be on a two-way contract and for a minimum salary.

Concluding Thoughts

As it turns out, my initial reaction is that the Devils will likely retain their RFAs, pushing them up to 40 on the reserve list.  The main driver of how much that will cost will be Parise.  His extension will be the X-factor.  He will get more than $5 million, since that's how much he made this past season. When he was last healthy, he was definitely worth more than $5 million. If the two sides can agree to a cap hit around $7 million, then that would seem manageable for other re-signings.

Some of the RFAs will definitely be two-way deals so they all won't be on the salary cap; they would be signed specifically to stay in Albany but be available for any call-up duty if needed.  I could see one or two of the four defensemen RFAs not qualified to create a little relief, but right now, I don't feel that way. 

Andy Greene is the X-factor.  If he's willing to hang around for under $2 million for a little bit, then I think keeping him can be viable. Difficult, but viable.  If he wants $2 million or more, then he may not be able to stay.  That kind of sucks, since I'm not confident in the lack of versatility of a top four consisting of Volchenkov, Tallinder, White, and Fayne.  Of course, this is also contingent on what Parise gets.

The biggest surprise to me is that the Devils may not need to go out and sign someone off the open market except for a goalie. And that may be filled if Hedberg returns (and hopefully for less money). As noted in the beginning of this post, they nearly have a full roster already to go for next season.  One RFA signing at forward and defenseman and they are at the minimum for personnel. Should they qualify and retain all of their RFAs, they'll have a glut of defenders. That would open up the possibility for some trades; something the Devils may have to do anyway for some cap relief.

Ultimately, the Devils have tough decisions to make with respect to who to keep long-term, who to keep short-term, and who to let go.  I turn the question over to you.  Who do you want to see re-signed by the Devils, outside of Zach Parise (I am assuming this is a universal sentiment among Devils fans - there's no need to repeat it)?  Do you think the Devils can keep all of their RFAs and still have space for significant UFAs?  What are your quick reactions to impending free agency for 2011?  Please leave your answers and other free agency thoughts in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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