Sunday, June 19, 2011
Looking ahead: 2011-12 Devils offseason outlook
With no coach as of yet, free agency set to begin in less than two weeks and the negotiations for a long-term deal with star winger Zach Parise intensifying while the ownership structure is changing, the Devils have many questions heading into 2011-12 after a roller-coaster 2010-11.
Unlike in recent years, the Devils at least won't have too many defections in free-agency this time around. Our most noteworthy free agent is the talented but erratic Andy Greene, alternately capable of brilliance and hopelessness. Probably Greene will head for greene(r) pastures, and he's a replaceable part given the amount of young defensemen in the system such as second-year players Mark Fayne and Matt Taormina (remember him?), as well as potential additions from within such as Michigan defenseman Jon Merrill. That said, we don't have the cap space to do anything big in free agency either. Given the fact that we signed Ilya Kovalchuk, Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov last offseason and have to keep some money free for a potential Parise deal this offseason I can't exactly complain about inactivity this year.
One thing that does need to be addressed is the goalie question. With Martin Brodeur now 39 years old and coming off of multiple injuries last year, it underscores the need to either have a reliable veteran backup (a la Johan Hedberg last year) or a prospect who will potentially be groomed to take the legend's place on the roster. More likely the Devils will lean towards the first option and try to retain the Moose, but if Hedberg doesn't re-sign then I'm not sure which way the Devils go. Either way, answering the backup goalie question is infinitely more important than it was two years ago, or five - and perhaps the most important question the Devils can address in free agency.
Concurrent with free agency is the Parise dilemma. Can the Devils re-sign him before a potential arbitration hearing late next month? If not, should they trade him or just hold onto him and risk having Zach walk at the end of the year? I don't even want to think about that alternative. Despite the fact that Zach only played a single game from November on last year, there are no two ways about it - he needs to be re-signed, and the cap shouldn't be an excuse. Not after the Devils basically forefitted games early last season to get Kovy under the cap. Perhaps the only tricky thing about fitting Zach under the cap long-term is the cap figure for this year, before a ton of money comes off the books in 2012 with the expiring contracts of Brodeur, Brian Rolston, Colin White and Bryce Salvador.
Still, with the cap increasing yet again you figure the Devils will have enough money to get it done, if ownership issues don't get in the way. As is the organization's tradition, even this situation has been clouded in mystery since February though it seems as if almost half the team's up for sale. Although now it doesn't seem like there's any indication that Jeff Vanderbeek will lose his title of majority owner, you still never can tell how such a dramatic shift in the ownership structure will affect the payroll or organization structure. Not to mention the $100 million we committed to Kovy last offseason and the fact we had declining attendance in a non-playoff season.
Perhaps just as mysterious right now, but not quite as important given our track record in this area is the head coach question. Other than Jacques Lemaire , who's been here seven years in three different stints and Pat Burns, who would have been here a lot longer if he didn't get sick, the Devils really haven't come up with any kind of long-term solution in recent years. At least we know who it won't be - since Lemaire retired for good after last season, where he brought the Devils back to respectability once again.
With the John MacLean experiment having failed so spectacularly, we know it won't be him either. I do wonder if that rules out any other potential rookie hire, such as Hawks assistant and Jersey native Mike Haviland (already passed over twice by us) or Habs assistant and ex-Devil Kirk Muller? If so then you have a uninspiring group of candidates such as Craig Ramsay - likely to be let go by Winnipeg, former Pens/Habs coach Michel Therrien and Ken Hitchcock, who has a terrific coaching record including a pre-lockout Cup win but doesn't seem to be what we need in a post-lockout world. Plus the latter two were also passed over last offseason as well, when Lou hired Johnny Mac.
If I had a choice I guess I'd go with Muller among the rookie candidates (and coming from the Habs makes him a plus in Lou's eyes, not to mention being an ex-Devil) and a sort of outside the box candidate in Pete DeBoer among the retreads. Only a hardcore hockey fan would have ever heard of DeBoer, who was recently let go by the Panthers just two seasons after remarkably contending for a playoff berth with a rag-tag team, and never really had a chance to mold a winner down there. Even this year when they finished in last, his team played us as tough as anyone's in the second half but perhaps the biggest plus is he's cut from the former cloth - coachingwise anyway - as Brent Sutter, who seemed to be the choice to take the Devils into a post-lockout world...before losing two straight horrific first-round playoff series and running home to Calgary. At least there's no evidence DeBoer needs to be in Western Canada to do his job.
Whichever way Lou goes, I'm sure Zach will want to know who the coach is going to be as well, before he commits long-term here. Zach's publicly endorsed a Sutter-like coach, recognizing that while the trap system may keep us respectable it isn't ultimately going to be the entire recipe for success without being able to improve on an offense that was dead last in the NHL in 2010-11.
Speaking of coaches...I wasn't going to talk about this without mentioning the most recent Stanley Cup winner, one Claude Julien. As most hockey fans know, Julien was hired by the Devils in '06 and unceremoniously dumped with three games to go in the regular season, and the Devils still in first place. While the Devils - with Lou behind the bench - did beat Tampa Bay in the first round, they were outclassed by Ottawa in the second and the coach who didn't even get one playoff with us has won playoff rounds in each of the last three years (while we haven't won one since that series with Tampa).
Fellow Devil fans - then and now - compared it to the Robbie Ftorek firing, when Ftorek was let go with eight games to go in the 1999-2000 season with the team in first, and the Devils went on to win the Stanley Cup that year. Well, there's no comparison really other than the timing...for one, it was Ftorek's second season with us, after a dissapointing playoff loss to Pittsburgh in 1999 and Julien didn't even get one playoff series. Not to mention Julien's team never slumped anywhere near as bad as Ftorek's did when the Devils went 4-10-2 and were spiraling out of control in 2000, despite having arguably the most talented Devils team ever to that point.
Granted, I never thought Julien was a great coach by any stretch, and he was surely one first-round loss away from being dismissed in Boston this year...just that he deserved a lot better than he got from both the team and fanbase, who were complaining that we were too boring and won too many one-goal games. Perhaps this Stanley Cup and our nightmare of a first half was just desserts for Lou and the fanbase, both of whom got spoiled to the point where even being in first was no longer enough.