Sunday, May 09, 2010

Pool Outlook for New Jersey

A disappointing finish in the first round of the playoffs for the New Jersey Devils caps off a pretty good regular season for the Atlantic Division champions.  Unfortunately, they paid a lot in picks and prospects to ensure a longer run in the Spring and the disappointment that has mounted is pretty substantial.  A championship likely would have made the expenditures very bearable in the off-season, but now the Devils are left with next to nothing and more questions than answers heading towards the Entry Draft and the Free Agent Frenzy.

One of the questions may surround the team's best player in 2010, Martin Brodeur.  The now 38-year old goalkeeper had a very good regular season with 45 wins, 9 shutouts and 3 assists, giving him 111 points, ranking him 2nd in pool scoring, 1st among all goalies.  It would be really hard to believe that he would go after a season like that, especially with two years left on his contract, but the flags have been raised and the question marks were soon to follow.  If I was to make a wager, I would still have him on my list for drafting next season.

The Devils had a pretty good group of forwards in the regular season and for the better part of that season was led by Zach Parise, who finished with 38 goals and 44 assists in 81 games with the Devils.  Parise was a pretty consistent player all year, making good on some high draft picks.  The Devils did deal for Ilya Kovalchuk, but the bulk of his 41 goals and 44 assists happened in Atlanta.  Kovalchuk's 85 points do make him the highest scoring forward among the Devils players, but his picture is used for a different reason.  Tomas Zajac broke through as one of the Devils better scorers through the season, scoring 25 goals and 62 points, moving up quickly in the rankings, going up to 51st overall.  Jamie Langenbrunner had a bit of a down year (61 points in 81 games), Patrik Elias suffered a pre-season injury which hurt his year (48 points in 58 games), Brian Rolston saw a small improvement from 2009 (37 points in 80 games), Dainius Zubrus went down due to injury (27 points in 51 games) and David Clarkson also had injury problems (24 points in 46 games).  It should be fair to argue that if they had a healthy team all year, they may have been more dominant and ready for the playoffs.

The Devils defense was somewhat offensively underwhelming in 2010, having a high scorer with only 37 points in 78 games and that was Andy Greene.  Arguably, that was a pretty good season for Greene, who had never been so high in the rankings (222nd in the league, 33rd among defensemen), but with the added ice-time he picked up during the year and the offensive talent up front, points were going to come.  Mike Mottau was the second-best blueliner on the team, he had 18 points in 79 games, then Bryce Salvador with 14 points in 79 games.  The team's top defenseman going into the season, Paul Martin, had more than his fair share of injury problems in 2010, only playing in 22 games for the Devils, scoring 2 goals and 9 assists.  He had the best scoring rate among the team's blueliners, but that doesn't say too much when a players only plays a quarter of the season.

It's the same ol' story for the back-up goaltending in New Jersey, I suppose with the exception of 2009, where the guy hired behind Martin Brodeur doesn't get a great deal of time.  In 2010, it was Yann Danis that got the assignment of Chief Bench Warmer for the Devils, Danis almost saw enough minutes to fill six full games, which makes his 6 points on the season all the more believable. It hasn't been announced whether or not Danis would return to the Devils for the 2011 season, but he does provide reasonable back-up to the team's best player and on the cheap as well.

2011 Season Outlook
According to the list below, there isn't going to be much different from 2011 to 2010 (pre-Trade Deadline), so I'm not expecting too much to be different, until some new blood is infused into the line-up.  The Devils have a good core of players signed on through the 2011 season, so it should be easy to build around and get support for.  Saying that, I'm expecting more good things for the upcoming season.

Zach PariseAndy GreeneMartin Brodeur
Tomas ZajacBryce Salvador
Jamie LangenbrunnerColin White
Patrik EliasAnssi Salmela
Brian Rolston
Dainius Zubrus
Vladimir Zharkov
Jay Pandolfo
Pierre Letourneau-Leblond
Andrew Peters

The table above has 15 players, who are all signed and likely good to go in the regular Devils line-up for next season, and they have an approximate annual cap hit of $41.1 million, which leaves plenty of room for some improvements and even a big signing or two.  The Devils will likely need to add a top end defenseman or two to their team for a greater chance of success, so they could end up burning up a lot of notes, if they find themselves int he race for one in July.

The Devils have rights on probably the biggest free agent scoop in the Frenzy this Summer, as their trade deadline acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk is yet to be determined as a rental or a move to insert him into their line-up full time.   Kovalchuk will command a pretty lofty price, but he also plays the point on the power play, which may lessen the Devils need to spring for a quality defenseman.  Also hitting the market as an unrestricted free agent in July: Rob Niedermayer, Mike Mottau, Dean McAmmond, Martin Skoula, Paul Martin and Yann Danis.  I'm expecting to see Martin sign before too long, possibly Danis and Mottau, outside chance to the rest of them.

As for their restricted free agent list, David Clarkson and Rod Pelley head the list of players heading to free agency and you can throw in Mark Fraser as well, who played 60 games for the Devils in 2010.  Clarkson is likely due for a pretty good raise for the 2011 season, as he's been a very useful player for the Devils in the past couple seasons.

Looking at the Devils top ten prospects in the Future Watch, there isn't a great deal of size in their prospects, but there is plenty of talent and skill, which seems to be the new motif for Lou Lamoriello and company. Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby head the list of players coming up, a pair of playmaking Swedish forwards, taken in the first round of the 2009 and 2008 drafts, respectively. Both players have the Devils excited for their offensive future, especially since they are also good in both ends of the ice.  Also likely going to get a good look at camp will be Adam Henrique, a 2008 3rd rounder.

If the Devils are going to use some of their youth, it will have to be someone in their system at the moment, as they won't be drafting anyone in the 1st round this year.  In the Kovalchuk deal, the Devils sent Atlanta both their 1st and 2nd round picks this Summer, but did get the Thrashers 2nd round pick in return, which will be their highest pick in the Draft, which is around 38th overall.

What I said at this time last year: "Overall, the improvements offensively is the biggest point about the new Devils team that we saw in 2009. I am a huge fan of Zach Parise, who helped me win the Draft this year, as a sixth round pick. Don't count out management re-signing the remainder of their offensive free agents, because there was a lot of chemistry shared between them all. Try and tap the well, even if they try and improve their scoring with some new faces or if the UFAs want to test the market. Oh yeah... that guy in net is pretty good too. Despite his injury, he should still be considered one of the more durable goalies in the league."

Well, last year's statement was pretty generalized, wasn't it?  The Devils did managed to re-sign their core offensive players in the off-season and it seemed to work out pretty well.  They didn't add too much in the way of free agents, except for Rob Niedermayer, who was a good pick-up and eventually Dean McAmmond as well, who played his role well.  Martin Brodeur was everything as he is normally advertised, being the best goalie in the pool, so my faith in him was well-deserved.

For 2011, I'm expecting a lot of the same from the Devils, especially with the core players already signed on.  I'm expecting Paul Martin to re-sign with the club and I also have my suspicions that Lamoreillo will be going after another top end blueliner to help out, but I guess it's a question of whether or not they re-sign Kovalchuk.  If I was to wager a guess, I'd say an offer hits the table and Kovalchuk shops around come July 1st.  A lot on how the roster plays out depends on Kovalchuk, but I don't think the team's success really depends on him, as I see the Devils being in the same position with the same sort of scoring with or without him.

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