After a disappointing 2013 season, New Jersey Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello has reminded hockey fans why he is the best in the business. Whether it was the luring of intriguing free agents or accounting for the two biggest highlights of the 2013 NHL Draft, Lamoriello has helped prepare the Devils for both short term and long term success this summer. Of course, the subtraction of Ilya Kovalchuk due to retirement is a big hit for the offensively challenged Devils, but there is still much to be excited about. The following will outline the additions and subtractions that have occurred thus far, and what one can expect to see happening in New Jersey throughout the rest of the offseason.
The Devils have made several improvements via free agency, this summer. Besides seeing the return of free agents Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus, Andrei Loktionov, Marek Zidlicky and Peter Harrold, the Devils brought in some new players to replace the void left by Zach Parise and David Clarkson. After Parise’s departure to the Minnesota Wild, the Devils did little to replace his scoring touch. Lamoriello worked towards amending this issue with the signing of 33-year-old, right-winger Michael Ryder to a two-year, $7 million contract. Ryder, whose scoring ability should benefit nicely from the numerous playmakers on the Devils’ roster, has scored 30+ goals three times in his career. He will likely fill a top-six forward slot to help replace the void left by Kovalchuk’s sudden departure.
New Jersey lost another considerable presence this offseason when David Clarkson chose to leave the Devils in favor of his favorite team growing up, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Despite a serious attempt to resign Clarkson, Devils’ GM Lamoriello stated that he had “turned the page” on re-signing Clarkson and moved quickly to replace him with the signing of 30-year-old, left-winger Ryane Clowe to a five-year, $24.25 million contract. Clowe, who has spent most of his time with the San Jose Sharks before being traded last season to the New York Rangers, plays a similar style game as Clarkson. Clowe is a gritty forward who has scored 15+ goals five times in his eight years in the NHL. At 6’2, 225 lbs., Clowe brings some much needed size to an undersized Devils offense.
The most typical Lamoriello signing of the summer, in my mind, has been that of Rostislav Olesz to a one-year, $1 million contract. Most fans probably don’t know much about the 7th overall pick of the 2004 draft, but Olesz is a typical low-level signing with intriguing upside that Lamoriello has been known for. Olesz’s statistics do little to impress, having neither scored more than 14 goals in a season nor played in a full season. However, he played well enough under Devils’ coach Peter DeBoer during his stint in Florida, as well as on the Czech Republic national team with Patrik Elias, to earn himself a spot on a seemingly depleted Devils offense. Olesz, at 6’0, 214 lbs. brings some size and potentially unrecognized talent to a bottom-six position in New Jersey’s offense. Hopefully once again being under the tutelage of DeBoer will help Olesz find the game that earned him top recognition in the 2004 NHL Draft.
While GM Lou Lamoriello has only conducted two trades this offseason, they have vital impacts on the Devils going forward. I was fortunate enough to be at the Prudential Center for the 2013 NHL Draft when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told the rowdy crowd that the Devils had traded the ninth-overall pick and that they’re “gonna want to hear this”. In exchange for their first round draft pick, Lamoriello brought the future of the Devils’ goaltending to New Jersey in the form of 27-year-old Cory Schneider. Schneider had been the focus of much attention in Vancouver, as he seemed to have ousted the highly regarded goaltender Roberto Luongo for the Canuck’s starting job. However, due to Vancouver GM Mike Gillis’ inability to trade Luongo, New Jersey was able to put future goaltending concerns to rest by acquiring Martin Brodeur’s successor. While Schneider will have to wrestle the starting job from the legendary goaltender over the next year or so, it seems that everyone in New Jersey thinks they have found their next man between the pipes.
The second trade, while not as celebrated, has given the Devils some much needed salary flexibility and helped clear up the defense situation in New Jersey. The Devils traded defenseman Henrik Tallinder to the only other team he has played for, the Buffalo Sabres, in exchange for minor-league forward Riley Boychuk. During the 2013 season the Devils kept eight defensemen on their roster: Bryce Salvador, Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov, Andy Greene, Marek Zidlicky, Adam Larsson, Mark Fayne, and Peter Harrold. Much to their chagrin, many of these defensemen were rotated in and out of the roster, which seemed to have a negative impact on their play. By removing the $3.375 million cap hit of Tallinder, the Devils have freed up a roster spot on their crowded blue-line and now have additional cap room for resigning additional restricted free agents (RFA’s). After the re-signing of Zidlicky, Lamoriello suggested additional moves may be made to free up room for young defenseman waiting for their opportunity in the NHL.
The unfortunate part of Kovalchuk’s sudden retirement is timing. Despite the large amount of cap space, there are few attractive free agents remaining. Lamoriello will likely have to wait until next season to sign an impact player. There is also the potential for a trade that will help the Devils fill the gaps left by departing offense men over the past couple of years, although New Jersey’s assets seem thin at the moment. Devils forward Adam Henrique is an RFA and will command a far bigger salary than his rookie contract. There is still work to be done for the Devils GM, which seems to not include any more major free agent signings for the time being. Expect to see the focus turn to the Devils’ RFA’s in the near future, despite Kovalchuk’s recent departure. This summer’s changes to the Devils’ roster have enforced the faith in one of the league’s top executives – “In Lou We Trust”. I have no doubt that we will see more of Lamoriello’s genius to prepare the Devils for life after Kovalchuk.