Coming off a disappointing season in which he watched his team uncharacteristically implode down the stretch, losing a baffling 10 straight games, Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello faces an offseason which could drastically change the landscape of the organization.
Several veterans, including stalwarts such as Patrik Elias and David Clarkson, will become unrestricted free agents on July 5 and, in light of the team's late-season collapse, Lamoriello could opt to allow several of those free agents to walk away.
There is also the question of New Jersey's geriatric goaltending corps, which features an aging (but still effective) Martin Brodeur, 41, and his equally antique backup, Johan Hedberg, 40.
Devils head coach Pete DeBoer sounded disappointed in the season's ending but optimistic about the future before leaving Prudential Center for the summer.
"Obviously there's a lot of personnel decisions to make, just with the number of guys whose contracts are up," DeBoer said, "I'm certain that we have the right system in place and we play the right way most nights. I know with the guys that do return that the foundation is there, and that's a good thing."
The head coach's statement took a somewhat ominous turn, however, when he addressed the potential for key free agents to move on:
"Any time you have a large group of UFA players, you know there's going to be some change. That's inevitable."
Lamoriello has, as is his practice, been evasive and noncommittal when asked specifically about New Jersey's unrestricted free agents, which include Dainius Zubrus, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Steve Sullivan, Tom Kostopoulos, Peter Harrold and Marek Zidlicky, in addition to Clarkson and Elias.
"You’re always going to have free agents," the GM said (h/t NorthJersey.com), "we certainly want to keep our free agents, like we always do. If there are people that we don’t, we speak to them individually and tell them honestly."
While some of New Jersey's UFA pool appear to be expandable, Elias and Clarkson are longtime key members of the team.
Elias, 37, was drafted by the Devils in 1994 and has spent his entire career in red and black. He is the all-time franchise leader in goals and points, and he holds the single-season scoring record for the franchise, as well. Most importantly, he has won two Stanley Cups with the club.
Clarkson, 29, signed as a gritty but undrafted free agent in 2005, has become a key member of the team and a fan favorite for his no-holds-barred style of play and his recently discovered scoring ability.
After a mediocre 2010-11 season in which he scored only 12 goals, he reached the 30-goal plateau during the Devils' magical 2011-12 campaign, solidifying him as one of the team's top scorers. During the shortened 2012-13 season, Clarkson still turned in a respectable 15 goals, although he struggled (along with the rest of the roster) to score down the stretch.
The goaltending situation, although treated as a non-issue by Lamoriello, is also a concern for the Devils.
Brodeur, although 41 years old, has shown he can still play at a championship level when healthy, but nagging injuries have forced him to miss significant time over the past few seasons. Despite his difficulty staying healthy, though, the NHL's winningest goaltender of all time insists he wants to play at least another year.
"This year, I had a great time playing the game and had a good time at the level I wanted to compete at," said Brodeur, who turned in a 13-9-7 record with two shutouts this season, while starting 29 of the team's 48 games.
Hedberg, who turned 40 on May 5, is more of a concern. He logged a 6-10-3 record with a putrid .883 save percentage, among the worst in the NHL.
Hedberg's advanced age combined with Brodeur's propensity for missing multiple games due to injury (he has started just 67 percent of New Jersey's game over the past three seasons, including missing 13 this season with a pinched nerve in his back) has led many to speculate that Lamoriello would move to acquire a youthful backup or elevate one of the organization's goaltending prospects to the big club for next season.
Lamoriello, when asked by the Bergen Record if he is comfortable with heading into next season with a goaltending group that has a combined age of 81, characteristically gave a blunt answer with no elaboration.
The cagey GM has been known to be tight-lipped and private on matters related to personnel, but in less than two months, Lamoriello's current mindset (whatever that may be) will be forced into action.
Will he re-sign Elias and Clarkson? Will he allow underperforming veterans like Zidlicky to seek employment elsewhere?
Only he knows, at least until July 5.
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