Friday, June 15, 2012
Devils draft and offseason thoughts
Even as baseball is heading towards the heart of its season with the Mets surprisingly keeping their heads above water, and football is just around the corner, I still haven't emotionally let go of hockey season yet. Granted, it only has been four days since the Eastern Conference Champs' miracle run came up just two games short in LA on Monday, and less than two days since I could have been conceivably going to Game 7. After two months of intense emotional ups and downs, it's not that easy to pick up and get into something else.
Part of what makes it so hard to let go however, is due to the natural cycle of life as a fan of any sports team. As one season ends, another is just around the corner - particuarly the longer your own team's playoffs last. With the draft (and likely a draft party at the Rock) next weekend, and UFA beginning two weeks from Sunday the offseason seems insanely short for Devils and Kings fans, though at least the Kings have the big trophy to get drunk with - as Johnathan Quick found out when he gave an entertaining alcohol-induced speech during the Kings' Stanley Cup rally yesterday afternoon. Go to YouTube to find the audio, I can't post it on a family blog but it's not fit for network TV, that's for sure!
Obviously, it's a welcome change from the last few years when the offseason dragged on forever after early eliminations basically caused the hockey season to be dead to me by the end of April at best. This year, we were playing hockey in early June! After four years of playoff failures at the Rock, Newark was finally the place to be during the postseason as the Devils put up a 7-4 record with many memorable home wins. Travis Zajac's OT winner in Game 6 of the first round that kept the Devils alive and Alexei Ponikarovsky's OT winner in Game 3 of the second round that gave us an edge we wouldn't relinquish against Philly were exciting in their own right. Adam Henrique's series and conference-clinching goal against the hated Rangers was arguably the best non-Cup victory in franchise history.
If the season couldn't end with the giant silver trophy, at least the Devils went out on a good note in Newark winning a tight 2-1 game 5 against the Kings that ensured there would be no enemy celebration on our ice this season, unlike the prior four playoff appearances where the Devils' season ended at home. Having Game 6 get away from us in the first period after Steve Bernier's costly major penalty was hard to live with at the time, but having Bernier get emotional - in a good way - after the fans' support of him when the team returned to Newark the day after somehow was, in its own right a heartening moment.
Enough looking back however, preperations for the 2012-13 season won't wait for trips down memory lane. With UFA's such as captain Zach Parise, franchise legend Martin Brodeur and playoff hero Bryce Salvador, the next few weeks are going to be critical in determining the direction of the Devils heading into next season. Especially with role players such as Ponikarovsky, Bernier, fellow fourth-liners Ryan Carter and Stephen Gionta, twenty-goal scorer Petr Sykora, fill-in defenseman Peter Harrold and vet backup goalie Johan Hedberg all unrestricted free agents as well. It's safe to say not everyone is coming back, but vital that more of the above return than not.
Even before free agency is the draft next weekend, thought to be an afterthought by many including me when it seemed obvious GM Lou Lamoriello would take this opportunity to forefit our first-rounder and fulfill the Ilya Kovalchuk contract penalty. However, it took Lou less than two days after the end of the season to throw his first curveball of '12-13 when he announced that we would not be forefiting our pick after all. I figured there'd be no better opportunity to bite the bullet with us picking at twenty-nine in the first round, but obviously it wasn't a matter of position for Lou, since he claimed he wouldn't have forefited the 30th pick either, if we'd gotten that.
With that, it seems obvious that development time with a prospect is more of an issue than actual draft position and that we'll probably either forefit the pick in 2014 (the last year we can do it), or somehow challenge the ruling yet - a scenario that I still think extremely unlikely. Also, Lou could have a trade in the works for this year's draft and need to keep the first round pick for that...though what that move could be is anyone's guess. Whatever the reason for keeping the pick, I'm now anxiously hoping to get back to the Rock next Friday for one final salute to the Conference Champs, and another opportunity to hang out with fellow Devil fans before many of us go our seperate ways for the summer.
I might as well enjoy this season for all its worth, before the potential dark clouds looming over the offseason. Not only with free agency itself, but the fact that our ownership question still hasn't been settled, with barely two weeks to go before many key players hit the open market. Granted, Brodeur's basically a lock to return - especially after he turned back the clock during a memorable playoff run - perhaps the only realistic thing that would prevent him from being in a Devils' sweater in '12-13 is the other major issue hanging over the offseason...more potential labor strife as another CBA is set to end in early September, just before camp is set to begin. That's a worry for another day, however.
Playoff hero Salvador is probably the most likely to go, as the 36-year old warrior will almost certainly get a multi-year deal elsewhere that we're not likely going to give him. Barring any moves, our defense next season seems set thanks to the returning Henrik Tallinder (out half the season with a blood clot in his leg, but played some of his best hockey in the Finals upon returning) and the highly-touted Adam Larsson, who should resume the everyday role he had for most of this season next year. With Anton Volchenkov and Andy Greene signed for multiple years as well, along with the emerging Mark Fayne due a hefty raise as a RFA and deadline acquisition Marek Zidlicky locked up next year, there's really no room for Sal unfortunately.
Who fills out the seventh spot on defense is also a question mark, with Harrold a UFA and Matt Taormina a RFA. Perhaps one, or neither is brought back. Harrold proved he deserves a shot to stick in someone's defense next year. Taormina didn't look too bad when he played the last couple seasons either, but he became the forgotten man after the acquisition of Zidlicky, with Harrold playing as well as he was after the journeyman started to find his way into the mix during the winter. Whether Lou brings someone in to fill that role, or gives still-young Alexander Urbom, a prospect like Eric Gelinas or even Jon Merrill a shot remains to be seen.
Up front, things are no less certain with the entire fourth line set to hit the open market - a fourth line that became a revelation during the postseason, with no fewer than ten even-strength goals (one less than our top line). Other than one game at the end of the regular season this year and a few forgettable ones during our nightmare first half last year, there wasn't much to suggest that Gionta would become the factor he did during the postseason with seven points, including two goals in the first round against Florida. Carter and Bernier also put up seven points in the postseason each, with Carter coming up big later in the playoffs - three of his five goals coming against the Rangers, including the Game 5 winner.
Ponikarovsky only had one postseason goal - and boy was it a doozy! - but finished with nine points and was a solid role player during the regular season as well. Sykora was a nice comeback story with over twenty goals and forty points, playing every game in the regular season, but his effectiveness gradually diminished in the postseason (two goals and five points in eighteen games). And while people are rightly going to remember how good Marty was in the postseason, it was actually Hedberg who was the better goalie in the first half and helped stabilize a season that could have gone the other way early when we were on the bubble.
It's hard to predict among all of them who will be back and not, if I had to guess I'd say at least Gionta and Bernier would be back among the fourth liners, especially now that Bernier will be a man on a mission to redeem himself after Game 6. Carter became a folk hero between his big postseason goals and memorable mustache, but may have been so good he could wind up getting an offer we're not likely to match. I don't think Sykora will be back either after being a healthy scratch later in the postseason, at least not right away. He could wind up getting another camp invite, but it's hard to see a second act in what was a surprising comeback this year.
Ponikarovsky is a question mark, it probably depends on what his market value winds up being. He was still a steal for a fourth-round pick. As far as the Moose, he obviously proved he could still play at a high level and I wouldn't be opposed to giving him and Marty another go-around as one of the best tandems in hockey though admittedly it would be nice to get some of our younger goalies' feet wet next year. Whether he wants to play again or retire is another matter, or if he wants to be closer to home and play more elsewhere.
Of course, the free agent that everyone's talking about is the captain. Throughout this whole process and even after the season ended Parise gave every indication of wanting to be back, even going so far as to refer to his 'first season as Devils captain', among other hints that he wanted to return. However, contract negotations are getting more complicated with the not-so-subtle hints that his hometown Wild are willing to offer a virtual blank check - a reported offer of (at least) ten years and ninety million with a NTC! Obviously teams aren't supposed to have direct contact with players, but the Wild are making every attempt to get their message out there, using friend and former GM Lou Nanne as a public go-between to relay the interest of owner Craig Leopold and current GM Chuck Fletcher through the media. Nanne also has ties to the Parise family as well, having played with Zach's dad J.P. for several years.
Among other things, Nanne claimed that the Wild 'would not be outbid' and in subsequent days, rumblings of a contract in the $8-9 million per year range, followed by a report of 10-90 with a NTC today basically did everything but put the contract language in print. Honestly, this kind of chicanery is making a mockery of the 'exclusive negotiating' rights the Devils have. No, the owner and the GM aren't physically negotiating with Zach - as far as we know - but they've clearly not left much room for interpretation. To the point where if the Wild DO make such an offer, and Zach takes it, you can bet your bottom dollar there's going to be a tampering investigation. At the very least, they've made it next to impossible for Zach to forego waiting until free agency, especially with his agents and dad in his ear.
Be that as it may, the most important news on the Zach front may be imminent, with reports surfacing during the Finals that another investor may be lined up to help settle our debt issues. I'll believe it when I see it, but combined with our postseason revenue from eleven home games, this could be another big boost in our hopes of retaining Zach and other key FA's. FA's might not be the only defections however...assistant coach Adam Oates is one of the two finalists for the Caps' vacant head-coaching job (along with another ex-Cap, Craig Berube), and the possibility of fellow assistant Larry Robinson retiring was floated by Chico Resch during the final MSG+ Devils' postgame of the year. At least barring something astonishing, we'll begin next season with Pete DeBoer as the head coach - the first time we've had a coach open two straight seasons since Brent Sutter in 2008 (and the last time before that was Pat Burns in 2004) - and the calm, intelligent DeBoer went a long way towards proving he would be the man to end our coaching carousel at last.