The euphoria of New Jersey Devils fans over their club’s surprising run to the 2012 Stanley Cup final this spring quickly gave way in July to the disappointing realities of free agency.
Left winger Zach Parise, the Devils captain, opted to join friend and now-former Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter in Minnesota, inking a 13-year, $98-million contract with the Wild.
Parise’s departure created a void in offense and leadership which will be difficult to replace.
They still have some skilled firepower in left winger Ilya Kovalchuk and center Travis Zajac. Center Adam Henrique is coming off a promising 51-point rookie campaign.
Right winger David Clarkson netted a career-high 30 goals last season, while Patrik Elias, the Devils’ all-time leading scorer, had 78 points.
This group, however, does come with some concerns.
Though Kovalchuk chalked up 83 points last season, he continues to face the pressure of playing up to his expensive contract. His performance did improve under coach Peter DeBoer and if his recent play in the Kontinental League is anything to go by, he’s made a full recovery from the herniated disc which plagued him during the 2012 playoffs.
Henrique must avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, while it remains to be seen if Clarkson can return to the 30-goal mark. The 36-year-old Elias is on the downside of his career and it could be asking too much for another 70-plus point effort.
General manager Lou Lamoriello was more successful re-signing other key players, especially long-time Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, who signed a two-year contract after briefly testing the unrestricted free agent market for the first time in his illustrious career.
The remainder were predominantly role players, like right wingers Steve Bernier, Cam Janssen and Stephen Gionta, center Ryan Carter, defenseman Bryce Salvador and backup goalie Johan Hedberg.
Lamoriello added muscle by signing UFA enforcer Krys Barch. He also signed right winger Bobby Butler, an Ottawa Senators castoff, to a one-year, two-way contract, in hopes Butler might regain his scoring touch in New Jersey.
Offense could also be an issue for the Devils’ blueline, which lacks a true top puck-moving defenseman.
Hopes are high for 19-year-old Adam Larsson, but his rookie season was hampered by injuries and he was a healthy scratch through most of the 2012 playoffs.
Lamoriello acquired Marek Zidlicky from the Minnesota Wild in a late-season trade, but the 35-year-old has been slowed by injuries the past couple of seasons.
Salvador, a stay-at-home defenseman, came alive during the Devils playoff run, with 14 points in 24 games, but fans shouldn’t expect him to carry that over into this season.
Lamoriello has proven for years to be among the NHL’s shrewdest GMs, but he could be hard-pressed to bolster his offense this season.
Back in July, he talked about “Plan B” to replace the departed Parise, but over the course of the summer did little to implement it.
Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record speculated Lamoriello may have had interest in UFA right wingers Alexander Semin and Shane Doan prior to their signings with Carolina and Phoenix, respectively.
Gulliti suggested Lamoriello could go the trade route, noting the Devils had eight blueliners under contract and needed to make room for Larsson.
Given the oft-injured Anton Volchenkov has a no-trade clause and Salvador was recently re-signed, Zidlicky or Henrik Tallinder could be shopped for a forward.
Lamoriello was reportedly interested in re-signing UFA right winger Petr Sykora, who scored 21 goals and 44 points in 82 games with the Devils, his first full season back in the NHL since 2008-09.
With a payroll of approximately $59.5 million invested in 22 players, the Devils will be squeezed for salary cap space if the league succeeds in implementing a lower cap ceiling for this season in a new collective bargaining agreement.
That could prevent signing Sykora, and could force Lamoriello to move some salary, limiting him to cheaper options via the trade market.
Potentially hampering Lamoriello’s efforts is the tenuous position of the Devils’ principal owner Jeff Vanderbeek, who recently reached an agreement with his lenders allowing him to run the club for two more years.
That allows Vanderbeek to buy more time to pay off his creditors, but could also provide him the opportunity to sell his stake in the franchise.
Still, one shouldn’t underestimate Lamoriello’s ability to juggle payroll and find the right players to improve the Devils, especially if the next CBA forces rival clubs to shed salary before the start of the season.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday 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, Kukla’s Korner and The Guardian, Charlottetown.