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Where Do We Go From Here?

The New Jersey Devils are missing the playoffs for the third straight season. With no playoff hockey for four of the last five seasons, and a number of contracts expiring, where does the team go from here?

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The 2014-2015 campaign is officially over for our New Jersey Devils; oh sure there may be 5 games remaining, but the team has mercifully been put out to pasture for the year.  This will be the third year in a row of our Devils missing the playoffs, and four out of the last five seasons overall.  As I've discussed before, the long era of success that we enjoyed coupled with many low number, underwhelming draft choices has us to our current fate: an older, slower team with few high-level forward prospects that just can't keep up with the speedy NHL of today.

So where do the Devils go from here?  One option would be to pull a 2014-2015 Buffalo Sabres and just fall off the face of the Earth in an attempt to grab the highest ranked player in at least one of the next couple of drafts.  Another would be an attempt to stay our current course, patch the holes in the roster, and give an honest effort until the prospect pool can be refilled.  A third option would be to attempt to retool the roster by taking a flyer on some players who haven't worked out for other teams, and seeing if they can rejuvenate the team.  The Devils could even try to get pieces from teams that will be in salary cap distress this offseason for pennies on the dollar.  Management certainly has options, and I foresee them using a combination of a few to reassemble the New Jersey Devils that we all were once proud of.

Outgoing

In order for the team to be able to add newer parts, they need to get rid of some older ones.  If Michael Ryder were to come back to this team after spending about one third of the season as a healthy scratch, I would be very surprised.  His lack of defense made him somewhat of an outcast on this team, and I think he'll be looking to sign elsewhere in the offseason in an attempt to revive his career.  The same can be said for Martin Havlat; even though he wasn't a (healthy) scratch nearly as often, he just never seemed to fit with the rest of the team.  I take solace in him leaving if only for the fact that I won't have to watch him pass the puck to the boards or behind a teammate anymore.

I wouldn't be surprised to see the team bring back Jordin Tootoo, Scott Gomez and/or Steve Bernier, as all three had respectable seasons; if they bring them all back though, it just compounds the team issues for another year.  The Devils need to start getting younger, faster and more talented; the three previously mentioned names all being brought back take up valuable roster space that could be used elsewhere.  Their stocks should have each risen due to their play this year so perhaps the team can swing some deals at the draft for their rights.

The defense could use some shaping as well; if Mark Fraser comes back, I think the entire fan base will collectively let out a sigh of disgust.  Outside of standing up for his teammates, Fraser has been beyond bad; if we need to keep someone around to defend teammates, keep Tootoo, because he can at least play the game somewhat effectively.  Bryce Salvador also will probably not be back due to both his age and his injury status.  If Peter Harrold doesn't return for one reason or another, that leaves Andy Greene and the kids.  If another youngster joins the team to take the 6th slot, the oldest defenseman behind Greene will be Eric Gelinas who will be 24 when next season starts; are the Devils really prepared to roll with 5 defenders under 25 next year?

The Lineup

If the Devils re-sign Peter Harrold and even two of the three forwards from above (for argument's sake, let's go with Gomez and Tootoo), here is what New Jersey's depth chart would look like for next season:

Possible Depth Chart

Players were placed on this chart based on their usage and overall usefulness; Dainius Zubrus' play for instance already took a dive off of a cliff, so I don't see him as one of our top 4 left wings for next year, although I'm sure for some reason management still will.  The Devils would be wise to offload either he or Tuomo Ruutu after this season as not only are both serving the same purpose, they're also keeping Stefan Matteau away from his natural side.

As you can see, there are some areas of concerns, mainly the top line, and depth at right wing.  Travis Zajac is not a true first line center, but he is en excellent defender; I feel he would flourish if the Devils were able to get a true #1.  Even if the Devils draft an NHL ready center in the first round, he probably wouldn't be put on the top line right away; even if he was, that still leaves a couple of gaping holes at right wing.

Since I brought up Matteau previously, let's go back to him for a moment.  He's playing out of position on my chart due to how he is being deployed currently; should that change, the right side looks even worse than it does now.  In relation to him as well, you may notice there is no Reid Boucher on my chart; Reid has seemingly taken a step back this year, and again plays on the crowded side of the ice.  At this point, he would may be best served trying to excel in the AHL next year, although I now worry that he may wind up making his career down there.

Another notable absence is Ryane Clowe although I don't think his exclusion surprises anyone.  Clowe is on concussion #5 (that we know of) and it has to be at the point that quality of life becomes more important than hockey for him; if he attempts another comeback, I worry about not only his long-term health but how long it would be before he winds up in the press box again.

Incoming?

The Devils will have a high pick during this year's draft, and while we probably won't win the lottery to draft Connor McDavid, the forward that we pick will be a highly skilled player who will most likely be almost NHL-ready.  Dylan Strome, Mitchell Marner and Pavel Zacha are all highly touted forwards, and at least one of them should be available when we make the (as of now) 6th pick of the draft.

Even if that forward slots in to our lineup right away, there are still three holes left to fill.  The question now is where do we address these gaps?  Do we go out and sign a few free agent who may or may not pan out?  Do we hope that we get another NHL ready forward early in the second round?  Do we attempt to get a mid to late first round pick by trading our second, Florida's second and possibly another small piece?  Do we simply pray that Lou and Conte don't draft another defenseman?

I don't know about you guys, but this is the first time this Devils' fan has been excited since before the wheels fell off the bus in December.  I'd like to hear where you think the Devils go from here; do we go forward-heavy in the draft and see who we can slot in next season?  Do we sign (and probably overpay) some free agents to plug the holes in the ship?  Do we combine these methods and wait and see what happens?  Do we even believe in the scouting department anymore?  Leave any and all comments below and as always thank you for reading!

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