In Part 1 of my discussion on the 2010-2011 Devils penalty killing unit, I mentioned that the additions of Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov should make the defensive unit a much tougher one for opponents to face. With the Devils utilizing three top penalty killers in Volchenkov, Tallinder and Colin White it should help the Devils make a mediocre penalty killing unit better, right? If you remember I also mentioned a problem area for the penalty killing unit coming into next season.
The Bad: With the loss of Rob Niedermeyer to the Buffalo Sabres (who was replacing the time John Madden once played on the unit), the buyout/release of Jay Pandolfo and seemingly no interest in bringing back Dean McAmmond, the Devils lose 1/3 of the forwards that significantly contributed on the penalty kill in 2009-2010.
Now this post dovetails with John's earlier post on the different candidates for third line center. (Read it here if you missed it) John listed out the three options that the Devils had for a third line center and one of the options (however unlikely we thought it was because of the Devils cap situation) that may have to be explored is free agency. With the way the NHL offseason has progressed there are still a number of quality players looking for jobs and that should be able to be signed for a salary close to the league minimum. The Devils may have to look into the free agency pool to ensure they have sufficient depth for penalty killing minutes and third line players.
After the jump I will talk about the internal options the Devils have and address some free agent options that can play on the penalty kill and in either a third or fourth line capacity.
The chart below shows how the minutes were broken up among the Devils forward penalty killers. You will immediately notice that the top two players on that list (Niedermayer and Pandolfo) are no longer with the team and Dean McAmmond still remains a free agent. The four players left available at this time are players currently slotted to play on one of the top two lines. Brian Rolston, could also be playing on a second line depending on whether or not Ilya Kovalchuk remains with the team.
There are roughly 12 minutes per game for which the forwards are responsible. I will guesstimate that 2 of those minutes will be eaten up by a mixture of forwards (Zach Parise, Danius Zubrus and others average less than :45 per game). My focus is to find a way to generate 10 total minutes out of the remaining players who spent significant time on the ice last year and/or speculate on a potential new acquisition.
If we assume all of the main forwards who contributed on the penalty kill return then there is a total of roughly 5 minutes left unaccounted for with the losses of Niedermayer, Pandolfo and McAmmond. How will this gap be filled? I think this will require three things happening (1) one player stepping up in a big way, (2) veterans pitching in to contribute and (3) one or two low risk free agent signings.
1. Travis Zajac
Zajac's breakthrough year last season placed him 6th among voters for the Frank J. Selke Trophy (awarded to the league's top defensive forward) along with the highest dGVT rank among forwards last year. Zajac's defensive skills will be necessary for next season as the Devils -barring a major acquisition- will likely look to Zajac to fill the void left by Niedermayer on the penalty kill unit. Why Zajac? A few reasons:
Faceoffs-He was the best faceoff man for the Devils last year (52.9%) and defensive zone faceoffs during the penalty kill are extremely important (as if I needed to say that).
Jason Arnott-The addition of Arnott to the Devils not only gave them the second line center they have needed for three years but it also gave them a player who is used to extensive time on the power play. Averaging 3:24 on the power play last year, I am sure he will be utilized there in some capacity. Considering Zajac's presence as the #1 center option on the PP last year (along with almost 2:00 of ice time) there might not be enough power play minutes to go around. (Once the Kovalchuk situation is resolved I will look at the power play minute distribution) Giving Arnott the first shift on the power play would free up Zajac for one to two additional shifts on the penalty kill.
If Zajac can be utilized for at least 3:15 on the penalty kill (+1:25) the Devils would still be as proficient with the extra attacker and they would still be supporting the penalty kill with a solid player.
2. Three veterans, one shift each. This one is pretty easy to communicate. Patrik Elias, Brian Rolston and Jamie Langenbrunner can play an extra shift each (40 seconds) in order to fill the void on the penalty kill. Each is smart and will avoid the costly mistakes that may occur if the Devils throw one of their younger players into a situation for which they aren't ready. Also, considering the power play depth the Devils have, I am sure their overall ice time should be similar to last year, as Arnott and possibly Kovalchuk will play heavy minutes there. Their respective point totals might suffer, but as always, preventing goals is just as important as scoring them.
3. Outside help. If we add a potential extra 1:25 from Zajac and 1:20 from the veterans above the Devils still need to utilize another 2:20 in forward time on the penalty kill. Noticing a tweet the other day from CapGeek I started looking through the remaining UFAs to see if there was a bargain out there for the Devils. To filter the list I used the following 5 qualifications:
#1. Player must have averaged at least 1:00 of time on ice on the penalty kill. (And yes I kept Dean McAmmond in there. I like Dean and this is my list!)
#2. I took out some players who would obviously be too much money (Patrick O'Sullivan/Eric Belanger/Lee Stempniak/Frederik Modin), and who the Devils couldn't sign (Jay Pandolfo) and was left with the following list of players.
#3. Obviously that is too big of a selection so I utilized dGVT/GVT to chop the list up some more. (Potulny was also taken off as he will probably command a multi-year deal). My rationale being that you want a player who is responsible defensively if he is going to play on the New Jersey Devils
#4. Faceoff percentage: After filtering for players with a 50% or higher percentage I was left with the following five players: Ryan Johnson, Steve Begin, Wayne Primeau, Richard Park and Jeff Halpern.
#5. Cost. This player needs to be paid no more than $750K-$900K. Assuming Primeau or Halpern aren't willing to take that large of a paycut (although it isn't unreasonable in this market that they wouldn't) that leaves us with:
Ryan Johnson, Steve Begin and Richard Park.
Not an outstanding list, is it? Here is what I would do:
If the Devils can re-sign McAmmond for $500K-$650K, I would say bring him back. McAmmond can play a shift or two on the penalty kill and play 6-7 minutes a game on the fourth line and is a sufficient short term replacement on the third line should an injury occur.
Since I am not a big fan of Begin or Johnson, I would look into signing Richard Park for a similar salary to last year’s $750 to cross the
In $1.35MM the Devils buy two things: insurance against players like Adam Henrique, and Jacob Josefson not being able to play effectively on the penalty kill and a third line player in Park who can eat up minutes on the penalty kill and play on the third line with Zubrus as the center and possibly Rolston on the LW. Park could of course handle faceoff duties when necessary.
Of course signing Park and/or McAmmond does prove problematic with a team that is looking to get younger and is already pushing the limits of the salary cap, but the Devils are built to win now (and the future if Kovalchuk and Parise are signed long term) and if the forwards aren't reinforced with more penalty killing depth you would devalue the additions of Volchenkov and Tallinder and put forwards into positions they aren't used to.
Whether it is Richard Park, Dean McAmmond or someone else the Devils will need to address this gap on their roster. On a positive side it could be a great individual year for Travis Zajac, who if successful in a top penalty killing role, should receive heavy consideration for the Selke this year.
Now it's your turn. Do you think the forward depth on the penalty kill is as dire as I make it? Will the Devils give a younger forward a chance or sign a veteran? Sound off below!