With just under eighteen hours left before the start of NHL's free agency, the Devils started the process of making over their roster by locking up RFA David Clarkson to a three year, $8 million deal. At face value the $2.66 million cap value seems a little high considering Clarky was coming off a down year, but when you factor in his obvious 20-goal, 100 PIM talent and grit on a team lacking in it, he was essential to keep. Plus Clarkson would have been a UFA after next season so buying out two UFA years does have its price.
Admittedly, a fractured right leg contributed to the 26-year old Clarkson having a bad stretch run and playoffs after his return from missing nearly half the season, but unlike some of the players who put on the jersey and skates last year you could still tell Clarkson wanted to play and do well. Going UFA wasn't something that appealed to the fan favorite, who expressed his desire to get a deal done on more than one occasion and was more than satisfied with the contract.
“I’ve enjoyed wearing the Devils’ jersey and to be able to come back for
three more years is exciting,” he said. “Me and my girlfriend really like
being there. It’s the place that gave me my first opportunity. I’m happy to
go back for three years.”
While general manager Lou Lamoriello ensured Clarkson's immediate future, he was saying goodbye to a couple of other members from last year's team - waiving enforcer Andrew Peters (who did not work out last season, to put it mildly) and long-time vet Jay Pandolfo, who will say goodbye to the only organization he's ever played for during a thirteen-year career with two Stanley Cups. According to Pandolfo, he requested to be let go and wasn't coerced into accepting a buyout.
“Definitely, it’s a sad way to end it,” Pandolfo said. “Obviously, it’s not the
way I wanted it to end, especially the way everything went down last year.
Having it end like this is really sad, but I guess that’s part of this business.
You can’t do much about it.”
Clearly Pando was past his prime, and the fact he was scratched for the majority of games after the Olympic break and - somewhat contreversially - for every playoff game as well reflects that. And his $2.5 million cap hit was surely something that was going to have to be dealt with one way or another. Perhaps he read the writing on the wall and took the classy way out. Some will believe Lou did coerce him despite the player's public denials, whatever the case hopefully the 36-year old will be able to catch on somewhere else and help another team...so long as it isn't against the Devils!
Almost forgotten in this wave of news was the Devils completing their coaching staff with a surprise hire of former great Adam Oates a couple of days ago. With Larry Robinson having returned for the five hundred and forty-second time to handle the defense and Chris Terreri remaining as goaltending coach, John MacLean alluded to wanting to hire an offensive coach as well. Enter Oates, who was one of the all-time great passers and faceoff men to play the pivot in the NHL and will surely help us in both categories, which were at or near the top of our weakest areas last year.
My last memory of Oates as a player in fact, was him whipping our butts on faceoffs and being one of the Ducks' best players in the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals despite being forty years of age by then. More recently he served on Rich Tocchet's staff in Tampa last year and oversaw a power play that finished in the top ten in the league. Johnny Mac alluded to not wanting to spill the beans over who he was looking at for assistant coach because of a fear some other team would scarf him up, and it turns out he wasn't just blowing smoke since for a rare time we went outside our own alumni (or the Montreal Canadiens') for a coaching hire and imo a good one at that.
Granted all of these moves are nice but what happens starting noon tomorrow will really be paramount in shaping the immediate future of the franchise. While I fully expect star scorer Ilya Kovalchuk to walk, particuarly after our first-round exit (I thought he might have been sincere enough to take a bit of a discount to win here if we showed we were still a top team last year, which we didn't) the status of Paul Martin is what looms largest. With the contracts middling defensemen have received, Martin with his talent can almost write his own check at this point - especially in a weak year for UFA's in general - and that's trouble for the Devils.
Especially since we didn't do him any favors last year by our mishandling of his injury that caused him to miss most of his walk season, not to mention the Olympics. Will that come back to haunt us tomorrow? If so, expect Lou to have to make a move to shore up our defense. Whether it's by signing Dan Hamhuis or Sergei Gonchar, which is unlikely - or trading for a Tomas Kaberle or Sheldon Souray (unfortunately it's far more likely we take on the injury-prone ex-Devil), either way Lou can't go into next season with a defense that has Andy Greene and Colin White as his top two. Not if we're going to try to win one more Cup with Martin Brodeur instead of starting the rebuilding process early.
Whatever happens stay tuned tomorrow, the history of NHL free agency since the lockout is that a whirlwind of activity happens in the first few days. Our sport's free agency is more entertaining than the far more ballyhooed free agency period in the NBA, which I've been sick of hearing about for the last few weeks. Late tomorrow night in fact, MSG will have a one-hour Hockey Night Live special between 11 and 12, recapping the first day of free agency. Not to mention for those of you with the NHL Network, you get a lot more coverage.