The Olympic Hockey schedule begins on February 12th, and the NHL break to allow players to represent their home countries will start on February 9th. The league will remain in hiatus until February 19th, and there will be no trades from February 7th until February 23rd. Additionally, there are some moderately confusing rules about what teams can do with waiver exempt players during the break, depending on how long they have been with their NHL clubs. The Devils have three players who are really in question here: Reid Boucher, Eric Gelinas, and Jon Merrill.
One of the easiest to follow descriptions I read came from Lindsay Kramer, who covers the Syracuse Crunch. Basically, it breaks down to the league setting two thresholds of NHL participation that would "qualify" the players for having earned an Olympic Break - 87 day players, and 16 game players.
(EDIT:) 87 day players have been on an NHL roster for more than 75% of the season (87 days or more) from October 1st to January 24th. All of these players will qualify for an Olympic break and will be ineligible to play in Albany unless they are assigned prior to 5pm on Friday January 24th. Gelinas falls into this category.
16 game players have participated in at least 16 of the team's last 20 games leading up to the Olympic Break, and will qualify for an Olympic Break regardless of if they are assigned to Albany prior to the break or not. Boucher and Merrill have participated in 16 or more of the Devils last 20 games up to today, so if their usage remains the same moving forward, neither will be eligible for Albany. I believe Boucher would have to sit out at least 4 of the next 8, and Merrill 3 of 8. While decisions on Boucher and Merrill can be left pending past Friday, Gelinas is over 87 days and would need to be optioned by Friday at 5pm, regardless. I think a case can be made for sending any of the three players to Albany, however, based on the current state of the Devils team, it might not make sense in all cases.
To begin is Reid Boucher, which is, in my opinion, actually becoming an increasingly more difficult decision with the return of Damien Brunner. I know that sounds unusual, but in this case, I feel the return of a certain player has actually made another player less expendable. It's been great to see Reid stick around for more than a game or two at the NHL level, but I think that's as much a testament to the state of the Devils forwards than anything in particular Reid has done. He has 6 points (2 goals, 4 assists) in 22 games, has 26 shots on goal, and is averaging just over 11 minutes a game of ice time. Reid's CF% is the highest on the team, so on the surface it looks very positive. When you look a little deeper, his SF% is near the bottom of the team, so it seems that he is involved in a higher than usual number of blocked and missed shots while he is on the ice.
Still, the kid is holding his own to some extent out there, and he has looked better in playing in third and fourth line situations with other fairly skilled players as opposed to playing at the top of the lineup. This is not really surprising. He seemed better last night against the Blues, but that game really wasn't contested at all, so I don't want to put too much emphasis on a 7-1 blowout. Still, I certainly think Boucher has done a good job overall, as he isn't giving up all that much going the other way. His 26 shots in 22 games is not good enough for a scorer with a shot as good as his. To me, Reid is maybe playing at slightly above a replacement level right now, which is fine, but a part of me would like to see him spend 3 weeks in Albany and start scoring some goals again down there, and stay in game shape. The complicating factor is that with the return of Brunner, now the Devils seem to have four decently distributed lines, and the team might not want to change that.
If Brunner slots well with Elias and Zubrus (he does), who does that leave to play with Zajac and Jagr? Boucher is really the only choice on this roster right now. In some ways, (at this point in Reid's career) you can get similar contributions in certain areas from a replacement guy like Mike Sislo, but Sislo is not going to play on the top line. Hey, this current set of lines may not work out long term, or even after a few more games. It might not work out in more competitive games (it hasn't before). Who knows. I think, to some extent, the lack of another scoring winger is keeping Boucher in New Jersey as much as Boucher is keeping himself in New Jersey, but that is the state of affairs right now.
Eric Gelinas is another tricky of a case, to me. Not only has he played in NJ for virtually the entire season, he brings a weapon, his shot, that the team doesn't otherwise possess. In this case, you would be clearly subtracting a skill that helps the team win now (on some nights more than others). The problem that exists here, is that he is giving back so much defensively on some nights, especially recently, that the coaching staff has shown a lack of comfort in using him in certain situations, understandably so. I would say Gelinas' regression on the defensive side of the puck is one of the main reasons the Devils have fuddled around with 7 defensemen of late, more so than just having a crowded blue line.
Overall on the season, he is still third on the team in blueliner points, sitting behind Marek Zidlicky and Andy Greene, albeit in about 10 less games played and lower ice time. His scoring had recently cooled, but he now has points in 4 of his last 5 games (2 goals, 4 assists). With the Devils so starved for goal scoring, can they do without Gelinas? This is a tough question, and probably, to me, the hardest decision of the three in question. I think the team will keep Gelinas in New Jersey through the break. It would have been nice to see how he fared last night in a more closely contested game, but alas. Still, if the Devils are going to be comfortable using him as one of the six defensemen, I say keep him in New Jersey. If they are going to use him instead as a 7th / PP specialist, I would just send him back to Albany and let him spend about 3 weeks working on the defensive elements of his game that are lacking.
The final player in question here is Jon Merrill. Merrill has really played pretty well for a first year pro pretty much thrown right into mid-season NHL action. Sure, he's had his up and down moments, but he has appeared in 26 of the Devils last 28 games at a pretty adequate level, playing mostly on his off hand. He has 4 assists in this time frame, but the points are not really a concern right now with this particular player. He also has improved enough in this stretch to earn time in all situations, power play and penalty kill. Recently, the Devils leaned on Merrill a little heavier than usual with Bryce Salvador and Eric Gelinas struggling. I think this was more of a short term solution for the team.
Most recently, Merrill was scratched last night in favor of Gelinas, and I think we may have seen the 6 defenders that the Devils want to roll in most upcoming games. Peter Harrold is also back with the team, and he should probably jump back into his role up in the press box as the 7th defenseman. Merrill, although he has been certainly good at times and has a very bright future in the NHL, would probably be the easiest of the rookies to send back down to Albany. In fact, I think the team should strongly consider optioning Merrill sooner rather than later. No point in letting him sit in NJ as a healthy scratch, and hopefully the intention is to stop using 7 defensemen now that the team has identified 12 forwards that seem to work well. It's really no knock on what Merrill has done; he's done everything the Devils could have hoped for so far. The blueline is crowded, and Merrill, right now, does not possess a unique tool, such as Gelinas, that can't be replaced.
So, among the three players in question, a part of me would like to see all three back in Albany until post - Olympic Break. Reality is telling me this probably isn't realistic. The Devils goal explosion last night almost certainly, in my mind, ensures Boucher will stay for lack of another player to slot into his role. Same with Gelinas. John likes to call his shot "The Truth", and it's pretty obvious why. Although, his goal last night was weird and fluky and probably only went in because some weird doppelgangers apparently stole the St. Louis Blues uniforms and masqueraded as said 'hockey team'. Nevertheless, Gelinas has worked his way back into a position where he will have to play himself out of the lineup again through ghastly defensive lapses, such as allowing David Clarkson to deke you out of your jock strap in a 1-on-1 situation. And, he doesn't have time to do so before Friday's deadline.
In conclusion, I see Gelinas and Boucher staying, and Merrill going back to Albany. You always have to balance the long term development of a young prospect / player with the needs of the parent club to win games now, and I think in the cases of Boucher and Gelinas, having them in the NHL gives the Devils the best chance to win now, for various reasons, and doesn't really do anything harmful to their development.
Now, I'd like to know what you think. Do you see the Devils making any moves before Friday's deadline? Would you like them to? If so, who would you like to keep in NJ, and who would you like to send to Albany? Did last night's game change any of your opinions on any possible moves (for me, it did)? Thanks, as always, for reading, and please jump into the discussion with your ideas on what sort of roster moves, if any, might make the most sense for the Devils before Friday and in the upcoming two weeks.