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Starting a Transition: Devils Must Evaluate All Players Not Just the Trade Bait

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With the trade deadline one week away, the New Jersey Devils can begin what Lou Lamoriello calls "a transition" for the team. In order to do that and do it right, the Devils must be willing to evaluate all players' futures - not just those the fans want to move.

Transition, re-build, whatever you call it, Lou has some tough decisions coming up.  Hint: don't keep the two suits next to him.
Transition, re-build, whatever you call it, Lou has some tough decisions coming up. Hint: don't keep the two suits next to him.
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Lou calls it a transition.  Whatever you call it, the New Jersey Devils have a lot of work to do to get better.  As important as the 2015 NHL Entry Draft will be, getting even the right bunch of 18-year olds alone aren't going to be solution.  The team needs to identify what they currently have right now and determine who's worth keeping around and who should be moved.   The NHL Trade Deadline on March 2 is an excellent opportunity to determine the latter.  Should the Devils want to transition towards better days in 2015-16 or beyond, next Monday

Most fans are hopeful that the Devils will move players like Jaromir Jagr, Marek Zidlicky, and Michael Ryder.  They're not players for the future.  They're pending unrestricted free agents and so the hope is that other teams will want their spare parts veteran experience for a playoff push in exchange for draft picks.  But that's not the whole story.  The Devils may not do it and perhaps should not do it, but Lou and management should at least consider the futures of other players.

It's not a pretty picture, though.  A quick scan at NHL Numbers reveals that the longer-term contracts that the Devils currently have are with players that could be the part of some actual transition.   As of right now, they only have nine forwards under contract.  Four of those are signed beyond 2015-16.  Let's consider the other five first.

The other five are players of little or declining value.  Stephen Gionta and Jacob Josefson are depth players and while they aren't worth much to move, they're not so difficult to replace.  Dainius Zubrus and Patrik Elias are making significant enough money and are declining as players to not really be worth much.  Not that I see the Devils moving a legitimate legend like Elias.  Tuomo Ruutu has the benefit of being younger (he'll be turning 32) and having some salary retained; but given that he's been used as a fourth liner and hasn't really played much better than one, I can't imagine teams would line up to take Ruutu.   The Devils may be able to replace the roles that Gionta, Josefson, Zubrus, and Ruutu represent.  They're bottom six wingers and while it's important to get good players for those positions, they're not exactly rare players.  Elias has fallen out of the foundational role has filled for over a decade and a half.  His may be the biggest hole the Devils will have to fill before returning to contention.  That may require hitting big on a draft pick.

The other four are a bit more of an interesting conversation.  Players that may be able to be moved for an actual return.  Players that may be good now and can hurt the team now to move, but may not be so important later.  I can understand many fans disappointed with the contract Travis Zajac has.  He was the one who got the big deal and hasn't put up the big numbers that fans expect.  A man named Spencer on Twitter (@brodeurwatch) looked into his numbers and has determined his contract really isn't bad.  Still, the question has to be asked by management: should Zajac be one of the team's top centers?  I think he is now and should be for the near future.  Will that be the case in three years? I would like to think so, but that's for the team to determined.

Adam Henrique is another forward with a significant deal.  He's signed through 2018-19.  We've found that while he's been more productive, he's not really driving the play this season.  It's been enough that Mike asked the question: should we be concerned about his play? If we think of him as just a complementary player, then perhaps not.  I think that who he is and provided he has the right players to be a complement with, then he can be a good asset. With the Devils short of such players and may be short of such players for a few years, is he worth having?  If not, then perhaps he needs to be moved for the greater good?

Mike Cammalleri was the big signing from this past summer.  With twenty goals and one of the few Devils with an exceptionally high shooting percentage (20.4%).  He's got a great shot and he's proven to be a good fit into the team. Way better in comparison to other recent free agent signings done by New Jersey.  However, he's 33, I wouldn't bet on him shooting at 20% again next season, and he's got another four seasons on it.   I think his deal is likely to go south by 2017 or 2018.  Should the Devils want to avoid a lengthy transition, they may have to work around it if not move this deal. Alas, it may be really hard to do so now considering how much is left on it.

Lastly, the other forward signed beyond 2015-16 is Ryane Clowe.  Who even knows if he's going to be able to play hockey at this point.  If the Devils move him, it may have to be to take another practically dead contract; like the Devils-Islanders swap of Brian Rolston and Trent Hunter.

Essentially, the Devils will have a lot room to re-do their forwards.  There's not much to really move if they want to make some kind of splash by next week.  But they should at least consider all options as they evaluate who's going to be good in the future and who's not.   The Devils already made their choice in net.  It's Cory Schneider and I don't think anyone would really thinks he should move.  Keith Kinkaid is fine for a #2 goalie and, if he's not good enough, it's not a difficult spot to replace.  Defense, well, it can look a lot different much faster than forward.

Only two defensemen are signed beyond next season: Andy Greene, who has his extension kick in next season, and Damon Severson, who has two years left on his entry level contract.   Greene has been the team's top defender for years now.  He will be getting older (he's 31 now) and as his contract nears it's end, then the time may come to question whether he should (or could) be moved. Now, I wouldn't move him at all.  He's still a top defender and big reason why the defense hasn't been entirely in shambles.   Severson has a real bright future so he shouldn't be moved.

For those who are fans of the younger players, well, don't fret, they're not going anywhere unless the Devils want to move them.  Adam Larsson and Eric Gelinas are pending restricted free agents.  Jon Merrill has one more year left before he becomes a RFA.  The Devils can and likely will re-sign all three.  However, some tough decisions will have to be made in the future and perhaps sooner rather than later.  If all of the younger defensemen turn out well, will there be enough space for them?  If some don't - maybe Gelinas doesn't become a good defender, maybe Merrill being bad in CF% isn't just a result of playing with Zidlicky - then can the Devils realize this before 29 other teams do?   Should the Devils want to get help at forward in the form of a player, then these are the players that other teams may want.  This is where Lou may have to make his hardest decisions with this lineup.  I don't think they'll get moved by next week, but that may come in a nearer future than we may think.

As for the rest, well, they're pending UFAs and they may not all be returning.  As much as I don't really mind if Bryce Salvador, Peter Harrold, Marek Zidlicky, and Mark Fraser, the Devils will have to likely have to sign some depth defenders to make up the numbers.   New Jersey has had to go ten-deep into their depth for defensemen this season, they can't go into 2015-16 with just five on the books unless they have a lot of faith in Albany's defensemen that got passed over by Fraser and Harrold for call-ups.   If the Devils do make a minor deal for a defender, then it may to alleviate the need to get such a defender this summer.

I recognize that the hope is that, come next Monday by 3 PM, the Devils are able to get good returns for their soon-to-be-gone players that most fans are expecting to see traded.   However, the Devils would be wise to evaluate the long term futures of the players they have signed for next season and beyond.  If they don't figure into their plans, then they should absolutely consider moving them.   If not by next week, then in the summer or during next season.  Holding onto assets that won't help the team long-term isn't going to help the transition.  The goal should be to have this be as short as possible, and that may mean making some real bold and difficult decisions.  I wish that they're made with reason and for players that will return the Devils to being possession strong and, hopefully, more efficient than what we've seen this season.

Personally, I think the Devils will only make one or two moves, similar to what happened in 2011 (they moved Jason Arnott).  It may be the official start to the transition, but that depends on what deals get done.  What do you think? Should the Devils consider moving any of their players that are signed for next season and beyond? Or should they just strive to get the best deals only for pending unrestricted free agents?  Do you think the transition will begin by next Monday, or will it wait?  Please let me know your answers and thoughts for the trade deadline in the comments.  Thank you for reading.