There are two significant events coming up before the summer really takes hold and the current Collective Bargaining Agreement ends: the NHL Entry Draft and July 1, the first day that unrestricted free agents can sign new contracts. It is in these coming weeks where teams will put together their rosters for the next season and beyond. As fans, we have had the excellent fortune of watching our favorite hockey team, the New Jersey Devils, play actual hockey well into June. However, it's time to look ahead.
I don't know about you, but I'm only starting to catch up on prospects and free agents. Like last year, we'll provide several prospect profiles ahead of next Saturday's draft starting on Friday. As for free agency, the best place to start is with the team's current situation. With only a quick peek at the Devils' roster at CapGeek, it's obvious that the Devils have a lot of holes to fill. As of right now, the Devils have $1.667 million in dead cap space from the buyouts of Colin White and Trent Hunter, no goaltenders, five defensemen, seven forwards, and Eric Boulton signed for next season. They have more players off the NHL roster, but I don't think they can replace all of the available positions. On top of all that, the Devils have even fewer players signed for 2013-14; the moves they make now will have to settle some of the future roster as well unless the Devils want to build a team almost entirely from scratch.
Since the current CBA expires in September, this summer is governed by the current rules. This means the salary cap ceiling is set at a reported $70.3 million. The Devils ended last season with a cap hit of $61.7 million. That's not low at all, but they did not spend to the cap ceiling. I doubt the Devils will do so again with an increased cap. With a new CBA (hopefully) coming in the fall, there could be modifications to the cap in the future. In short, the Devils have a tantalizing amount of salary cap space (about $28 million) but I wouldn't expect or demand that they use all of it.
That all said, we need to consider who's about to become a free agent. We already know Zach Parise will is an impending unrestricted free agent, but there are several other players. After the jump, I have an overview of who is slated to become a free agent and some gut-feeling opinions on each. There, we can begin to discuss who we want to stay as New Jersey Devils, how much we think they should be re-signed, and who we would like to see sign elsewhere. July 1 isn't that far away, so let's start thinking about it now.Notes: All figures come from CapGeek, the premier source for all NHL salary and cap hit information. The listed salaries and cap hits are as if the player was in the NHL. A one-way deal means the salary remains the same regardless of whether the player is in the minors; a two-way deal means the AHL salary is different than the NHL salary; and an ELC is an entry level contract, which is two-way in it's nature.
Also, any new contracts signed are set at the player's age on September 15 of the year he was signed. So I've listed the player's age on that date to indicate what age he would be at for the next contract he signs. It only comes into play if the player is over 35, as the cap hit for players signed at that age and older cannot be wiped away by moving them to the minors.
Impending Free Agent Devils Goaltenders
For probably the first time since the Kurtis Foster trade, I can bring up goaltender Timo Pielmeier. It may be for the last time. While his entry level contract ends on July 1, it appears that he has already moved on with his career. According to the transfer section at Eurohockey, he has signed a contract with the Landshut Cannibals of the 2.Bundesliga on June 2. This June 4 post - in German, obviously - at the Cannibals' official website confirms it, as the young goaltender took questions at a team press conference. Given that Pielmeier spent most of 2011-12 in the ECHL, I highly doubt the Devils will try to keep his rights.
You should know the other two goaltenders: Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg have spent the last two seasons as the #1 and #2 goaltender, respectively, on the Devils. Both are up for new contracts. Both are old. Both have had long careers. Both want to stay. Martin Brodeur has indicated that he wants to stay on for another season. According to this post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice, Brodeur will discuss the matter with his family and make a decision before July 1. According to these two tweets by Gulitti, Johan Hedberg also wants to stay but will also discuss it with his family first.
Personally, I'd like to see some new blood in goaltender. Martin Brodeur was quite fine after the all star break, very good in the playoffs, and not so good before the all star break. Johan Hedberg has done well enough in a back up role, but I question whether he can keep up there too. I think the Devils would benefit with a higher team save percentage, overall. The time may be now to at least start the transition. The Devils have three guys in the system, with Keith Kinkaid likely the closest based on his play in Albany. There could be good talent available on the market or with a trade, as goaltenders don't have the high value like a top forward or a defenseman. I suspect Brodeur will return, I just hope it'll be for a lot less money. I'd try replacing Hedberg with Kinkaid and look for help next season if it doesn't work out.
Impending Free Agent Devils Defensemen
Let's start with the non-NHL guys. It's a bit jarring to me that even as far back as a year ago, Matthew Corrente and Matt Taormina could be in the mix. Well, they did get a good look in the league in that lost 2010-11 season. Anyway, Taormina was the only one of the three to get another extended call-up, as he played 30 games. However, he couldn't stick around and Peter Harrold ended up being a more effective #6/#7 defenseman who could not look terrible on offense. If Taormina stays, I doubt he'll be anything more than an occasional call-up guy. Alexander Urbom and Eric Gelinas have at least jumped him in the depth chart. Jay Leach is nothing more than a veteran presence for Albany, and I believe I can safely say that Matthew Corrente is who he is - an AHL defenseman.
The three NHL defensemen up for new contracts present a more interesting situation. Mark Fayne proved in 2011-12 that he can play an average of 20 minutes per game, go up against tough competition, and get ahead in possession without Henrik Tallinder alongside him. He was absolutely great alongside Andy Greene in the playoffs until the Stanley Cup Finals. Like most defensive defensemen, many fans don't think much of his game, but Fayne is definitely a top four defensemen. As a restricted free agent, the only one on the NHL roster as of June 13, he's almost definitely going to stick around. Fayne himself said on Wednesday that he doesn't expect any problems, according to this Rich Chere post at NJ.com. It's going to be real interesting to see how much of a raise he'll get. Kevin's already took one look at it; I still think I would be fine with something similar to Greene's salary.
As for the two unrestricted free agents, I'm not so hopeful that they'll both remain Devils. Bryce Salvador had a very good season considering his future of playing professional hockey was in doubt after missing all of 2011-12 with a severe concussion. He didn't get torched too much, he was able to play significant minutes including being on the top pairing on the awesome (in the regular season) penalty kill, and he provided an incredible amount of production in the playoffs with four goals and ten assists. That said, he's 36, he's not fast, he has a tendency to take stupid penalties at times, and he's definitely not going to provide that kind of production. While I doubt someone will throw a lot of money at him based on his playoff scoring, I do think someone will give him a deal. I think the Devils should let someone else take him. Peter Harrold proved to be good depth as a #6/#7 defenseman. I wouldn't mind if the Devils kept him around for another year or two. I think he would play again for a little bit above the league minimum. That said, I also wouldn't complain if the Devils decided to give that spot to someone from Albany (e.g. Urbom, Gelinas) or some other cheap defender with some experience from the market.
Impending Free Agent Devils Forwards
What's remarkable about the list of impending free agent Devils forwards is that only Zach Parise and Alexei Ponikarovsky made over seven figures last season. Everyone else were cheap, depth players with the exception of Petr Sykora, who was cheap because he had to come back into the league.
In any case, let's start with the non-NHL roster forwards. We know what Tim Sestito and Brad Mills are all about. The former is claimed to provide energy, the latter likes throw his weight around, and neither has been effective at the NHL level even on a fourth line. I can see them being retained for Albany, but I really don't want to see them with New Jersey for long periods of time. If they are kept, it'll be at the league minimum salary. Kory Nagy's entry level contract ends and so it's up in the air as to whether he'll be kept. He did stick around in Albany in 2011-12 instead of splitting time with the ECHL, so there's proof of improvement. I doubt he'll get to the NHL level anytime soon, but there's no issue with another year or two. I do feel bad for Vladimir Zharkov. He proved in 40ish game stints under Jacques Lemaire that he can be a serviceable fourth liner that can drive the play forward. He never got a fair shake under Peter DeBoer. So what if he didn't score many goals, neither do goons and yet they persist on this roster. He's also one of two under-25 forwards not on the NHL roster that could step onto the New Jersey roster right now; the other being Mattias Tedenby. I really hope he is qualified and re-signs with the organization and that he gets a fair shot at the fourth line. He could be needed should any part of the fourth line from the playoffs signs elsewhere.
That's right, the entire CBCG line (credit Sherry Ross for that nickname) are unrestricted free agents. They chipped in quite a bit of offense in the postseason and generated some real energy at times. They also, well, got pinned back like a fourth line at times; but after 82 games of the fourth line contributing next to nothing, they were a revelation. The question is really how much Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta, and Steve Bernier will be in demand? Bernier was used outside of the fourth line in spot duty, Carter and Gionta showed versatility in playing center and wing, and all three can hustle and hit. However, those kind of players come cheap. Even these three were cheap, as Bernier (signed during the 11-12 season) and Gionta got the league minimum salary and Carter was given a more lucrative but less secure two-way deal from Florida last summer. Can the Devils move on without them? Sure. Do I think they will? Well, maybe not with all three players, but I could see them keeping one or two. Will Lou and DeBoer learn that a fourth line of actual hockey players can be useful for 2012-13? It'll depend on what they do; signing a player like Bernier or Carter would be a good sign as would putting Zharkov on the fourth line. Signing another goon and/or playing Boulton regularly would not.
Speaking of goons, I don't want Cam Janssen to be re-signed. With Boulton on the roster, the Devils do not need two possession black holes who provide little offense, little defense, and can only play a handful of minutes per game as they rack up PIMs.
The issue of re-signing gets trickier for the likes of Petr Sykora. Sykora made the team out of training camp and proved to be a bargain in the larger view. He mostly played with Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus, he went up against tough competition, and he didn't hurt the team. Sykora proved he's still got a good shot with 21 goals. Getting 44 points from a player making less than Carter is good value. However, Sykora faded as the season went deep into the playoffs. He became more of a passenger in play, his shots and shooting attempts went down, and his lack of speed became more obvious. I'd like to think this is just fatigue more than anything else. However, it gives me some pause as to whether the Devils should keep him. He'll be 35, so that will affect the type of deal he gets. If the Devils think Tedenby can handle the NHL full time or they want to acquire a right winger so Ilya Kovalchuk can go back to left wing, then re-signing Sykora may be unnecessary. I don't think he'll get a lot, either in term or salary; and I'm not sure the Devils should retain him.
I do think the Devils should consider keeping Alexei Ponikarovsky. He has proven to be an excellent rental as he solidified the third line left wing position, he provided another big body to win pucks along the boards, and he wasn't too bad in either end of the rink. I almost want to say he plays kind of like Dainius Zubrus, though not as effective against tough players or versatile. Ponikarovsky looked lost late in the postseason; but for his third line role, I think he did quite fine with 7 goals and 11 assists in 33 games with New Jersey as well as one goal and 8 assists in the playoffs. He didn't make a lot last season and I suspect he'll want a little more money. If the Devils kept him around for $2 million for a year or two, I certainly wouldn't complain. It would help keep the third line solid as the Devils transition at least through 2012-13.
Of course, the most important name on this list and among all of the free agents is Zach Parise. Fans love him. I can't blame them. He was amazing from 2007 through 2010 until his injury in October 2010. At his best, he was scoring points, driving the play like it was a racecar, making big stops on defense, chipping in both dirty and pretty goals up close, and seemingly always in motion. He wasn't as amazing in 2011-12 as he was in those seasons, but he still scored 31 goals, picked up 38 assists, and unloaded a lot of shots on net. Plus, he was the captain of a team that went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. That's very good. The issue is how much more is he worth because of this season.
You see, the impending free agent market isn't loaded with a lot of high end scoring talent. After Parise, the only sure-fire, first-line scoring forward available is Alexander Semin. And like Semin, Parise is 28 - he's in the prime of his career. That only makes more desirable as a free agent. Therefore, there will be a lot of teams offering him big contracts come July 1, assuming Parise isn't signed by then. Kevin's already listed potential suitors (and he was prescient in not naming the Rangers). The big question Lou and every other GM has to ask is whether Parise can justify what he wants to make. I'm sure he values success - that would be a big plus from a Devils perspective given their playoff run - but he also wants to get paid real well. If you firmly believe he can be the player that we enjoyed from 2007-08 through 2009-10 for several more years, then Parise would be worth a big money, long term contract. If he's going to be more like how he played in 2011-12 from here on out, then he can't really justify a deal significantly more than the level he was at last season. I'm personally still figuring out how much the Devils should offer in both money and term. With an increased cap and a lot of interest, he could demand quite a lot. Yet, I think there has to be some point where either is too much for the Devils and their interests.
I will say that the perception is that the Devils got to re-sign Parise. Short of Parise coming out to the media and trashing the Devils, any contract with another team will be seen as the Devils management failing to keep him. Even if Parise demanded a max contract and a plane, the fault will lie on Lou, Vanderbeek, and everyone else in the organization. For some fans, the concerns about the team's finances have been centered around Parise and whether they could keep him. That's quite real to an extent; Lou says it won't be an issue in this Fire & Ice post by Gulitti, but it's no accident the team didn't spend up to the cap last season. There are fans who will be very irate that the team gave a huge contract to Kovalchuk but couldn't provide one for the Devils-developed, stud, (coughAmericancough) captain. There are fans who will flee from the Devils if Parise goes elsewhere. Many believe that Parise is a vital component of the Devils. I can agree that there's no one on the market or in the system that can replace him. I can't agree that the team will be sunk without him. Still, the onus is on whether the organization can get Parise to re-sign, not whether Parise would want a reasonable contract.
As usual, these all make for some very tough decisions for Lou and the Devils to make over the next few weeks. Parise will get a lot of the attention, but we can't ignore the other 19 free agents. Especially since it concerns two defensemen, both goalies, the postseason's fourth line, and two secondary wingers in addition to the ace. As we wait for news, I want to know your opinion on what the Devils should do with their impending free agents. How would you handle the goaltending situation? How much of a raise would you give to Fayne? Would you keep Salvador and/or Harrold? Which forwards would you want to see re-signed and why? How much would you offer Zach Parise and for how long? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on the Devils who are about to become free agents in the comments. Thank you for reading.