Bobby Holik. Scott Niedermayer. Scott Gomez. Brian Rafalski. Brian Gionta. Paul Martin. And now Zach Parise. These are just a few of the names that come up in the minds of New Jersey Devils fans with respect to free agency. All of these players ended their last contract as Devils and became unrestricted free agents. All of these players signed with other teams for big money. This makes it look like the Devils have trouble keeping the "big name" free agents in New Jersey.
A reader by the name of Kevin brought this up and asked me via email whether this is a Devils-specific problem or whether it's typical throughout the league. I'd like to thank Kevin for the question. My short answer is that it's more typical around the league. I'd take it a step further and argue that the departure of most of those players that Kevin brought up hasn't significantly hurt the Devils. Please continue on after the jump for a more detailed response.
Based on TSN's UFA tracker from the 2012 offseason, only 34 out of 135 players went to UFA and re-signed with their original team. Based on USA Today's free agency tracker from the past few years, the number of players arriving and departing varied among teams across the league. Even with the loss of Parise, the Devils lost only one other free agent in 2012. In 2011, they only really lost Colin White (he was bought out) and kept everyone else. In that infamous 2010 summer, while the Devils lost Martin, they did acquire Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov while keeping David Clarkson and some guy named Ilya Kovalchuk. In 2009, the Devils' only major loss was Gionta. It's not as if every important player from New Jersey reached unrestricted free agency and immediately went elsewhere. In fact, if you scroll through those four lists, you'll see that some teams (look at Detroit) had summers with more losses than others.
Therefore, I think it's safe to say that keeping UFAs at all isn't a Devils-specific problem. This shouldn't be so surprising of a result. Players only get so many opportunities to have control over where they sign in their careers. When that opportunity comes along, they're going to at least be interested in hearing what offers they could get.I believe that's main driver why it's like that: money. All of those players Kevin listed got lucrative deals for better - I'd say Scott Niedermayer justified his $27 million/4 year deal with Anaheim - or for worse - take your pick of Bobby Holik or Scott Gomez and laugh at the Rangers anyway.
Sure, there were other factors that helped in those decisions. Holik, Gomez, and Niedermayer went through arbitration with the Devils in the season before they signed elsewhere. The arbitration process is cold, impersonal, and can damage a player-team relationship beyond repair. Regardless of how those three did, they didn't feel compelled to stay in NJ for long. Niedermayer also had the draw to play with his brother, Rafalski and Parise had the added draw to play at home, and Martin had the draw to pick an improved target (Pittsburgh) over others with more lucrative offers (the Islanders). But the common thread among all of them is that they all got significantly long and pricey deals from other teams.
As an aside, the Devils haven't exactly been cheap either. Only recently did the Devils not spend to the ceiling of the salary cap; and their own big contracts handed to other team's free agents have had mixed results to put it nicely. For example, look two of the big signings from 2007: Dainius Zubrus has been arguably useful for the duration of his $20.4 million/6 year deal; Brian Rolston wasn't as useful with his $20.25 million/4 years deal.
Has it been a big issue? With the benefit of hindsight, I think the Devils have only really missed Niedermayer (he did very well in Anaheim) and to some extent Brian Rafalski (he was a great producer from the blueline and did very well in Detroit, but $6 million/year good? I'm not so sure.). The Devils really haven't had a two-way or offensive defenseman to come close to filling their roles. Gomez and Holik didn't come close to justifying their deals and aren't even Rangers anymore; as much as he would fit a current positional need in NJ, Gionta's production has been hampered by injuries too much to justify his $25 million/5 year contract; and while the underlying numbers look good, Martin has had mixed reviews in Pittsburgh so far. The group didn't go out there like Niedermayer and continued to dominate. Even in his case, it's not like Niedermayer did nothing of importance as a Devil.
Easing their losses is the Devils have managed to be a strong team with the sole exception of the 2010-11 season after those players signed elsewhere. New Jersey has been able to keep key players for long (e.g. Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias) as they can contribute. When those big names departed, other players have stepped up and performed well to ease their absence. John Madden and Jay Pandolfo emerged after Holik left; Travis Zajac came onto the scene when Gomez left; and the Devils' defense has been solid defensively without Martin. Call it luck, call it good planning, but all those player departures hasn't doomed the team. The loss of Parise may be more damaging, but that remains to be seen - just like his own performance in Minnesota.
Thanks to Kevin for the question. Do you happen to agree with my response? If not, how do you see the situation? Did I miss anything important that would lead to a different answer? Please leave your responses and other relevant thoughts in the comments.