Earlier last week was the NHL Draft Combine and as a result, there were plenty of representatives of management on hand. Not so much as to change an opinion about a prospect. The combine doesn't really help one's stock (well, doing poorly could hurt); but the interviewing process has value in getting face time with a prospect ahead of June 30. In any case, Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice got to talk with Lou Lamoriello about the draft and this offseason. Lou was very candid regarding both topics. So much so that you don't need to read much between the lines. With those comments in mind, I figured now is a good time as any as to review what the Devils plan to do in this coming offseason. July 5 is only a little more than a month away, after all.
First, let's touch on the draft. Lou had this to say regarding their need:
"I’d say that if you had a preference and it was on an equal par it would be a scoring forward," Lamoriello said. "It doesn’t take Einstein to think that one."
I bring this up to tell this to everyone who's interested in doing a mock draft or try to guess what the Devils should be looking for the in the draft.. No, the Devils do not need a defenseman. No, the Devils do not need a goalie - and drafting a goalie in the first round isn't a smart idea to begin with. No, the Devils do not need a forward whose ceiling is a two-way player. We've profiled such players because they could be around when the Devils pick and we want to be comprehensive. That said, we recognize that they do need a scoring forward as there is a dearth of them in the system. Expect them to take one even if they trade down or trade up. Regarding the latter, Lou dismissed going after #1 and I can't imagine any pick in the top six would come easily so I suspect they'll stay at #9 - for now.
With that out of the way, Lou's responses regarding free agency really stand out. He's confirmed to Gulitti that he's in discussions with the agents of five impending unrestricted free agents: Patrik Elias, David Clarkson, Dainius Zubrus, Marek Zidlicky, and Peter Harrold. He stated the goal is to get them signed by July 5, which is when UFAs can sign with whoever they'd like. This is a clear indication that if it was up to Lou, he'd bring him all back. That has it's pluses and minuses. It's positive for Elias and Clarkson since there really aren't any apparent replacements or upgrades for either player on the open market. I'm on the fence on Zubrus - and I'm still trying to grasp that it's been six seasons already - as I'm not quite sure of his value. I'm not a huge fan of Zidlicky, but absent another offensive-minded defenseman who can handle the point on a power play, I can understand his return. It's a bit of a head scratcher that he would want bring back Harrold given that the Devils have a number of defensive prospects that could conceivably handle a #6/#7 role on defense. I don't know, maybe there will be other moves to be made.
Lou also revealed that he's not intent on bringing back Steve Sullivan, as it's up in the air as to whether he'll want to keep playing at all. He'll turn 39 just after free agency begins and so retirement is a legitimate option. If he doesn't retire, I don't think the Devils will retain him since Lou thinks they need more youth in the top six. I'm not sure what youth he means unless he's thinking Stefan Matteau can make it. He's hinted at the same Tom Kostopoulos and Alexei Ponikarovsky. I think Kostopoulos is an acceptable fourth line player. However, the Devils have a number of those players so he's not really needed. I didn't think Ponikarovsky made as big of a mark as he did two seasons ago; granted, he then filled in a gaping hole on the third line so it was hard to ignore then. I can agree with those players being on the outside for this summer. Of course, that also means they need to be replaced.
Regarding the restricted free agents, everyone not named Matt D`Agostini will be qualified. I had a feeling that would happen when I did an overview of all of the RFAs. Since qualifying him would mean he'll get at least $1.8 million and he didn't supply that value in this past season. It's not out of the question that the Devils could sign him for a lesser contract as an UFA, but he could sign elsewhere too. I don't think he would be missed. In any case, qualifying all of the significant RFAs guarantees part of the cap would be taken up and that would likely increase since it's a given that Adam Henrique, among others, will get much more than his qualifying offer.
If you consider this to be a giant puzzle, then Lou just provided some pieces to work with. Let's speculate what the completed picture might be. It's almost a guarantee that there will be a new assistant coach to replace Matt Shaw. Given his draft comment, I figure a scoring forward will be drafted - and he may get a long look in camp too. Here are a few possibilities that I think could happen regarding the rest of the offseason.
The All According to Plan Scenario: Let's assume that Lou manages to keep the five UFAs he's currently in negotiations with and those he's hinted or stated would not return do not. Let's also assume that all RFAs qualified do sign contracts with the Devils. That would give the Devils a full roster of two goalies, eight defensemen, and twelve forwards. That doesn't include the possible return of Stefan Matteau and the inclusion of someone having a really great training camp. You could have a potential top-six similar to what we saw last season with Ilya Kovalchuk, Elias, Clarkson, Travis Zajac, Loktionov, and Henrique. Feel free to swap someone out for Zubrus if you're so inclined. If the Devils feel that group can be more productive next season, then it may work. It could end up being cheaper than going out to the open market and overpay someone to get their signature ahead of other teams. I still think another scoring forward would really help, preferably a right winger that could perform well with Kovalchuk. But if you wanted to see change, well, you'd be out of luck.
The Nothing Went According to Plan Scenario: Let's assume the opposite: none of the UFAs agree to a deal before July 5 and a couple of the RFAs - namely Andrei Loktionov and maybe Harri Pesonen too - get qualified but sign abroad. That would leave the Devils with a lot to do with a free agency market that's not all that strong. Replacing what Zubrus brings to the table along with Harrold is possible. Replacing Elias and/or Clarkson would be nigh-impossible for just one player to do. Throw in a top-nine forward plus a depth forward going away and those are additional holes to fill in. There aren't a lot of offensive defensemen available on the market either so trying to get someone to do what Zidlicky did would be tricky as well. The Devils would have a lot of cap space, but they'll have to scramble to get players away from other teams. It's a tempting proposition in that the Devils can re-make a large part of their roster. It's a scary proposition in that the Devils may end up weaker out of all of the changes since Elias has been a legend and Clarkson has been more useful than not in the last two seasons. I would go as far as to say it's a worst-case scenario even though it's not a guarantee of defeat.
The Veterans Stay Scenario: Let's assume Lou has some mixed success with his UFAs. Patrik Elias and Marek Zidlicky aren't getting any younger; and Dainius Zubrus will be an old 35 since he's been in the NHL since he was 18. At their points in their careers, they could value security and familiarity over the most lucrative deal. They may like where they are both on and off the ice and may prefer to stay. Possibly for less money than what they could get elsewhere. This would be beneficial in that the Devils keep an ace forward, their one offensive defenseman, and a versatile winger. The risk is that they may not be as useful as time goes on, but in the short-term isn't bad. I doubt that'll be the case for Harrold, as he may use his time in NJ to parlay into a full-time job elsewhere, or Clarkson, who's in a position to get paid incredibly well. The Devils would definitely be OK without Harrold given their depth on defense. Replacing Clarkson would still be very difficult. Still, it won't be as costly to replace one top-six forward if they had to replace two plus a top-nine guy. As far as the RFAs go, they are what they are. At least it may open up the door for one of the "secondary" guys like Ponikarovsky, though they could be gone quickly on July 5.
The Forwards Stay, but the Defenders Leave Scenario: Somehow, Elias, Clarkson, and Zubrus are each retained, the RFAs get qualified and stay, but Zidlicky and Harrold do not and risk going elsewhere. I would be content with this possibility. It's not a really controversial statement to state that Elias and Clarkson are the important free agents to keep and if they're kept, then that's good. The RFAs stay to further bolster the roster. Again, I do think it would be a challenge to replace Zidlicky but the Devils' defensive prospects would get opportunities to make their case at the NHL level and fill in the role. Another scoring forward may still be needed but the Devils would have the freedom to choose instead of replacing someone Lou wanted to keep.
The Forwards Leave, but the Defenders Stay Scenario: Well, this is similar to the nothing went according to plan possibility except Zidlicky and Harrold stay. My feelings are the same except the Devils don't have to find a Zidlicky replacement. It's still a bad possibility for the other reasons.
The Youth (or Relative Young) Scenario: The RFAs all stay, Clarkson and Harrold get re-signed (a.k.a. the relatively young), but Elias, Zubrus, and Zidlicky goes. While the Devils would keep their big shooter, they would need two forwards to replace Elias and Zubrus, which is far from an ideal scenario. They could sign younger players, the RFAs would be able to play significant minutes, and the opportunity for Matteau or their top draft pick to get in the lineup may be there in the Fall. But their contributions and the makeup of the team would drastically change. Given that Elias alone did so much good, it's hard to think it would be for the better at first. It's not a terrible scenario but it's not ideal because, again, very few can do what Elias does all by themselves.
These are some of the possibilities that come to mind. Mind you, this doesn't even include the possibilities of a buyout (I don't think there will be any) or a trade, which would change how we see the team going forward. I also didn't mention money, though we'll get into that in a later post. There's a lot that can happen within this month. Given that this is Lou we're discussing here, much of it will be behind the scenes and we'll only know about it until it happened or well after it happened. Before you know it, it won't be long. In the meantime, please leave your speculation regarding what the Devils will do this summer in the comments. Include terms, lineups, or whatever you'd like. Thanks for reading.