Free Agency Ain't Free

Though the 2009 NHL free agency period is just a day old, it’s already become clear what the Devils’ message is going forward.

Every year since the lockout, the trend has been the same. Have an outstanding regular season, clinch a playoff spot, possibly win the division, then proceed to play like garbage in the playoffs, leading to a first or second round exit. It’s a brick wall that Lou Lamoriello is tired of running into.

What is currently transpiring in the Devils Legion is not unlike two previous offseasons in the Devils’ history, those of 1998 and 2002. The Devils are usually a fairly stagnant team with minimal roster turnover every season, but once in a while when Lamoriello gets really sick of losing, he shuffles the deck. Time for a legal flashback, set your wayback machine to 1998.

During the season, after trading original Devil John MacLean, the Devils pulled off a deal that would prove historic: Bill Guerin and Valeri Zelepukin went to Edmonton for Bryan Muir and one Jason Arnott. At the time, Arnott had loads of potential but had not yet blossomed. Though he had been somewhat of a bust during his tenure with Edmonton, the right situation brought out the best in Arnott, who would go on to score the Cup-clinching goal in 2000. The next summer, the Devils signed the best player in the world not already in the NHL, Brian Rafalski, an undrafted enigma from Michigan playing in Finland. At the same time, fans saw the entrance of a new rookie class including Colin White and John Madden. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine winning in 2000 without the contributions of these four.

Fast forward to 2002. Though it was only one year removed from coming ever so close to defending their title, the ever popular A-line was becoming too dependent on one another for Lou’s liking. That, combined with their poor playoff performance signaled another major shakeup. Arnott was at the centerpiece of another major trade, this time heading to Dallas along with Randy McKay for Jamie Langenbrunner and Joe Nieuwendyk. Nieuwendyk’s impact would be immediately felt, while Langenbrunner was solid but truly saved his best for the 2003 playoffs. Completing the transition was the acquisition of Jeff Friesen and Oleg Tverdovsky from Anaheim for Petr Sykora and Mike Commodore, a trade with Columbus to land Grant Marshall, the debut of rookie Brian Gionta and later on rookie Mike Rupp stepping in when Nieuwendyk went down.

Now, here in 2009, Lou has deemed it time for another makeover. Gone are the same players who ushered in the last "new era," with Gionta off to Montreal, Madden to Chicago, and Rupp to Pittsburgh. Scott Clemmensen, who made the 2008-09 season worth playing, is now in Florida. And to be honest, I truly don’t understand the instant backlash from Devils fans.

I’m not attempting to say that this is the beginning of the road to Stanley Cup number four. I am saying that this is necessary, and we will be better for it. It’s not a knock on the play of any of the recently departed, and it’s not a reflection personally on any of them. It’s just the simple truth that if you continue to leave things as they are, you’re going to continue to hit brick walls. Maybe you don’t even make the playoffs next season.

The holes left are not expected to be filled by veterans, save for the potential re-signing of Brendan Shanahan. Rather, like White and Madden in 2000, like Gionta and Rupp in 2003, it’s time for the next wave of kids to hit the lineup. Remember these names, because you may very well see them in your program lineup at some point next year:

Matt Halischuk: Spent some time with the team last year, good solid young forward.
Alexander Vasyunov: Pure sniper, loads of skill.
Nicklas Bergfors: May finally have the chance to be used in his proper role.
Matt Corrente: Big solid defenseman with a mean streak.
Tyler Eckford: Quality puck-moving defenseman.
Rod Pelley: Mini-Madden may get his chance now.
Pierre-Luc Leblond: Instant fan favorite, sparkplug.
Jeff Frazee: Quietly training to become Brodeur’s successor, could potentially be the backup next year after an All-Star season in the AHL.

Of the above, maybe only two will make the 2009-10 roster. But with this promising group of prospects waiting in the wings, now is the time to get younger. We were an old and slow team last year, and everyone who predicted that the Hurricanes would skate circles around us proved to be right. Will it mean one or two down years? Maybe. But we will be much better for it in the long-run for a few reasons:

1. Everyone else. Look at the rebuilding teams in our conference sure to get better by the season: Montreal, Florida, the Islanders, etc. They only take 8 teams per year folks, and if someone is coming in, someone must come out. And with teams like Washington and Pittsburgh ready to maintain their levels of success, the Devils need to keep up. Sitting idle and pretending like everything was fine last year would have been a foolish route to take, and would surely see the Devils miss the playoffs for the first time since 1996. It’s one thing to miss the playoffs during a period of transition; it’s wholly another when you’ve got what you feel is a Cup-contending roster.

2. The salary cap. Both GMs and insiders alike are predicting the salary cap to go down after next season, possibly from 57 down to 50 million. While high spending teams like Philadelphia will be forced to unload players, the Devils will be sitting pretty on a few entry level deals. They may even have the cap room to pick up a quality player that another team can’t hold on to.

3. The next few summers. In the summer of 2010, priority #1 will be Paul Martin. In the summer of 2011, Zach Parise. In 2012, Martin Brodeur. We have too many contracts of core players to worry about in the future, and I’m sure any fan of the Devils would rather see our money spent on Zach Parise instead of Gionta or Madden. I know I would.

Look, I understand that Devils fans have become accustomed to rejecting change because it happens so infrequently, and I’m not going to deny that I get that way as well. But Lou is beginning to look progressive, and we as fans must adapt with him. Being stagnant was terrific in a non-cap world, but that world is gone. It’s time we joined everybody else here in the present. You can’t keep everyone, nor should you want to. The amount of backlash is understandable, but is also ill-advised. I wanted to point that out, and anyone who is upset with the Devils right now will be eating their words in a few years.

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