Tomorrow will arguably be the most important day of the offseason. It's the first day that unrestricted free agents (UFAs) can officially sign new contracts with whoever they want. It's the first day teams can extend players on the final year of their contracts. Plenty of teams have jockeyed for position in terms of cap and roster space in the hopes of landing the player they think they need. They will give out many offers to many free agents; as the offers build up, so does the price of the deal. What's done tomorrow will directly affect what will happen in the coming season and seasons to come. The day is commonly known as Free Agency Frenzy. And the New Jersey Devils are no different.
The Devils decided to increase their cap space and reduce a spot on defense. Earlier today, they used their second and final compliance buyout on defenseman Anton Volchenkov. With the compliance buyout, the Devils have wiped away the entirety of Volchenkov's contract from their books. He was due to make $4.25 million in each of the next two seasons. He is now free to play for 29 other NHL teams, and the Devils increased their cap space from roughly $9.7 million to $13.9 million.
I'm not surprised that Volchenkov got bought out. I wrote about this possibility earlier this month. There were really two prime buy out candidates on the team, and Volchenkov was the more likely of the two to get one. He was getting paid more than any other defenseman on the team while playing regularly on the third pairing. Even with two rookies appearing in a significant number of games, Volchenkov still ended up lowest on the team in average time on ice per game. While he has featured heavily on the team's first penalty killing unit, he doesn't face tough competition at evens nor does he really drive the play. His lack of speed and agility made him a liability against fast opponents, which contributed to his limited usage. His propensity for blocking shots has garnered him a reputation and nearly guarantees that he won't be able to play a whole season. He hasn't done so in his career. All this and next-to-no offense made it an awful contract even though Volchenkov wasn't the worst defenseman on the team. So I am pleased that Lou ultimately made this decision. Volchenkov was making too much and providing not enough.
I am also pleased by having another reason why one shouldn't take Lou's words to the press at face value. As Gulitti noted in his post about the buyout at Fire & Ice, Lou originally said a buyout would be unlikely. Plenty of Devils fans online lamented this response. I don't hear the lamentations so well now.
That said, I don't think the extra space will mean a return for Mark Fayne. It would be a false assumption to say that Fayne would not return because the Devils did not buy out Volchenkov or Bryce Salvador. While $9.7 million isn't a lot of space, if the Devils and Fayne wanted to make a fair deal, then they could have made something work. The reality is that I don't think Fayne is terribly interested in coming back. Pending UFAs were allowed to speak with teams in advance of July 1; get an idea of who would be interested in them and how much that interest was worth. As Fayne has been talking with other teams - notably, Edmonton - he's got a good sense of how much he could command on the open market. This year's class of free agent defensemen isn't that good; Fayne's underlying numbers look relatively strong per Extra Skater. Between that and being under 30, Fayne could stand to get paid really well. I would like Fayne to be kept because he's really good at what he does. But I think Fayne is going to exercise his right as a free agent. I can't begrudge him of that. He's 27. It's likely his best chance to maximize his salary in pro hockey. Unless the Devils plan to pay a lot of money - perhaps too much? - to retain Fayne, I think he's gone regardless of this buyout.
I do think that the extra space will mean the Devils will take a long look at some forwards in this year's class. They may not be able to go hard at a big name like Peter Stastny, but they should be looking for wingers who can help out throughout the lineup. Just off the top of my head and a quick glance at Extra Skater's dashboard, I'd like them to target Radim Vrbata, Ales Hemsky, Jussi Jokinen, or even Mason Raymond. Players of that ilk would have to be paid fairly well, but not at a massive premium. Additionally, the space should give the Devils plenty of room to pick up a decent backup goaltender. Rather than hope it's true that Martin Brodeur will go elsewhere (note: link is French), I'd like Lou to ensure it by getting someone who can spell Cory Schneider on those 18 back-to-back sets or busy weeks in the schedule.
The additional $4.25 million of cap space should make retaining all of the qualified restricted free agents a non-issue. Rich Chere reported earlier this afternoon at NJ.com that all of them except for Riley Boychuk and Harry Young have been qualified. Boychuk was the return in the Henrik Tallinder salary dump; he wasn't meant to stick around. Young was so deep in the depth chart that there was no reason to keep him on further. As for the rest of the RFAs, do pay attention to how much they do get paid. Qualifying just keeps their rights. It'll be of interest as to how much Adam Larsson, Eric Gelinas, Jacob Josefson, and Keith Kinkaid among others will get and for how long. I don't anticipate any of them getting huge deals; hence, the Volchenkov buy out should make the Devils a little more active on July 1. Whether it will be for better or worse will remain to be seen.
Lastly, those who want to see one of Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill, and Eric Gelinas have a spot on the 2014-15 team got what you wanted. Without Volchenkov, the Devils are down to four signed, veteran defensemen. This will be guaranteed if Fayne also signs elsewhere. Since that number includes Peter Harrold, you can safely bank on someone under 23 playing defense regularly for the Devils next season. As Larsson and Gelinas will definitely be signed, this year's training camp will be one to watch for. Not only as to who makes it but also who they will play with.
I'm sure most of you are pleased that the Devils cleared Volchenkov's contract. What do you think they should do with it now? What do you anticipate happening tomorrow? Please leave your thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.