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With Free Agency All But Done for the Devils, What Else Do They Need?

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With Adam Larsson signed to a new contract, most of the team's loose ends for free agency have been tied up. In this post, I take a look at what the New Jersey Devils roster (and management) still needs ahead of training camp.

Ray Shero has made a lot of decisions. He may have a few more to make ahead of training camp in September.
Ray Shero has made a lot of decisions. He may have a few more to make ahead of training camp in September.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Just two days ago, Adam Larsson got paid with a six-year deal worth $25 million. Larsson was the last major loose end with respect to free agents for the New Jersey Devils.  It was tied up before papers had to be filed for arbitration hearing scheduled for Tuesday.  With Larsson's deal, the Devils re-signed all of their restricted free agents.  They have not made a "major" signing since the initial period of free agency. They even doled out amateur tryout deals to Ken Appleby, Jacob Sweeney, and Alexandre Goulet from the recent developmental camp, according to Tom Gulitti on Twitter.  For all intents and purposes, free agency is all but done for the New Jersey Devils.  Short of another bombshell, expect anything major to happen closer to training camp beginning.

Now is a perfect time as any to take a step back and look at what the Devils need.  I'll mostly focus on the roster itself. But let's briefly look at management for the hockey side of things.  Among all else, the Devils will need a new director of scouting.  We've known that David Conte will not have his contract renewed; Ray Shero announced it on July 9. Indeed, his name is nowhere to be seen under the Staff section on the team's website. There will be a replacement and I would expect one to be named this summer ahead of most of the junior, college, and European leagues beginning.  I would prefer it to be sooner rather than later as I think a new scouting director will also lead to sweeping changes among the team's scouts.  Those who worked under Conte are still listed; I can't imagine all of them will stay. Again, it's best to get new scouts before seasons begin rather than after. I would think the director would have a say in naming these scouts, so that has to come first.

I can't say there's anyone I prefer except that I don't want someone from Pittsburgh. As The Pens Blog explained in great detail, the Penguins' drafting under Shero's time as GM there was not at all good. I do not think anyone from there needs a second chance in New Jersey, a team that needs their next few years of drafts to be as good as possible for their re-building efforts.  That's my only real preference about that position being filled.  I hope Shero does not let me down.

From the management side, I don't think there will be too many other changes that would directly affect the team beyond the director of scouting. So let's look at the players. With Larsson's contract, the team has twelve forwards, six defensemen, and two goalies signed plus an array of players outside of the NHL roster.  That's technically a full team, presuming some of those non-NHL roster players make the New Jersey squad.  With Stefan Matteau becoming waiver eligible, Sergey Kalinin and Vojtech Mozik signed from Europe, and others concievably battling for spots, I think there will be a few who do that.  Let's go through the team's depth, position by position, to identify what the team still needs for their roster.

Goaltending is easy.  Cory Schneider is your starter, Keith Kinkaid is your backup, and Scott Wedgewood or Yann Danis will be your #3 guy.  The ATO given to Ken Appleby may result in him becoming the fifth goalie in the system, should he perform well in training camp.

Defense is a bit harder.  Andy Greene will undoubtedly lead the defense.  Adam Larsson just got a contract that predicts he'll be a big-minute defender in a few years, so I would bank on him lining up with Greene to start the season. Damon Severson will continue to grow in New Jersey.  Jon Merrill (who's on a contract year), Eric Gelinas (now on another bridge deal), and John Moore will round out the top six.  After that, it gets more interesting.

As the Devils used eleven defensemen last season and used at least nine in recent seasons prior, there will be a legitimate battle for #7, #8, and maybe #9 on the depth chart.  With Peter Harrold and Mark Fraser gone, these spots are wide open.  Seth Helgesonalso re-signed, did play more NHL games than the others in the system.  He may be one-dimensional, but he'll be in the mix for sure. Mozik was signed straight out of HC Plzen, I don't think that deal would have been made if he didn't have a chance to make the NHL roster.  Marc-Andre Gragnani also has NHL experience in the past. He's older than rest of the competition at 28, but his experience may prove invaluable for a spot that would require performing well after not playing for some time.  Lastly, Raman Hrabarenka may be a darkhorse candidate for pushing for a spot. He got one NHL game last season, it may give him the incentive to make a real push in camp.  That's four players for two, three spots that will be active if/when injuries happen.

The wild card is Bryce Salvador.  He is an unrestricted free agent, so he's not technically a part of the Devils organization.  He is also 39 and has seriously declined as a player as a function of age, playing style, and injuries catching up to him.  He also has not yet decided on whether he'll retire; that decision will come at the end of the summer.  I am not saying the Devils will bring him back if he looks to keep playing.  However, it is something to keep in the back of one's head by the time camp comes closer.  If he ends up giving it another go for one more season and New Jersey, for some reason, signs him for that, then that's one fewer spot.

Whereas the Devils have a plethora of defenders battling for few spots, forward is more wide open.  One of the big decisions for Shero, head coach John Hynes, and the rest of the Devils staff is identifying who will play where.  Players like Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique, Dainius Zubrus, Stephen Gionta, Matteau, and Kalinin can play multiple positions.  This sort of versatility is generally a good thing as it gives them flexibility when building their lineup.  At the same time, some are better in some positions than others. Henrique being more free to go forward from the wing suits his style best.  Elias has declined as a player and sticking him at wing may protect him better.  Zubrus has seriously declined to the point where it is a big risk playing him against any serious competition.  Matteau and Kalinin can both play right wing - and they may have to.  From my perspective in late July, here's how I see it breaking down.

The top line will likely start with Mike Cammalleri, Travis Zajac, and Kyle Palmieri.  Cammalleri and Zajac did not really mesh well together last season. Yet, the first line generally faces tough competition.  Zajac is the team's best center, Cammalleri is a top left winger, and Palmieri is by default the team's best right winger.  One could argue swapping Henrique in for Cammalleri, which would make for a stronger first line and may make a better fit for Henrique.  The argument against that is what may happen to the line behind him.

Second line is going to be real weakness.  An aging Patrik Elias could be centering this unit again and with diminishing returns.  I don't like writing that any more than you like reading it.  I love Elias as a player, but it appears Father Time is going to continue his undefeated streak against the 38-year old.  As stated earlier, I envision Henrique in this spot to help out Elias as he did last season.  Again, Cammalleri could be in this spot instead.  Then there's the right wing position.   That's going to be a massive question in camp in of itself.

Sure, the Devils have bodies that could play right wing: Matteau, Kalinin, and Jordin Tootoo. Dainius Zubrus could also play on the right side, as necessary.  Possibly Tuomo Ruutu as well, though I think he's more suited for a left wing role.  I'm sure Reid Boucher would be asked to try the right side as well. Does Paul Thompson and Mike Sislo, two right wingers from Albany, really push for spot?  I'm sure they'll all get their time to prove themselves. However, almost all of them would be better suited for a more limited, sheltered bottom-six role until they prove they can do more.  As of right now, it appears one of the battles in training camp will be where they determine who can be thrown into the deep end and swim in this position.  That is, unless the Devils sign a veteran just to hold that spot for a year or so.  A part of me was hoping the Devils would sign someone like Alexander Semin to basically fill this top-six right wing position until someone proves themselves or someone better is available.  They could still sign a veteran for that role, though they won't be as talented as Semin once showed. I'm almost at a point where the team could bring back Steve Bernier and I could be fine with it. This position is that thin in terms of talent.

That said, whereas no one is ready for the top six at right wing beyond Palmieri, there are plenty of options for the bottom six. In a perfect world, this is where Kalinin, Matteau, and even the declining Zubrus would be better suited.  Jordin Tootoo can be the "beef" on a fourth line.  So the opposite problem for right wing is present here: multiple people for essentially two jobs.  Elsewhere in the bottom six, Jacob Josefson and Stephen Gionta would be centers. Reid Boucher could join Josefson and one of Kalinin or Matteau to form a youthful line of sorts.  Gionta and Ruutu could start as mainstays as a fourth line as we've seen last season.  Depending on how well the Albany-based players do in camp, they could make an argument to sneak into the lineup as either a spare forward or a fourth-liner.  Again, there are options here, though the real odd man out may be put into a role bigger than what they may be able to handle.

You may have noticed I left one other name out: Ryane Clowe. His status with respect to whether he can even play ice hockey is unknown at this point.  As part of this post by Rich Chere at NJ.com on July 21, there have been no updates to his status. If he can play, then that's another right winger for the Devils. But if he can play, how long can he play?  Concussions have knocked him out of the lineup to a degree where he's only played 56 games in two seasons with the Devils.  That could bring the Devils back to where they are now with their right winger situation.  His status is something to monitor.

Lastly, there's also the case of Pavel Zacha.  The Devils drafted him in the first round of the 2015 draft. He has not been signed to an entry level contract. If the Devils plan on having him appear for New Jersey at all, then they need to sign him by August 15.  If they don't, as Tom Gulitti pointed out in the end of this post about it, then Zacha would likely just play for Sarnia of the OHL.  I think he should play there regardless, but it would be beneficial to lock him up now to a deal to have the option.  It's weird that he isn't signed since there's only so much that can be put into an entry level contract.  Per Gulitti's post, it's possible the hold up is with potential bonuses, but that seems like splitting hairs to me.  In any case, I expect Zacha to be signed by August 15 and he could have a shot in training camp beyond just being there for the experience. Should he really impress, that's another name that could end up being on at least the opening night lineup.   Again, I'd prefer it if he spends most of 2015-16 growing and learning in the OHL; but we must consider the possibility.

Ultimately, the Devils really could use a right winger, preferably someone who can handle the 14-16 minutes per night and the level of competition a second liner would face. This would allow the players the team may be hoping to take that position - Matteau? Kalinin? - to get a more favorable situation.   They could also use some depth at forward, preferably for those who can play right wing, so the team isn't entirely dire when injuries strike.  While they may not have the answer this season, Ray Shero would be wise to consider who could potentially take the spots that Elias and Zubrus occupy in the future. Both are on expiring deals and while Zubrus has been moved away from being a top-six mainstay, Elias is still there. While I know trying to find the next Elias or even the next Zubrus is easier said than done, a goal for 2015-16 should be to see if anyone from within can handle their responsibilities. If not, then that should lead Shero towards making a trade or making a slightly larger splash in free agency next summer to do that.

That's what I think the team needs from a positional standpoint now that free agency is largely done for the Devils and most of the league.  We'll see whether the battles I think will happen in training camp will actually happen.  We'll also see whether Shero decides on a director of scouting sooner rather than later.  In any case, what do you think? Are these the needs of the Devils from a positional and personnel standpoint?  How do you think Shero should address them?  While I ignored them, what are the needs for next year's team beyond the players? Obviously, goals but should they even try to be so productive given their re-building state? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the roster in the comments. Thank you for reading.