At noon tomorrow, the NHL will engage in their own “silly season.” By now, you’ve already been inundated with coverage of the NBA free-agency pool. While the NHL can’t boast the star power, the excitement and anticipation still hangs in the air for every single team. It’s through free agency that several teams will try and find that missing piece to bring them to the playoffs or even hoist the Stanley Cup.
But with a weaker free agent class this year, many teams might not find those players to lead their teams to victory. And, when looking at the Devils, I’d expect the team to take a wait-and-see approach to fill their free agent holes.
The Devils have two of the biggest unrestricted free agent names coming off the books tomorrow. Both Paul Martin and Ilya Kovalchuk will become unrestricted free agents tonight, and the Devils haven’t made significant headway with either player. As reported yesterday by Rich Chere of the Star-Ledger, Martin’s agent doesn’t believe the two sides will come to an agreement before tonight.
“I’ve spoken to Lou (Lamoriello) on a few different occasions,” said former Devils player Ben Hankinson, who represents Martin. “It’s obviously been a very frustrating year for Paulie and the Devils. There will probably be some more changes. Time will tell if he ends up back in New Jersey.”
While it’s not the most reassuring quote, it sums up the potential of watching two big free agents leave the team. We as fans have been through this before. Scott Gomez left to sign a huge contract with the Rangers, as did Bobby Holik a few years before him. One of the most heartbreaking signings was when Brian Rafalski left to join the Red Wings. In each of these scenarios, the team lost players because of fiscal concerns. And, during this free agency period, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of the two unrestricted free agents leave.
Remember, the Devils never usually make a huge splash in free agency. And, given whatboth Kovalchuk and Martin would want in dollars, the Devils probably won’t retain both of them. While the Devils have made some big signings in the past few years, the latest being Brian Rolston (four years, $20 million). But usually Lamoriello looks to make smaller moves to improve the team. That’s when guys like Yann Danis, Dean McAmmond and Rob Niedermayer get signed. These players provide depth and experience to the organization, and they usually are “trademark Lou” moves.
Continue reading to see what I believe the Devils will ultimately focus on come noon tomorrow.
While this approach may be boring, it’s led to great success within the organization. The Devils have made the playoffs thirteen season’s straight, winning two Stanley Cups during that time. Lamoriello isn’t looking for someone to carry this team, rather he wants to fill out the roster with capable NHL players. And, in speaking with Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record, it seems like he’ll try that exact plan with the blue line.
The Devils need help defensively, with both Martin and Mike Mottau set to become unrestricted free agents tomorrow. With both not guaranteed to come back, Lamoriello will look to strengthen the defensive corps through free agency.
“We certainly feel that we want to get stronger defensively, but we’ll have to wait and see,” he said.
In reading between the lines, one can only assume that the Devils will try to re-sign Martin. The Devils can live without Kovalchuk. It’ll be difficult, and there’s no denying that his offensive skill could only help this team. But the fact of the matter is that, over the past few years, the Devils defense continues to lose important and impact players. They’ve withstood the loss of Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko and Rafalski, but the defense has never been the same. Losing Martin, a key contributor, would be another big loss for the blue line. Before his injury, Martin was becoming the leader of the Devils blue line. True, the defenseman hasn’t lived up to his offensive potential, but he’s been a solid defender and key penalty killer.
Martin will probably be flooded with authors tomorrow afternoon. But in talking with Gulitti, he told him what he wants from a team, and how the Devils still sit near the top of his list.
“A little depends on how long you want to be locked up somewhere,” Martin said. “Also, you want to win. That’s the biggest thing and the city and that kind of stuff. There’s a lot of things that go into it more than people would assume as far as the money aspect. I think it will depend on all of those things put together which one is the best. Just because I’m going to July 1 doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t go back to New Jersey. It’s just kind of see what happens and New Jersey is still right at the top of my list.”
As I said, I believe the Devils will make Martin priority number one tomorrow. With the defense needing a solid anchor, Lamoriello will attempt to get Martin back in a Devils sweater. There are plenty of other needs to be addressed, such as the backup goaltending situation and maybe another center. But, as it stands now, it looks like Lamoriello will focus on adding defenseman, with Martin heading that department.
Paul Martin Photo Credit: NJ.com
Ilya Kovalchuk Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images