Saturday, September 18, 2010

Devils open camp under cloud of uncertainty


After all the nonsense this summer surrounding the Ilya Kovalchuk contract contreversy, not to mention the other changes that have taken place this offseason - promoting Johnny MacLean to head coach, trading for one-time Devil Jason Arnott and signing defensemen Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder in UFA to go along with Kovalchuk and his ex-teammate goaltender Johan Hedberg - you would think camp would be a time to sit back, relax and enjoy watching the new additions. And to a certain extent it still is, since after five months it'll be nice to see any kind of Devils hockey, preseason or not. Plus no matter what happens, it is likely that multiple rookies and young players will have an impact on the 2010-11 Devils.

That said, the fact that the Kovalchuk contract saga got settled so late and was compounded by a severe penalty on the eve of camp means there are still move(s) for GM Lou Lamoriello to make some time between now and October 6, the day before the start of our season. For those of you counting, that's nineteen days. In fact, the Devils will play six preseason games in the next two weeks starting on Tuesday and Thursday with trips to Philly and the Garden, followed by home tilts next Saturday against the Rangers, Tuesday the 28th against the Flyers and Friday, October 1 against the Islanders. Our preseason concludes the day after that on Saturday the 2nd with a trip to Long Island.

So with a mere two weeks to go between now and the end of preseason, there's a little more urgency in Devils' camp than usual. Not only are prospects like former first-round picks Jacob Josefson, Matthias Tedenby and Matthew Corrente playing for spots on the team, but key veterans such as Danius Zubrus, Bryce Salvador and perhaps even captain Jamie Langenbrunner are playing to keep their spots on the team, or enhance their value to other clubs. Usually the only vets playing for spots on the team are fringe players, along with those who sign tryout contracts, such as Adam Mair and Marcus Nilsson. While I admit being nervous about Lou leaving our cap moves till the last minute, it does add an element of intrigue to what's normally a relaxing time of the season.

Pretty much the only locked position on the team right now is goaltender, with the 38-year old Martin Brodeur entering his seventeenth full season as a Devil, and expected to start the majority of the games once again. Unlike most years, we also enter camp with a capable veteran backup in ex-Kovy teammate (and fellow 38-year old) Hedberg, who was actually the Thrashers' starting goaltender much of 2009-10 as they made a push for the playoffs that ultimately came up short. Hedberg may play more than a typical Brodeur backup this year, but don't count on anything close to a platoon here.

Defensively you have to figure on new UFA additions Volchenkov (our most imposing physical presence on the blueline since you know who wore #4 in New Jersey) and Tallinder being here, as well as last season's revelation Andy Greene, who is our only proven puck-moving defenseman and still - for this year - under a cheap enough contract that he's not on any type of cap watch during the preseason. Seemingly those are our three definites for 2010-11.

Then you have question marks...obviously Salvador and Colin White are vets under contract, but given their nearly $3 million salaries they're also prime candidates to be moved. While it would seem easier to move Salvador as opposed to Whitey given the fact only the latter has a NTC, it's been rumored in the Post that Lou does not want to trade Salvador. Plus Whitey has had more of a key role the last couple years on our team so he might have more value to other clubs anyway, in spite of his physical limitations. Also, you have Mike Mottau still lurking in the background, not signed by any team yet - seemingly waiting for something to happen (or not) with the Devils.

Among our prospects, Alexander Urbom seems most likely to make the team, particularly after Tallinder was brought in partially as a mentor to his fellow Swede (who almost made the team last year). You also have to figure puck-moving defensemen Tyler Eckford and Matt Taormina will get strong looks in camp, especially considering both played under Johnny Mac in Lowell last year and they would fill a gaping need. Former first-round pick Corrente's also in the mix but given the fact he didn't play defense in the NHL last year plus the fact we have other physical presences currently on the blueline, he might be on the backburner once again. Then there's Mark Fraser, who's signed to a one year, $500,000 one-way contract. He has almost a full season's worth of experience too, but I'd rather not see him as anything more than a cheap #7 defenseman after the way he faltered down the stretch last year and with a limited skill set to begin with.

Up front, you have to figure on our two stud LW'ers Kovy and Zach Parise as 'definites' for this season, as well as new acquisition Jason Arnott - who fills a gaping need we had at second-line center. Despite persistent rumors in the Post, I don't think Travis Zajac is going anywhere, despite his nearly $4 million cap hit it wouldn't make much sense to trade our only proven long-term option at the pivot. Patrik Elias has been our longest-tenured forward, has a no-movement clause and is on the record saying he doesn't want to go anywhere so I don't see the long-time Lou favorite being shown the door either. Gritty winger David Clarkson just got signed to a three-year deal this offseason so it's hard to see him being kicked out, especially given his value's probably lower after a down year and he adds a nastiness not many of our other forwards do.

When you get past those six the question marks increase, though I don't think Lou will deal his captain on the eve of the season and add to the unrest, Langenbrunner did ackowledge the other day that it was a possibility - though he also has a NTC. I could do without his presence after the way he and most of the rest of the team quit last year, but I never really figured on him getting moved anyway since he's also a Lou favorite and has an expiring contract (which will factor in to next season's budget, when we need to extend Parise's contract and likely re-sign Greene).

Then you have two other likely candidates to get moved in Zubrus and Brian Rolston. Clearly Rolston would be the more problem-solving contract to wipe off the books given his $5 million salary for the next two seasons. If Lou could somehow get another team to take that deal and Rolston to waive his NTC, then he would be able to field a full roster without trading anyone else (if he didn't want to), but clearly that's easier said than done. Asking another team to take on that salary for even one season when most teams are either capped out or maxed out on their budget is a tall order, but the second year makes it that much trickier. Especially given the winger's declining production and advancing age.

Despite his own cap hit of $3.4 million over the next three seasons, you'd have to figure on Zubrus being easier to move given his lack of a NTC and his versatility (he can play wing and center). Personally I wouldn't want to see him kicked out at this point, especially when he was one of the few people who gave effort late last season when just about everyone else mentally and physically checked out. However, Zubrus's limited offensive skills and cap hit might force the issue.

Among the prospects that might make the team, Josefson is heavily speculated to make the team as a third-line center and Tedenby could make the team as a right-winger if either Jamie or Zubrus get moved. Though his natural position is left wing, it would probably behoove him to learn the right side in camp given that we have Kovy, Parise and Elias all under contract for multiple seasons and all with LW as their natural position (well technically, Zach came up as a center, but was ineffective there until moving to LW).

Rounding out the back lines you have fighter Pierre Luc-Letourneau Leblond, gritty Rod Pelley (who can play center and wing), and Russian winger Vladimir Zharkov who was the little engine that couldn't last season, failing to score a goal in almost forty NHL games but doing enough of the 'little things' right otherwise to earn respect. NHL vets Mair and Nilsson will also be looking to earn a spot on the team, having been invited to camp on a tryout basis.

As far as the eventual roster composition, what actually happens is anyone's guess, especially considering you have the added complication of losing a first and a third-round pick due to the first rejected Kovalchuk contract on July 17. When you add in the fact that we also traded a second-rounder this year to get Arnott it makes it less likely that draft picks will be used in trades and more likely we'll be asking for them back for players we deal off. Not to mention there were many unhappy owners and GM's in the wake of our 'cap-circumventing' deals with Kovy that no doubt influenced our heavy punishment and perhaps some, if not all will be less likely to deal with us as a result.

It might even become a total blackball situation, especially when you factor in that Lou's supposed closest ally in Brian Burke stabbed him in the back, then shot him in the chest (figuratively) throughout this whole process. Plus another Lou ally in LA - Dean Lombardi - was in direct competition with Lou for Kovalchuk during the early weeks of FA before the first contract. With all the anger directed our way, I wouldn't it past whiny NHL GM's to collude and force us to release or demote players, after all MLB owners and GM's colluded to not sign free agents in the late '80's. Hopefully I'm just being paranoid.

Aside from the roster questions, it'll be interesting to see how our new staff works - though Johnny Mac's a first-time NHL coach he's had plenty of experience being behind the bench since his days as an assistant under Pat Burns before the lockout. He continued to work behind the bench, even handling some of the day-to-day responsibilities as coach when Lou took over in the latter part of the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, though last season in Lowell was his first actually at the head of a team. By all accounts he did well nurturing our younger players and getting our farm team in the playoffs for the first time in a decade and is expected to run somewhat of a more wide-open style than predecessor Jacques Lemaire.

Helping out Johnny Mac will be experienced assistant Larry Robinson, who's come back to the team so much it's like he never really left, though he last served on the bench during Brent Sutter's first season in 2007-08. Also on the staff is former great Adam Oates, who has limited experience as an assistant in Tampa Bay but his credentials as a former All-Star center are second to none. If anything his addition is only a surprise given that we've usually gone in-family to fill out our staff in recent years, but perhaps Lou's actually let Johnny Mac branch out a bit in hiring his own staff.

In spite of the cloudy skies on the way, for now the outlook still seems bright and sunny for the Devils, who at this hour are clearly an improved team from the one that won the Atlantic Division last season.

1 comment:

Leafschatter said...

Interesting post. I believe most likely scenario is Zubrus and and Salvador clear waivers and sent to the minors. This option address the current cap problem plus the cap problem that will exist next year when resigning Zach Parise.

I doubt the league is ganging up on Lamoriello for the Kovalchuk contract. Although Rolston, Zubrus, and Salvador are good players, they have bad contracts. In other words, they are overpaid for what they contribute.

Having contracts like these on the books limits your ability to pay your top end players. Currently, New Jersey has this problem with Zach Parise. I can't see another team wanting to take on this problem by claiming these players on waivers.

I do outline a trade scenario where New Jersey trades a front line player to get top prospects with high bonus contracts to exploit bonus deferrals in order to meet the cap. You can read it at http://leafschatter.blogspot.com

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