The defending Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils were officially eliminated from playoff contention last Sunday in a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers.
Having rebounded from missing the 2011 playoffs by marching to the 2012 Stanley Cup final, failing to qualify this season is a bitter disappointment for the Devils.
Among the reasons for this season's decline was the absence of former captain Zach Parise, who signed with the Minnesota Wild last summer as an unrestricted free agent. Coincidentally, the Devils failure to make the 2011 playoffs could also be tied to Parise's absence, as he missed most of that season to a knee injury.
Another notable loss was Petr Sykora, whom GM Lou Lamoriello declined to re-sign. NorthJersey.com's Tom Gulitti noted the pair combined for 52 goals last season (Parise had 31, Sykora 21), and Lamoriello's inability to suitably replace them took its toll on the Devils offense.
Their offensive shortcomings worsened when superstar Ilya Kovalchuk was sidelined on March 23 to a shoulder injury. As Puck Daddy Greg Wyshynski observed, the Devils went 1-6-4 during Kovalchuk's absence, scoring two goals or less in eight of those games.
Lamoriello faces considerable pressure to re-sign pending free agent forwards Patrik Elias and David Clarkson, but he's yet to open talks with them or his other free agents, preferring not to discuss contracts during the regular season. With the Devils season ending this weekend, he'll have plenty of time to open negotiations.
The Devils currently have $39.8 million invested in 16 players for 2013-14. In addition to Elias and Clarkson, Danius Zubrus, Steve Sullivan, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Marek Zidlicky are their notable unrestricted free agents, while Adam Henrique and Andrei Loktionov are slated to become restricted free agents.
Considering the Devils offensive woes this season – 27th overall in goals-per game (2.52), 22nd on the power play (16.0 percent) – bolstering the offense is a priority.
Given last summer's failure to re-sign Parise, Lamoriello would prefer to re-sign Elias and Clarkson.
He could get the still-effective Elias to accept a shorter, more affordable deal than his expiring seven-year, $42-million contract. The 37-year-old has played his entire career with the Devils and would prefer to stay, though he told the New York Times he “understands the business side.”
Clarkson would also prefer to stay, though he admitted he doesn't know where he'll be playing next season. His current offensive pace (14 goals and 23 points in 46 games) is on par with last season's 30-goal, 46-point performance.
Given the shallow talent pool in this summer's free agent market, Clarkson (who earned $3 million this season) could command up to $5 million per season on the open market. His departure would be a serious blow to the Devils offense.
Zidlicky, 36, also expressed a willingness to return, but he'll have to accept a pay cut from the $4 million he's earned this season. His departure would put the Devils in need of a skilled puck-moving defenseman.
Hovering over this is the long overdue need to find an heir apparent for goaltending legend Martin Brodeur.
Though still capable of posting decent numbers (13-9-7, 2.22 GAA, two shutouts), Brodeur turns 41 in May and is coming to the end of his illustrious career.
Both are signed through next season, but this summer is a good opportunity for Lamoriello to finally begin his search for Brodeur's replacement.
Rumor Roundup appears weekdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).