This could actually be improved upon

I don’t know if the New Jersey Devils will win the Stanley Cup. A few of you hold the conviction that they are lemmings going off the cliff, hopeless souls running at the machine gun called the Los Angeles Kings. I’m not so convinced. We’ve hit a point of the year where if you can do what you’ve done, you can do pretty much anything you damn well want. We proclaimed the Boston Bruins dead in the water after two Cup final games in 2011, wondered if Zdeno Chara was on his last legs and lived to regret the thought. Here we are in 2012 — New Jersey and Los Angeles.

If you’ve been a fan long enough, you know that in this sport you get a feeling in your gut which is actually just clairvoyance manifesting itself as anxiety. It’s a tingly churning that hits your brain and brings with it a moment of perfection. You’re not entirely sure what it means at the moment but when the red light comes on a few moments later, you think to yourself “I kinda saw that coming.” Well, I have one of those right now and it’s telling me that the Devils are going to surprise some people. And by “some people” I mean all of you and not me because I saw it coming. By surpirse? I THINK they’re going to win the Stanley Cup, and you know what? I’m cool with it.

Regardless of whether or not you like their odds, I firmly believe we can all agree the New Jersey Devils will be a better team in 2012-13 if they win the Cup in a couple of weeks.

Let’s roll with this hypothesis, shall we? I give you your 2012 Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils, the roster that just bounced the Rangers a couple of hours ago, and we head fearlessly into the offseason from here. Let’s also venture forward on the assumption that there is no lockout next season (there might be, sorry) and that the salary cap (if there is one) is roughly the same (it might not be).

First things first, we can be certain that Martin Brodeur will retire because he’s the type of guy that would want to go out on top, bringing the end to one of the greatest goaltending careers we’ve ever seen. His $5.2 million cap hit which expires this summer will not be renewed and the team will have said money free to spend how they choose. Trusty reliever Johan Hedberg will also have an expiring contract and it remains to be seen whether or not the team chooses to retain his services. For the sake of argument, let’s say yes for the same terms.

I’m also going to factor in the question mark that is the Devils ownership situation. We’ll roll with the idea that they’ll want to spend around the $60 million mark again next year for the sake of consistency. CapGeek projects their cap space at around $22 million so here are the parameters. Subtract the Hedberg money and we’re at $21 million.

What to do with the Brodeur money? Obviously there’s the small issue of resigning Zach Parise. The thing about being the captain of a Cup champion team when you’ve played your entire career there is you generally get everything you want. The Devils WILL DO everything they can to retain his services and a championship ring with their logo on it won’t hurt his sentimentality. I anticipate he’ll warrant a cap hit of $7 million, which is only an increase of $1 million in his hit. We’re at $13 million folks.

The goaltending situation is the biggest question mark and there are a couple of good options on the market. The first is Minnesota wunderbackup Josh Harding. He, as many know, is the classic case of “boy, any other town and he’d be the starter,” — well here’s your chance, Josh, you only have to replace Martin Brodeur. Harding will warrant a pay increase and, unfortuantely for him, it won’t reflect his talent level. You need a track record to get PAID, and he doesn’t have it yet. I’d anticipate something in the neighbourhood of $2 million for him, so we’ll give him the James Reimer $1.8 million. It could easily be higher, I’m simply trying to project value.

A cheaper option, ironically enough, could be Tomas Vokoun who DOES have that track record but is coming off of an injury filled, down year with Washington. Vokoun was a $1.5 million cap hit this year and would be hard pressed to push for a raise. He could easily be the steal of the offseason if you’re a team looking for a veteran netminder. Both players are cheap alternatives to Brodeur who, realistically, has not been himself for some time. You could argue convincingly that these players are both upgrades. We’re at $10 million.

But wait! Look at how valuable the bottom six forwards have been to the Devils. Surely with expiring contracts there things get tight. Plus, what about the blueline? Bryce Salvador and Peter Harrold are expiring deals, these guys are the glue, dammit!

Well, not quite. Even in a salary capped NHL, you can still get some serious quality for the $10 million I’ve allotted the Devils. Dealing with the situation up front, the only MUST return guys as I see it are Ryan Carter and Stephen Gionta who have been phenomenal. They remind me an awful lot of the role players the Devils dynasty team carried. Alexei Ponikarovsky, Petr Sykora, Cam Janssen and Steve Bernier are just as easily ‘take it or leave it’ candidates as they are roster players. There are plenty of equally useful players available in free agency or in the current Devils system who would be available for close to the league minimum and on two-way contracts at that, giving them added flexibility.

On the back-end, Salvador has passed his usefulness at a $2.9 million cap hit. In fact, prior to this playoff run, his contract was an example of cap mismanagement by the club. Salvador will likely need to take a pay cut and reduced role if he wants to stay a Devil. Harrold is a dime-a-dozen defender who can be signed for close to the league minimum. The Devils also have the likes of Matt Taormina – an impending UFA who has shown flashes of usefulness in the show — and Alexander Urbom who appear ready to make the leap full-time and fit the system. The latter two are likely to be more valuable over the long term and their permanent promotion should be expected sooner rather than later.

Let’s say the Devils spend freely on depth defensemen and forwards and use $8 million of the remaining $10 million I’ve allotted for them. From a talent perspective, there is a net gain here whether you promote from within or outsource in free agency. The net gain is bolstered further when you factor in the talent already on the roster.

As much as this Devils squad belongs to Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias, it is going to be a transition to the hands of Adam Henrique and Adam Larsson as we move forward. Both of these players are stars in the making with Henrique stealing headlines by his own merit this postseason and Larsson figuring to be one of the most highly touted up-and-comers on the blueline. The team as a core should improve consistently with age and features many players who are only entering their physical prime now. The defensive core offers the greatest long term concern, but is also the greatest spot for depth in the development system. If there is no true long term answer in goal, Scott Wedgewood will be looked upon to make the jump over the next couple of seasons. He’s by no means a lock, but he certainly appears to be capable based on his résumé in junior. Lou Lamiorello has made it obvious that he’s not shy picking up whatever he feels this team needs to improve whether you agree with him or not meaning the roster will be open to flux.

This Devils team racked up 102 points during the regular season, ploughed through three tough playoff series after only being favored once and are about to begin the coin toss that is the Stanley Cup Final. And after all that, there’s still a way they can get BETTER. The New Jersey Devils will be scary from here on out.

They may be a long shot to win in your eyes, but a Stanley Cup in 2012 will fast forward the Devils on the track to long term ‘elite’ status in the league. The legend in goal will step out of the limelight for good and complete the passing of the torch that began eight years ago when Scott Stevens retired. And when Patrik Elias retires in a few years, we’ll talk about how he’ll have passed the torch a bit further until there aren’t any of those players we see as old, quintessential Devils left to pass the torch, only new ones, and the cycle will start again.

They may not look like the Devils of old but they win like them, and they will for a long time yet.