As the New Jersey Devils and 29 other NHL teams are in pre-season, this is the time of year where personnel, broadcasters, writers, and others involved in hockey start really preparing for the upcoming season. Everyone does their own things, but something is done. Today, I want to dwell a bit beyond the 2015-16 season. I want to discuss what the team's situation may look like this offseason. There are a few players who will be up for new deals by July 1, 2016. The Devils may not be legitimately good for some time, but these are the ones that arguably have the most to play for in the short-term.
A lot can change within a season. Your opening night roster in 2014 included the following players: Marek Zidlicky, Dainius Zubrus, Martin Havlat, Michael Ryder, Bryce Salvador, Ryane Clowe, Jaromir Jagr, and Scott Clemmensen. Damien Brunner was a scratch for that first game. Later in the season, we got to see Peter Harrold, Mark Fraser, Scott Gomez, Steve Bernier, Tim Sestito, and Joe Whitney appear for the team. That's a goalie, four defensemen, and nine forwards that were a part of 2014-15's campaign that are now elsewhere. Granted, the importance and purpose of each player varied, but that's plenty of roster turnover. Especially since most of those players were on expiring contracts. Unless I'm mistaken, only Zubrus (bought out) and Clowe (effectively retired) were not pending free agents for the 2015 offseason. Combined with massive changes in management, which led to changes throughout the staff, the 2015-16 Devils will have a very different look compared to last season.
Since they're in a re-building situation, we may see further changes. Knowing what happened in this past summer, the ones that stick out to be moved along are those who will become free agents next summer. Thanks to sites like General Fanager, we can easily identify them. Let's touch on most of them - I'm going to just mention recent signings and NHL or legit NHL hopefuls - and note what they got going for them.
Jon Merrill - Pending Restricted Free Agent
Like Eric Gelinas and Adam Larsson from this past summer, the question may not be whether the Devils keep Merrill, it may be for how much and for how long. There's plenty to look at Merrill so far and wonder what he really brings to the table. He's not much of a producer. He shot the puck only 47 times in 66 games last season and his point totals went up marginally in his second NHL season. He's been used in various situations. He averaged over 20 minutes per game last season, including some regular PK shifts and a little bit on the power play. Yet, he wasn't particularly adept on the PK; he had a good rate of exits per minute but a notably high entries against per minute rate too. More importantly and distressingly, he had one of the lowest Corsi For% rates among Devils defensemen last year at 45.4% per War on Ice. That's worse than Salvador, playing against mid-tier competition at even strength, and not really receiving many favorable zone starts. So what does he actually do?
Fortunately, Ryan Stimson's work with passing metrics highlights Merrill as someone exceptional on the Devils' defense. Last season, he had a higher rate of his passes leading to a pass that led to a shot than any other defender on the Devils. Ryan found he had a solid rate of assisting on zone entries, something the Devils really could use more of in general. I'd check out that link for more details, particularly about Merrill, but it shows that he's not a young defender totally in over his head and drowning. There's something to him, it just needs to come out. As Ryan wrote:
Another reason why Merrill is so intriguing to me is because he can have a tremendous say on whether or not the Devils have a respectable defense next season. We know Andy Greene is going to be good and whomever his partner is will likely succeed. Since Adam Larsson was still with Greene when Damon Severson returned from injury last season, I'm assuming that Larsson and Greene will remain together. John Hynes may have new pairings he wants to try out, but this is what I'm working from.
So, if Larsson and Greene are together, Severson and someone will likely be the second pairing. Since Merrill played with Severson once the latter returned, it's safe to assume that if the two of them click, they will be a solid second pairing and one that can stabilize the Devils back end. This is why I think that Merrill is so important and worth some investigation this offseason.
He's spot on. If Merrill improves to the point where he can be viable #3/4 defenseman, he plays like he deserves twenty minutes per game, and he's not necessarily a drain on possession, then the Devils have an easier decision to make with him. Re-sign him for a decent deal and be pleased that the Devils' defense can be good for the next few years with a core of Andy Greene, Adam Larsson, Damon Severson, and Merrill. Should Merrill not really improve, then it may mean the team won't commit to him for the long-term and eventually look for a replacement to lessen Merrill's role. As much has been made about the Devils "young, burgeoning defense," only two have really been burgeoning: Larsson and Severson. With a potential pot of gold at the end of this season, it's time for Merrill to show it.
Kyle Palmieri - Pending Restricted Free Agent
The Devils didn't sign Kyle Palmieri, they traded a decently high second round draft pick for him. Provided Palmieri performs better than that pick, the trade was a smart one to make. Even if the draft pick turns out to be a good player to, it may have still been a smart one to make. The Devils needed right wingers who can put up some offense and actually be fairly young. The 24-year old checks all three of those boxes. While Palmieri has only exceeded 30 points once in his career, he was kept in a more limited role for Anaheim. In New Jersey, he'll undoubtedly be a part of the team's top six, which means more minutes. Last season, Palmieri was on pace to set new career highs but was limited to 57 games. He still averaged just under two shots per game, and he just shot over that in the season before that. He will have the time and likely the teammates to shoot more. Palmieri did have a regular PP shift with the Ducks last season, sixth among forwards averaging 1:42 per game. He will get the chance to have more time in New Jersey. Essentially, Palmieri will have the time and the stage to shine.
How much he shines will help drive his next contract. He is a pending restricted free agent who's making $1.6 million this year. Should he be one of the top scorers on this team, and show that he can be a top right wing for the next few years on this team, Palmieri can easily cash in with a lucrative, long deal. Should he struggle to really produce and his skills don't really translate, then it'll be something smaller. As the Devils traded for Palmieri, I'd like to think they'll want to keep him around for a bit rather than try to cut bait and see what they can get back. Still, there's a lot for him to personally gain, regardless of the team's success.
Jacob Josefson - Pending Restricted Free Agent
Mike wrote quite a bit on Josefson ahead of this season. He thinks it's "sink or swim," and I'm inclined to agree (and that you read it again, it's good). Given that he eventually got a regular shift and played quite a bit on the PK, I'd like to think he should be a lock for being a part of the bottom six. But we must be honest and ask: is he really worth keeping around? Does what he do command a commitment or could it be easily replaced? That is the question for plenty of third-line and fourth-line caliber players. This is the season for Josefson to provide a definitive answer, assuming he can.
Reid Boucher - Pending Restricted Free Agent
While he hasn't made the team, he's worth noting since I think he has a legitimate shot at making the team this year. Gerard wrote about Boucher recently, questioning whether he's going to make it any time soon. At 22, I'm a little hesitant to say so, but it's not really an unfair question. As Gerard noted, his production in Albany went down and it was never all that high to begin with. Say what you want about the lack of offense in Albany, but the lack of production doesn't make me really believe in the notion of Boucher being an offensive player at the NHL level. He did get some NHL time last season and I think with many changes at forward, he'll get plenty of more opportunities to break into the roster this season. I know he's still recovering from a concussion, he could still get into preseason games to make his case. But that's just it: with new management throughout the organization and a lack of a minor-pro stat-line that speaks for itself, he'll have to make his case again. I think he'll be kept, but this season may be his best shot to "make it" in his career.
Sergey Kalinin - Pending Restricted Free Agent
I'm sure you almost forgot he signed with the team. I nearly did too. Technically, he was Ray Shero's first signing as Jordin Tootoo revealed his deal was made with Lou. Kalinin was plucked from Avangard Omsk of the KHL, where he was team captain. A 24-year old team captain that has had an increased role in his three seasons with Omsk's senior team and was selected to Russia's World Championship team in 2014, who won the tournament. While this preseason will be the first chance to see him go up against NHL and NHL-ish competition, I don't think Shero would sign him if he didn't think he could play in the NHL. More importantly, Kalinin probably didn't sign a one-year deal if he wasn't assured of making New Jersey - I don't think he signed to play in Albany. Like the others based in Albany, he's got the same goal in mind: a job in the NHL. The difference is that he's got a back-up plan: playing (and maybe captaining) on a team in the KHL. We'll find out this X-factor's status sooner rather than later.
You know, this whole post has been about restricted free agents. Let's note the unrestricted free agents. These players are more likely to have been moved on from next summer than the RFAs.
Patrik Elias - Pending Unrestricted Free Agent
It may be the end of the line for Elias. I loved watching Elias play, he was a cornerstone forward for the Devils from 1999 to about 2014. However, Father Time always win and it became really apparent last season. As with most great players over the age of 35, there were times he played like his old self - which was doing just about everything a forward could do and doing it well - and there increasingly more times where he played like he was old. For the first time in his career, he had a Corsi For% below 50% according to War on Ice. He produced fewer points than his rookie season and that 48-game 2013 season. Back spasms certainly slowed him down and he's now held out due to a knee injury that the team hoping just needs rest. Elias is definitely declining as a player and at age 39, all signs point to a decline continuing, not improving.
On top of that, there's new management throughout the organization. While they know of Elias having been a great player, they have less of a connection to necessarily keep giving him significant minutes in all situations. It'll be an ongoing question as to where he'll be in the lineup when he's available to play. If you move him down to the bottom six, who replaces his spot and who loses theirs in the bottom six for him? If you keep him on the top six, can he keep up or would he risk dragging it down. It's not easy at all. Should Elias have any designs on playing beyond the season or at least wanting to end his career on a high note, he'll need to perform much better in 2015-16. I don't really want to see him traded by the deadline because, well, I really liked watching Elias and I want him to stick with one team. But it may be more of a case that no one would really want him at that point, no movement clause aside. All the same, I'm not expecting a 40-year old Elias on the 2016-17 team.
Tuomo Ruutu - Pending Unrestricted Free Agent
If Elias' 2014-15 was a decline, then Tuomo Ruutu's 2014-15 was a crash. After showing that he can be a useful, Zubrus-like player when the Devils acquired him in 2014, Ruutu was relegated to the depths of the fourth line. While he appeared in 77 games, he averaged 10:53 per game. Sure, he performed like a good fourth liner - decent enough possession, some points chipped in - but he's getting paid much more than that. He made $5 million last season and he'll make $5 million this season. For that money, you expect a forward to be in the top-six or be an exceptional third-liner. Carolina took some of the cap hit when the Devils traded for him, but that's still a big cap hit for a small-time player - expiring contract or not. Regardless, I think Ruutu will absolutely struggle to get another NHL deal if 2015-16 is a repeat of his 2013-14.
Therefore, Ruutu needs to approach this season like Steve Bernier. This needs to be a season of redemption. Whereas the new management and coaches may make it a tougher fit some in this post, this is an opportunity for Ruutu to start fresh. I don't know if Hynes' system would be favorable for a big bodied winger who can try to win pucks along the board, cycle down low, and make space for others. If so, than Ruutu can absolutely fit in and earn a bigger role. That, in turn, increases his hopes for a NHL deal beyond this season, be it with New Jersey or elsewhere. He's not going to make nearly as much money or get a no movement clause, but a deal is better than none. Of the UFA's, I think he's got the most to gain from a good season.
Stephen Gionta - Pending Unrestricted Free Agent
Stephen Gionta was a late addition to the 2012 Devils playoff run and has become a mainstay of the team's fourth line. He's like plenty of fourth-liners. He's not big. He's energetic. He's not particularly skilled. He's focused on the puck - sometimes to a fault. He can be useful in killing penalties. He's cheap. He's not exactly irreplaceable. Gionta's main goal should be to do what is asked and do it well since that's the goal of any fourth-liner. Whether the Devils think he's worth keeping around will be up to whether A) Gionta goes above and beyond somehow and B) they don't think they can find someone similar. If not, by doing his job decently well, Gionta could be picked up by another team. Look at Peter Harrold. He wasn't even a regular on defense, but he did his limited role well enough and St. Louis went out and signed him. Those jobs will be there, Gionta just has to show he can do them in order to have the rep necessary for teams to get him shortly after free agency begins.
Jordin Tootoo - Pending Unrestricted Free Agent
Tom Gulitti tweeted on Saturday that Tootoo revealed his one-year deal was done with Lou. There's your bit of trivia, Tootoo was Lou's last signing with New Jersey. What this may mean is that Ray Shero and company may not have necessarily wanted to keep him. That said, Shero did sign Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond to a NHL contract. That may be more for Albany's "benefit," but it shows he may not be opposed to having a "tough guy" in the system. Unlike Leblond, Tootoo can absolutely hang on a fourth line in the NHL. He did have a bloom of production when he was with two guys he ordinarily wouldn't be with - Travis Zajac and Mike Cammalleri - but he's not a total waste either. While the fist-first forward is fading, they're not all gone and a guy like Tootoo could find himself work. Still, it's on him to show he can still be capable of playing the game in limited use in addition to throwing punches every so often.
I know I did not include other Albany-based players nor the recent signings of David Schlemko and Jiri Tlusty. For the latter, they need to show they still belong in this league in order to keep getting deals. This also applies if Tyler Kennedy and Lee Stempniak earn contracts after their PTOs. For the Albany-based players, it's to even get a sniff in the NHL and show they're still worth keeping around. Still, there could be more turnover as this re-building process continues. Plenty of changes were made in this past summer and I think there may be more to come. I wouldn't be surprised if the four unrestricted free agents don't return, leading to a need to sign some more forwards. The pending RFAs present another challenge. While the Devils may end up keeping most, what their next deals are may tell us how long they want to keep them around. Merrill and Palmieri will probably end up getting decent deals; it may be less likely for Josefson, Boucher, and Kalinin.
It may be early to think about potential free agents for the coming offseason, but I'd say this is one of the reasons to stay invested in this season. What Shero does with each of these players will play some sort of role in the re-building effort. Some of it may be driving any in-season moves as well. We'll see what transpires as the season begins in just a few weeks. Please let me know what you think these players will do in this season and beyond in the comments. Thank you for reading.