Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Devils Re-Up Clarkson, Get Prepared For Free Agency

By: Tim Brennan

New Jersey took care of one of their priorities by signing right winger David Clarkson to a three year deal that reportedly will pay him $8 million over the course of the contract. Clarkson has been a staple with the franchise so it's no surprise that the Devils would keep him in the fold. Considered to be an agitator, Clarkson stumbled through the 2009-10 campaign due to two seperate leg injuries, costing him 36 games. He ended the season with 11 goals and 24 points in the remaining 46 games.

The only thing holding Clarkson back from being a true offensive force is the fact that he doesn't possess the skill set of a scorer and because of his no holds barred playing style, he tends to take too many bad penalties. Now Clarkson has 3 more years to prove that he can become a 20 goal, 50 point power forward for one of the most offense deprived teams in the league.

Now that that situation is squared away, GM Lou Lamoriello can deal with other issues of great concern. The Devils once again bowed out gracefully in the first round and there were lots of expectations of dominance in the post-season for this team, especially after the acquisition of Ilya Kovalchuk. But Kovalchuk's conflicting style to the Devils defense first attitude proved to be a recipe for disaster and the 27 year old Russian sniper disappointed in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against Philadelphia.

Lamoriello isn't looking to change the team up by offering a huge contract to a superstar player so Kovalchuk won't be back. The Devils always make smaller moves that fly under the radar and prove to be impressive. The signings of Rob Niedermayer and Dean McAmmond last offseason helped to fill in holes in the forward area. Niedermayer had 10 goals and 22 points in 71 games, his best output since 2005-06 while playing in Anaheim. Same goes for McAmmond, who was an ace in faceoffs and posted 17 points in 62 games, more points than he had in the previous two seasons combined. These two will play into Lamoriello's plans and it's more than likely that he will retain one, if not both, for the upcoming season.

The key issue on Lamoriello's plate is the dilemma of signing Paul Martin before he goes on the open market July 1st. Martin missed most of the season with a broken left arm and only managed to play 22 games. New Jersey's 2nd round draft choice from 2000 is reportedly set to test the free agent waters and will command plenty of attention from teams looking for a top 2 defenseman. Martin plays big minutes and is extremely mobile, one of his many strengths. There are a plethora of teams searching for a defenseman of Martin's caliber and some like Ottawa, Phoenix, Nashville and Washington might be losing a key defenseman to free agency so they might offer a contract to replace the void. Whatever happens, Lamoriello will not spend alot of money just to keep a player from being snatched away and if Martin asks for $5-6 million a season, the Devils will pass.

Other areas of concern focus on adding another scoring winger into the mix along with a stable backup for Martin Brodeur. The Devils are solid at center with Travis Zajac, Dainius Zubrus and now Jason Arnott filling the middle but need to try and pull a scorer towards the direction of New Jersey.

The Devils traded away two highly touted prospects this season in Niclas Bergfors and Matt Halischuk, both of which are wingers and put up great stats. Bergfors tallied 13 goals and 27 points in 54 games with the Devils before becoming part of the deal that sent Kovalchuk to New Jersey. In the 27 games in a Thrashers uniform, Bergfors picked up 17 points and impressed the coaching staff with his durability and instant chemistry with Nik Antropov.

Halischuk, while playing in Lowell of the AHL, scored 14 goals and 29 points in 47 games and joined New Jersey for 20 games, but only mustered 2 points. The Devils now have to replace those two and would be better suited getting someone with a few seasons in them, such as Phoenix's Lee Stempniak, Detroit's Jason Williams or Calgary's Chris Higgins.

Meanwhile the search for a compatible backup to suit Brodeur's needs ventures on. In the past decade, Brodeur has seen 7 different goaltenders ride the bench with the latest being Yann Danis. Although being involved in 12 games, posting a 3-2-1 record and commendable stats of a 2.06 goals against average and .923 save percentage, coach Jacques Lemaire didn't trust Danis to carry the load when Brodeur was sitting out, resulting in the small amount of games played. It's anyone's guess what new coach John MacLean has to say about this issue and whether he feels that Brodeur should be playing 65-70 games a season this late in his career.

For the betterment of the team, Lamoriello needs to make a decision about who will backup Brodeur so as to give the future Hall of Famer more rest before the playoffs. The past couple of seasons Brodeur has been started almost every game and runs out of gas at the end, resulting in poor results during the playoffs. Prospect Jeff Frazee might get a promotion due to a strong performance for Lowell in 2009-10, picking up 28 wins in what was a subpar season for the team. If they choose not to go with Frazee, then they might want to sign a veteran for the upcoming season.

The Devils should consider re-signing Mike Mottau as well, who proves that a player making slightly above minimum wage can repay his team with excellent play. His versatility makes him a hot commodity and the former Hobey Baker Award winner has great offensive instincts from the point.

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