It was easy to dismiss game 1 of this series for a lot of reasons. It was a blowout. The Devils were rusty coming off the high of sweeping the Rangers. Fine, but you could see already in the game that Carolina was better, and it only got more apparent through the rest of the series.
The Devils have turned over almost completely several times (except for Brodeur and Brylin) in the last 10 years, people have come and gone and come back, but the essential philosophy of the team has stayed the same, and that will always put the team in position to contend, so I have no doubt that Lou will rebuild his D-corps (corpse) this summer. It was the Philosophy that produced the 15 game win streak, that snatched the Atlantic Division crown and sweeped the Rangers. It wasn’t star power. But the Philosophy didn’t rebuild the blueline.
Because that’s what the problem was this season. Brodeur did not have his best year, and was far streakier than usual, but that probably is more of a cause of the defense situation more than anything else. It wasn’t just that Stevens, Daneyko, and Niedermayer are gone. It was that the slots were filled in with guys more suited for play 10 years ago (either due to rule changes, age, or both) like Matvichuk, Albelin, Klee, Malakhov, et al. (I personally think Lukowich would have been fine as a #5 or 6.) This forced Rafalski and White to step up, and they did ok, just not good enough.
The Devils were wonderful on the attack this year, and Patrik Elias only improved that situation when he returned. If resigning him means that they don’t rebuild the backline, however, I’d be against it. Hopefully, he’ll stay put, though.
I’d rather see them open the wallet for Zdeno Chara, personally. He would give Rafalski the cover he needed, and White too. That would change the responsibilities downstream too, leaving White to slot in as a grinding #3, Martin as a second puck mover, and Hale to only be called on for a few solid minutes as #5.
Here’s my recipe for next year:
Let go: Albelin, Klee, Kozlov, Langdon, Oliwa, Rasmussen, Wiemer, Clemmenson.
Re-sign: (UFA) Elias, Pandolfo, Ahonen (RFA) Gionta, Gomez, Hale, Martin, White
Trade/waive: Klee, Lukowich, Matvichuk.
Assuming reasonable raises, that brings the payroll to around $40M (inlcuding 2-way contracts) with Elias or about $34M without. Assuming next years’ cap is $45M, there’s little room left for a #1 defenseman signing. $5M might be enough to land Jovonovski, but not Chara.
Better hope the draft is working.
Update: Just for the record, Nik Lidstrom is UFA. I’m assuming he either re-ups with Detroit or goes back to Sweden. If not, I would send Elias packing and spend the max on Lidstrom.