Four hours left to free agency, NHL teams...do you know where your free agents are? For most, this is a day of anticipation wondering what shiny new toys your GM will leave under the Christmas tree. While Devil fans are left hoping and praying we go into tomorrow with the same team we went into today with, minus Bryce Salvador and Petr Sykora, I suppose. Less than a month after this team was in the Stanley Cup Finals, no fewer than six players who dressed for Game 6 are set to go unrestricted this afternoon starting with captain/star winger Zach Parise, legendary goalie Martin Brodeur and solid backup Johan Hedberg. Not to mention vet defensemen Salvador, as well as forwards Sykora and big Alexei Ponikarovsky, an effective role player as evidenced by his four OT points in the playoffs.
I've already stated the importance over keeping Zach and Marty enough, as well as the likelihood of Salvador and Sykora not being back (though if Zach does walk, I could see a scenario where Salvador gets re-signed, then one of our other defensmen gets traded off for a scoring winger). Ponikarovsky admittedly I was kind of meh about, after a strong start when he first got traded here he cooled down and only had one goal in the playoffs, but he had nine points. The real selling point for me was when I realized four of those points came in OT. Literally every one of our OT-winning goals in the playoffs My Little Poni had a hand in. I wouldn't overpay like crazy for him though, Poni is replaceable - at worst via another deal at the deadline the likes of which GM Lou Lamoriello was able to land Poni in the first place.
Moose I'd love to see back too, especially in the unlikely event Marty walks. The goalie market is thin, the next best backup on the list is Scott Clemmensen, who ironically had problems with coach Pete DeBoer when both were in Florida. If Moose does go to Philly, Winnipeg or somewhere else one name that interests me as a replacement is former Ranger/Isle Al Montoya, who showed promise in flashes with the Isles but could never seem to stay healthy long enough to hold down the job there. Other vet options like Chris Mason and Jonas Gustavsson are meh at best. That market incidentally also underscores the importance of bringing Marty back. And I still think we'll hear something on that front once Parise makes his decision. At wing, there is simply no replacement for Zach (at least not in FA), unless you count the risky Alexander Semin, who can certainly score but doesn't bring the other intangibles Zach does. Getting in to the Rick Nash and Bobby Ryan sweepstakes is also a possibility if Zach does walk.
If the nuclear scenario happens and both Zach and Marty walk, the fact is the Devils have to do 'something' big. Not just for competitive reasons, but also due to the fact that the Devils currently have eighteen players under contract at around $45.5 million of cap money. That puts us almost $9 million below the cap floor, with two wing spots and two very important goalie spots to fill, along with another possible bench forward to go along with Cam Janssen and defenseman Peter Harrold on the nightly reserve list after Eric Boulton got bought out yesterday, as expected. Filling from within isn't going to be enough for the Devils to reach the cap floor, some move will have to be made. Whatever move(s) the Devils would make however, likely wouldn't be enough to offset not only the PR disaster of having Zach and Marty walk, but the on-ice hit as well. Indeed, a crazy move like trading for Roberto Luongo - already disliked by most Devil fans because of being a rival to Marty on the Canadian team and in publicity - would only exacerbate the PR issue, not to mention be a cap headache sooner rather than later.
With Nashville's Ryan Suter expected to take more than one day to make his decision (along with Phoenix captain Shane Doan, also expected so sit tight till next weekend), pretty much a majority of the focus in the league will be on the Devil FA's, as well as guys like Semin, the Wings' Jiri Hudler and the Isles' P.A.Parenteau up front. The defense market apart from Suter isn't very impressive, with the Panthers' Jason Garrison next in line for big money and big dollars after a breakout season in Florida armed with a 100-MPH shot. Garrison's impact was certainly felt against us in the playoffs as the big fellow played in the first three games when the Panthers' PP was lights out, but then when he came up with a back issue Florida's PP started to struggle. Philly's Matt Carle and the Bruins' Joe Corvo are the next best offensive options on the blueline, with Salvador and the Canes' Bryan Allen being top vet stay-at-home options.
After just under six hours of sleep, I'll try to clean up a little before high noon, then I'll start the FA liveblog. Watching an NHL Network FA preview show last night really underscored the lack of depth in this year's class. For example the center position was headed by iffy vet Olli Jokinen (even after a bounceback year in Calgary) and role player Paul Gaustad - who ironically re-upped with Nashville for four years while the program was airing. Salvador was listed in the top five at defense along with Suter, Carle, Allen and Garrison. And at goalie, any top five list that includes Gustavsson isn't a very deep top five list though Brodeur and Hedberg are legitimate top options. Hedberg may have more suitors though, given that most teams in the league currently have either an expensive starting goalie or one that isn't likely to be benched for a 40-year old Marty - like the Yotes' Mike Smith, still on a $2 million deal. Marty needs us almost as much as we need him, hopefully the two sides can come to a resolution after whatever happens with Zach happens.
I do expect the Zach situation to be resolved by nightfall either way, especially given that offers such as the Wild's reported 10-100 and the Penguins' floated 10-80 last night have become so public. Zach's camp I'm sure has a good idea of what other teams are thinking even without the nonsense floated in the media, which is why I'm not very optomistic we'll be able to retain him. Hopefully when he sees everything, and if we're able to offer something competitive with other contenders, he will stay in the end but I'm expecting the worst at this point. Then again, I was expecting the worst with Patrik Elias a few years ago after Jamie Langenbrunner re-signed and it seemed as if that was a sign Elias was gone since we had no cap money left. Of course, we did wind up re-signing Elias, and then giving up a first-rounder to get rid of Vlad Malakhov's cap hit. Certainly I didn't expect Ilya Kovalchuk to re-sign two years ago, but he did.
I'd rather not air my feelings on Zach if he should walk yet, that'll be for tomorrow's blog. Suffice it to say, after he gave nine million indications of coming back and wanting to be back, for the captain to walk out on us after getting so close to the ultimate prize would be a lot more of a Benedict Arnold-like betrayal than even Scott Gomez or Bobby Holik (who were always going to be mercs) going to the Rangers. As far as Marty goes, I'd be confused and distraught if he somehow signed with another team as well. I wouldn't hold it against him, mainly because he gave us so much for so many years, and at a discount from what he could have gotten if he held the UFA gun to Lou's head. However, I wouldn't ever set foot in the Rock for a game Marty's playing against us either, mainly because I wouldn't want to deal with the ungrateful loons who'd be chanting you suck and doing the Marty! stuff that should be reserved for MSG fans.
At least the consolation is we don't have to wait much longer now. Either nothing will change, or everything will change by nightfall or soon thereafter.
UPDATE: Well maybe this is nothing...or something. Apparently Zach is holding off officially deciding on FA until before 10 AM. I'm not holding my breath for 45 minutes, but this day could change dramatically if a miracle happens.