It's no secret that all of a sudden the Devils have too many NHL-caliber forwards; while it's questionable how many of them are legit Top-6 players, the fact is there are currently 13 forwards under contract (along with a qualified Jacob Josefson and interest in bringing back Ryan Carter) that belong somewhere on an NHL roster. Even if the Devils wanted to make two of them a healthy scratch every night along one with of the seven defensemen, that still leaves them with one forward too many if Carter does indeed come back.
There are a few options for the Devils to go on this one; the first would be to obviously make a trade. While the Devils forwards are mostly a cluster of Middle-6 talent, it doesn't mean that a team wouldn't trade a middle or low round draft pick to round out part of their roster. The team could also send down a forward to the Albany Devils; while not the best course of asset management, it can be used as seen not once but twice last season, to remain compliant with the limit of a 23 player roster. A third possibility is that a player gets injured (or remains injured), and the Devils' depth suddenly looks like the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Safe or Not Safe?
So who should the Devils be looking at moving to reduce the current crop of forwards? It's not truly an easy decision to be made; all of the signed forwards are on one-way deals. Carter if he returns will not be on a two-way deal, and the same can probably be said of Josefson, as he was on a one-way contract last season. Let's start out with players who should be safe first.
Safe: Mike Cammalleri and Martin Havlat
These two get singled out first because they were the Devils big free-agent signings of the summer; barring a major unforeseen circumstance or some trade offer involving one of these two that blows management away, it's safe to say these two will have a role in the Top-9 this coming season.
Safe: Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique, Jaromir Jagr, Travis Zajac
These four get grouped as they were the four leading point scorers on the Devils last season, but they individually bring a lot to the table as well. Jagr was a major surprise last season proving with his 67 points in 82 games that he still has a lot to contribute even though he will turn 43 during the upcoming season. He was also a +16 on a team that didn't have too many players with a favorable plus/minus, and while this number. Henrique seemed to overcome his sophomore slump (where he was only on pace for 31 points) to lead the team with 25 goals despite missing the last few games of the season due to injury. Patrik Elias was Patrik Elias; despite being another player that missed a decent chunk of time due to injury, Elias finished second in scoring on the team with a similar point per game pace as Jagr. Zajac wasn't as productive as many would have hoped with his contract, but he still finished third on the team in points while being the only regular center with a face-off percentage above 50 on the team. These four are all important parts of the team, and again unless there is some huge trade made, these four will not be removed from the lineup.
Probably Safe: Ryan Carter (if re-signed), Stephen Gionta, Tuomo Ruutu, Dainius Zubrus
This section comes about as a sort of "players that could be moved but probably won't be moved" grouping. Carter and Gionta both had pretty good season by fourth line player standards; the only movement I could see for either one of them would be to the AHL after the preseason, but it doesn't seem likely. Gionta was behind only Steve Bernier (and technically Ruutu if you include his stats from Carolina) in hits on the team, and wasn't nearly the liablity that Bernier proved to be. Carter had some big moments last year that showed how much effort he gives on every shift, and also seemed to almost universally be the one member of CBGB that everyone who reads this blog would wants back.
Ruutu and Zubrus are essentially the same player; they both provide a big, physical presence, but don't contribute all that much offensively anymore. That's why it was such a head-scratcher when the Devils acquired Ruutu at the trade deadline; Andrei Loktionov wasn't providing much for the team, but he was a different type of player in the Bottom-9 that provided some speed for the Devils. If the Devils were to move a player, one of Zubrus or Ruutu could go, but they don't have contracts that are as move-able as some of the players below.
Unsafe: One of Michael Ryder and Damien Brunner
If the Devils were to make a trade to alleviate the roster crowding, they would be looking to move a player who fills the same role as someone else on the team. Ryder and Brunner both provide very similar styles of play, and are both right wingers, just like Jagr and Havlat. None of these four players are fourth liners, which makes it likely that New Jersey is shopping one of Ryder and Brunner.
There were times last season where this clip critiquing Alex Ovechkin's defense could just as easily have summed up Michael Ryder's lack of defensive hustle. He might be a fit for a system that could cover his defensive shortcomings. Damien Brunner meanwhile did not contribute nearly as much to the Devils as he did to the Red Wings the season prior. With just one year left on each contract, the Devils could try to see if Ryder can return to form or if Brunner's season was a sophomore slump similar to Henrique's.
Unsafe: Jacob Josefon
Josefson could simply be demoted to the AHL after the preseason and left there if he doesn't perform well and the Devils determine there are 13-14 better forwards on the roster. He could also be part of a trade, as a team could see him as a young player that might succeed in their system.
Jacob's career totals are disappointing for a former first round draft pick; at the same time he hasn't had consistent playing time, partly due to injury, partly due to lackluster play. He seems like he could be a solid defensive center, but Peter DeBoer currently likes to put Stephen Gionta in that role. Unless Josefson discovers his offensive game quickly this season he could be one of, if not the only forward out at the NHL level.
Unsafe: Steve Bernier
I list Bernier as unsafe due to his performance last season; while his consistent line-mates Carter and Gionta were sometimes played too high on the depth chart, Bernier got an extended stay on the second line playing with Patrik Elias. Bernier would respond by posting 3 goals and 9 assists in 78 games along with a dismal -15 and 2.9% shooting percentage.
I wasn't keen on the Devils re-signing Bernier, as I felt (and still feel) there's better players in the organization that could fill the role Bernier played. While he led the team in hits, Gionta and Zubrus weren't far behind him, and the rest of his negative statistics had me hoping the Devils would let him go. They did wind up re-signing him, but that doesn't mean he can't be outperformed before the season begins; if he does get beaten for a roster spot, Bernier could be placed on waivers and/or sent to the AHL.
Unsafe: Ryane Clowe
Clowe gets placed as unsafe, but not in the sense that he would be cut, traded, or placed in the minors; after suffering a second concussion during this past season alone, all has gone quiet on the Clowe front. There hasn't been an update on his condition since he confirmed that his "upper-body injury" from the Devils/Panthers game on March 31st was in reality a concussion.
I personally liked what Clowe brought to the team; he put forth a nice combination of grit and skill and seemed like he was getting going playing with Zajac and Jagr. However as I've said in previous articles, long-term health is a bigger priority. The fact that nothing has come out of the Clowe camp has to make you wonder if it's quiet because of the summer or quiet because he's still having concussion-related issues.
If Clowe is ready to go for the regular season, and the Devils don't want to do one of their forwards a disservice by sending them down to Albany, then the only logical option is to trade a player for either a prospect, a draft pick, or a combination of those assets.
While I feel Josefson and Bernier could be sent down, the fact is they probably won't be; if the team no longer wanted them, they would not have been re-signed. Bernier will continue to get fourth line time and Josefson will probably spend another season in the press box, filling on occasionally.
I could see one of Ruutu/Zubrus or Brunner/Ryder being traded, with the latter pairing being more likely. Brunner and Ryder each only have one more year on their contract, so even if they didn't fit in on a new team, that team wouldn't have to keep them around very long. Ruutu and Zubrus are each signed for another pair of seasons, and are less productive than the other pair as well.
If I were put on the spot and had to make a decision today, I would like to see either Zubrus or Ryder moved. I know the idea of moving Zubrus is unlikely due to his no trade clause, but Ruutu does what Zubrus does only better, plus he's younger as well. Ryder just seems like a poor fit in a defensive minded system as his game is all about offense. There has to be some team that would be willing to try him in an offensive minded system for just one year at the cost of a mid/low round draft pick.
While obviously something will be done before opening day to meet the roster size restrictions, I would like to know what you think the Devils will/should do. Who do you think will be moved one way or another? Do you feel Lou Lamoriello is working on a trade behind the scenes that will shock the fans? Is a player that I listed as "safe" possible to be moved? Please leave your thoughts on the crowded front-line below!