As the NHL Draft Lottery has come and gone, let's switch gears from the draft and focus on a more pressing set of needs. The New Jersey Devils will likely a great prospect in the 2015 NHL Draft, they will have to be active this summer. The team needs that will require a re-build will go beyond one great prospect, they have roster needs to address for 2015-16.
I am going to assume that most of you were not a fan of last season's team. And you shouldn't be. They had twelve wins by Christmas, they were routinely out-attempted and out-shot in most games, and they demonstrated a lack of exceptional talent beyond the crease. Of course they weren't a playoff-caliber team as each night proved that many key players were getting old and parts of the roster just were ineffective. The bad news is that the quality of the team is not likely going to change overnight. The good news is this summer will provide plenty of opportunity to re-shape the roster for a long-term future.
Without CapGeek, I went to NHLNumbers to see who was and was not coming off the salary cap. Here's a quick summary of the number of players signed for next season, who's becoming a restricted free agent (RFA), and who's becoming an unrestricted free agent (UFA).
The Devils only have fourteen signed for the NHL team and ten non-NJ, which is mostly Albany. It may realistically be eight forwards and thirteen players for New Jersey if Ryane Clowe is medically unable to play hockey anymore. They have to sign players, no matter how you feel about this year's free agent market. Especially considering who's not signed for next season.
The New Jersey Devils Players Coming off the Cap
Pending UFA Forwards: Michael Ryder, Martin Havlat, Jordin Tootoo, Steve Bernier, Scott Gomez
While I don't think anyone wants Ryder or Havlat back, including Ryder, Havlat, and a team that effectively benched them for months, this presents a real problem. The New Jersey Devils really don't have enough right wingers. Only Gomez is a center among that group, the rest have been seen at one time or another in various situations at right wing. Jaromir Jagr, who was traded last season, was also a right wing. The Devils need right wingers to put together a full roster. It's entirely possible that the Devils try to re-sign Tootoo, Bernier, and Gomez. They won't actually make the team much better if they're used like they were in the past few months of the season. Tootoo and Bernier are fourth line players that can do third line work in a pinch; both have scored quite a few goals but I'm not confident they'll repeat that. Likewise, Gomez showed the league he still has something left in the tank but it's still not much. Again, fine for a bottom-six role, not so fine if he's playing significant minutes.
Given that the team need is offensive abilities (scoring and the things that lead to that) and the roster need of wingers, this could be addressed at the same time in theory. Is this summer's free agent market deep enough for New Jersey to get the offensive wingers they need? I don't know. The last list I looked at was not promising on this front. Even if they were, it doesn't make the team younger, which is another desire from many who've sat through last season. That's partially why I think a re-build is going to take more than a summer. Also why I wouldn't be surprised if everyone not named Ryder and Havlat comes back on a cheap, one-year contract; and that guys like Reid Boucher and Stefan Matteau get every shot to make the 2015-16 roster in September.
Pending RFA Defensemen: Adam Larsson, Eric Gelinas
Pending UFA Defensemen: Bryce Salvador, Mark Fraser, Peter Harrold
Funnily enough, it appears another roster need for the Devils is on defense. Yes, they drew in young defensemen to play significant minutes which had varying levels of success or failure, depending on how you look at last season. However, I must remind you that the Devils had eleven different defensemen play at least one game in 2014-15. They had to pull in Seth Helgeson for 22 games, they brought up and kept Mark Fraser for 34, and Raman Hrabarenka got into one. But they were called up to fill in spots when players got hurt. That's going to happen in a given season. So as much as the team needs help up front, their roster need absolutely includes defense. With Larsson and Gelinas as pending RFA's, they will return - it's just a matter of what their next contracts will be. That's important to follow as they're not going to signed for cheap; that can affect what the Devils do in future seasons. Even so, that leaves the Devils with five defensemen and no one immediately coming up from Albany to take a spot. The Devils will need to sign a defenseman or two to avoid really testing Albany's blueline depth with players who have never been called up before.
Given that Marek Zidlicky was so prolific at moving the puck and he was moved last season, the ideal would be for the Devils to get a defenseman like him. Obviously, someone better at making decisions, covering players in his own end, and not being so aggressive on or at the puck. But someone like him who could make a good first pass, keep pucks moving from the blueline beyond an attempted shot or dump to the corners, and can lead breakouts could really spark a team that needs one on offense. Again, I don't know if this year's free agency class has someone like that. But since the Devils need to sign some bodies for the blueline, they should take a close look for one.
The Non-New Jersey Devils Players Coming off the Cap
Pending RFA Forwards: Stefan Matteau
Pending UFA Forwards: Tim Sestito, Joe Whitney, Scott Timmins, Cam Janssen, Darcy Zajac
All of these players spend most or all of last season with Albany. As mentioned earlier, Matteau will likely get every shot to make the 2015-16 team, especially if the Devils don't acquire many wingers this summer. As a pending RFA, he will return. The only a question is what his contract will be. As for the UFA forwards, well, I can't say there will be much demand for any of these players. It's a bit sad because if/when the New Jersey needs forwards due to injuries, Sestito remained as one of the first choices to be called up until late last season. Once again, we have learned that Sestito is not at all a NHL player and does not bring much energy to the table. Joe Whitney got four games, proved he also doesn't really belong even though he scored a goal - on his only shot on net in four games. Cam Janssen sucks and Darcy Zajac is roster depth in Albany.
For the purposes of keeping Albany as a competitive team, I could see New Jersey offer another contract to Whitney. He may be the 17th or 18th forward in the system, but he has at least been productive down in the 'A.' The team will sign Paul Thompson, Albany's leading goal scorer, so he probably gets a first look at the NHL before Whitney unless Thompson proves he's out of his depth in training camp. As for the rest, well, this is the time to at least get them off New Jersey's books. Sestito is the definition of "just a body," and he's not even a productive player in the AHL. Janssen is a goon whose time at this level has long since passes. Scott Timmins was the return in the glorious Krys Barch trade that got that goon out of Newark. As he hasn't been all that productive in Albany, it may be best to only keep him on an AHL deal. Darcy Zajac may be listed as a right winger, but he hasn't shown anything to justify a future. If Chris Lamoriello is so set on keeping these guys in the organization, then let them kept on AHL deals. There's no need for these three to take up three contract spots on the reserve list.
That said, if some of those players aren't willing to stick around would mean Albany needs forwards, which is possibly less depth for New Jersey. They may not have to do much to fill those numbers as prospects come out of college (e.g. Blake Coleman) and juniors (e.g. Joe Blandisi). The potential addition of Matt Lorito could help Albany, but like Whitney and Thompson and Matt Anderson and Ben Walter and so forth before him, that may be strictly at the AHL level. Blandisi is on an entry level contract with New Jersey, Coleman would get one later if he signs, and other prospects would get one so New Jersey wouldn't be lacking options. If that's not enough, the team should look for another AHL veteran, which may require a NHL deal depending on where they are at with their career. Either way, Albany's situation tangentially affects New Jersey at a minimum.
Pending RFA Defensemen: Seth Helgeson, Corbin McPherson
The good news for Albany in 2015-16 is that their defense will likely stay intact. The only two players that need new contracts are Seth Helgeson and Corbin McPherson. While Helgeson didn't exactly "wow" anyone when he did play - think a larger Mark Fraser - he did get 22 games in New Jersey last season. Since he wasn't abysmal, I think it's a safe bet he gets another deal and returns. He may be a bit further up the depth chart, depending on what New Jersey does with their defensemen this summer. McPherson, on the other hand, has been a regular for Albany but has never really challenged for a NHL job. I don't think he necessarily needs another NHL deal. Then again, the Devils gave out a NHL contract to Brandon Burlon and Dan Kelly, two other defensemen who have been in Albany for a while and never challenged for a NHL job.
Pending RFA Goaltenders: Scott Wedgewood, Maxime Clermont
Pending UFA Goaltenders: Scott Clemmensen
This is an issue for Albany and New Jersey. If Keith Kinkaid or - gulp - Cory Schneider gets hurt, then the Devils would need to call up a goaltender. Who would that be? While Wedgewood and Clermont may stick around, I don't get the sense that either are all that good. Clermont continues to post sub-90% save percentages in the ECHL. Wedgewood showed some improvement in his save percentage from 2013-14 to this season, but 90.3% still isn't all that good. Because they are RFAs, the easy thing to do would be to keep them around. However, I don't see either as a viable #3 option in the system.
Scott Clemmensen was signed by New Jersey last summer essentially as an insurance policy in case Kinkaid proved he wasn't ready for a NHL backup job. Kinkaid proved he was ready and got a contract extension. Clemmensen didn't start as many games as Wedgewood, but he did put up a more decent save percentage of 91.8%. His past NHL experience is a plus in that he won't get shocked should he have to play on short notice. However, Clemmensen will be turning 38 later in July and who knows if/when he would decline. Therefore, I'm not totally sold on the idea that he would be the #3 option in the system.
This is an opportunity for Albany to make some changes that could make them better while New Jersey addresses who can be an emergency option in net. Personally, I don't think retaining Clermont on a NHL contract makes a lot of sense. There's little sign that he's going to be much more than a minor pro goaltender. I'm not confident in Wedgewood, but I would be fine with another contract if only to provide some consistency. If Clemmensen was a few years younger, I would suggest he would be retained as the #3 guy unless Wedgewood shows something special soon. Instead, I think Albany and New Jersey would be better served trying to find someone like Kinkaid, an undrafted goalie who just graduated college or juniors that may have real potential. That someone can challenge Wedgewood in Albany and potentially provide the A-Devs with more saves. Either way, the roster need is simple: Albany needs goaltenders and New Jersey may be the one to sign them.
I agree that the New Jersey Devils do need more offensive players and more skill that would lead to more scoring. I also agree that they would be better served to get younger. However, they cannot eschew free agency just because players coming off the books leaves holes in the roster that must be filled.
The Devils need forwards, specifically right wingers to fill out their roster. More if Tootoo and Bernier leave along with Ryder and Havlat not returning. They may even need a center should Gomez go elsewhere. Given that there are spots potentially open in Albany, it is likely the Devils will have to go to market to find bodies at forward. Additionally, New Jersey will need defensemen to fill out their blueline and have depth when injuries arise. Albany (and New Jersey, if they need NHL deals) needs to decide what goaltenders they'll have for next season, which affects New Jersey as it will determine who the #3 goaltender would be, should something happen to Kinkaid or Schneider. And these roster needs will increase based on other decisions, such as whether Clowe can be medically cleared to play hockey again or they buy someone (e.g. Dainius Zubrus) out.
In a perfect world, the Devils would be able to address what the team needs to be successful along with their roster needs to have a complete team in 2015-16. However, I am not confident that there are enough unrestricted free agents available on July 1, 2015 for the Devils to do both. I may change my mind once I dig deeper into what those players are; but the Devils would be competing with other teams to get those players so it's not a given that they'll get what they need. Again, it's partially why the re-build will take more than a summer. At least the Devils have the opportunity to start it off right by addressing needs while filling their roster.