Devils’ general manager Ray Shero’s to-do list has gotten shorter since hiring new head coach John Hynes. But there is still work to be done. The upcoming weeks will show fans what to expect from Shero and Hynes’ tenure together. However, besides ushering in new faces, New Jersey must decide if there is value in bringing back any of its own free agents. Two months after the season ended, only forward Jordin Tootoo and goalie Keith Kinkaid have re-signed with the club. With seven other players entering free agency, it is unclear if any of them will return to the team next year.
Since 2012 the Devils have been surrounded by unpredictability. Nonetheless, one virtual guarantee this offseason will be the exits of forwards Michael Ryder and Martin Havlat. Neither was able to bring their game up to the level the team desperately needed.
Ryder’s time in New Jersey was immersed in inconsistency. At times he made scoring look effortless. For a vast majority of last season though, it seemed as if Ryder could not buy a goal. When he signed with the Devils, forward Ilya Kovalchuk was still on the team. The second Kovalchuk left Ryder’s role changed. His scoring ability became even more important. New Jersey wanted Ryder to provide that extra goal a game the team lacked. Unfortunately the task was too big for him.
The Devils were hoping that playing with his longtime friend Patrik Elias would help Havlat to rediscover his scoring touch. After being bought out by the San Jose Sharks, New Jersey gave him another chance. The Devils awarded Havlat a low risk, one-year deal last offseason. Nevertheless, Havlat was not able to escape his injury prone past or find his stride. He dressed for only 40-games and produced 14-points during that stretch.
Both players were scratched for majority of the second half of last season. While it is hard to envision the team welcoming Ryder or Havlat back, it is equally as difficult to conceive that either player would want to return.
A Defensive Question
There is little room on the roster for more defensemen. Yet since New Jersey has such a young group on defense, the team may want another veteran available other than Andy Greene to provide assistance. This is why Bryce Salvador, Peter Harrold, and Mark Fraser all have a slight chance of being re-signed.
Most people assume Salvador has played his last game as a Devil and for the most part that is a safe assumption. While he is unsure if he will even play next season, Salvador would be willing to come back to the club as a depth player rather than a lineup regular. Nonetheless, due to his back injury Salvador’s reliability would be questionable. At 39-years-old, Salvador would be the oldest defenseman and does not sound like he would fit the new attack game plan.
It would not be shocking if Harrold or Fraser returned in a limited short-term role. One thing benefitting both players is their price tags. Neither is going to ask for the money that many defensemen on the open market will.
Harrold provides a more stable defensive game than Fraser who could be considered a work in progress. Moreover, Harrold is not a stranger to having an irregular playing schedule. Fraser though would add grit and is another player not scared to drop the gloves. His shot may be soft but his punch is not.
If Lou Lamoriello were still in charge, the chance of Harrold or Fraser being re-signed would be high, particularly for Fraser. Shero though may desire to look outside of the team’s current roster and allow both players to walk away from New Jersey.
The Best Chance
There were not many positives for New Jersey’s offense last season. But forwards Steve Bernier and Scott Gomez were the exception. Both players redeemed themselves after previous struggles and were instrumental parts of the team.
When Bernier started the season in Albany, no one could have anticipated what was to come. Once he was recalled by New Jersey, Bernier went on to accumulate 32-points. It would not be realistic to expect this kind of production from him every season. However, it was a bounce back year for Bernier. Since there is uncertainty surrounding the offense, he would be a viable depth player and someone who can play on any line, which he proved last year. New Jersey also lacks options at ring wing.
No one knew what to expect from Gomez when he took the ice to boos. The booing did not last though as Devils fans eventually embraced their old friend. Even though Gomez only signed prior to Christmas and played 58 games, he tallied 34-points. If he had signed at the beginning of the year, it is not unfathomable to think he could have come close to a 50-point season, especially considering the Devils were scoring early on. His passing ability has not diminished and he helped set-up many of Bernier’s goals. Gomez too could be a great depth player. It could come down to whether either player will fit the new system.
It is no secret that New Jersey must get younger and grasping at sentimentality is not good for business. Nevertheless, Gomez and Bernier understand the Devils and what it means to be one. Neither player would be a liability nor will either get a big contract. Still at least one of them returning, if not both, for another year could be beneficial for the team.
Many of New Jersey’s free agents will not return. The team must move forward and in order to do that the Devils cannot look back. But for a select few players there remains a chance.