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NHL OFF-SEASON REPORT CARD
By KEVIN GREENSTEIN
August 3, 2007


It's been a wild off-season for the three local NHL teams, one that should have a very dramatic impact on their place in the standings in 2007–08. Unfortunately, two of the three locals didn't fare particularly well during the annual game of "musical chairs."

Here's a closer look at the Isles' and Devils Off-season maneuvers:

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

The Devils were hit extremely hard on the opening days of free agency, watching with horror as Scott Gomez crossed the Hudson River to join the rival Rangers while Brian Rafalski signed with his hometown Detroit Red Wings. But General Manger Lou Lamoriello handled the unfavorable circumstances quite well, aggressivelypursuingsecond-tierfreeagents to fill the holes.

In addition, Lamoriello took a bold measure to protect a younger member of the team's core, by inking forward Zach Parise to a lucrative $12.5 million four-year deal on Wednesday. Historically, the Devils' GM has balked at paying young players big money before they've proven themselves, instead choosing to reward veterans for past successes (Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur are two obvious examples).

But that strategy doesn't work particularly well in today's NHL, not with players becoming unrestricted free agents as early as age 25, and especially not with GMs like Edmonton's Kevin Lowe handing out obscene offer sheets to the likes of Thomas Vanek and Dustin Penner. And so Lamoriello

opened the Devils' checkbook for Parise, who led the team with 31 goals in his sophomore season and then added another seven goals in 11 playoff games, proving that he has what it takes to excel when the games matter most.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Oilers' offer sheet to Penner (five years, $21.5 million) does not appear to have had much impact — if any at all — on the Devils' negotiations with Parise. It could fairly be argued that Parise is a far more valuable asset than Penner, but that reality will not be reflected by their respective compensation packages. Getting Parise under contract for a very reasonable annual cap cost of $3.13 million was a clear coup by Lamoriello.

Looking at the Devils' off-season acquisitions, they are clearly hoping that Dainius Zubrus's strong production in 2006–07 wasn't a fluke (60 points in 79 games), and that he'll have success alongside captain Patrik Elias similar to that which he enjoyed while playing with AlexanderOvechkininWashington. The commitment the Devils made to Zubrus seemed a bit exorbitant — $20.4 million over six years — but the annual cap cost isn't onerous ($3.4 million).

In what could turn out to be his most prescient acquisition, Lamoriello also signed hard-hitting defenseman Vitali Vishnevski. The Devils are moving into a new arena this fall, and it is mission critical that they deliver an entertaining product. In Vishnevski, Lamoriello added a fearsome defender whose open-ice checks will evoke memories of adored former captain Stevens. Perhaps best of all, Vishnevski's contract ($5.4 million over three years) is reasonable for a bona fide secondpair defenseman. The Devils also signed free agent Karel Rachunek, a competent puck-moving rearguard who should see time on the third pair and on the point of the power play.

And although the Devils have lost a considerable amount of high quality talent over the past decade, they've continued to ice a very competitive roster, largely because of the presence of Brodeur between the pipes and of David Conte heading up their stellar scouting department. Brodeur remains the league's finest netminder, giving the Devils' youngsters an invaluable safety net as they learn the ropes at the NHL level. Meanwhile, Conte consistently uncovers diamonds in the rough at the draft, and it is quite probable that yet another rookie will step up with a surprisingly strong performance (just as Travis Zajac did in 2006–07).

The most likely candidate to emerge this coming season is defenseman Andy Greene, a capable offensive defenseman who signed a two-year, $1.2 million deal. The product of Miami University (Ohio) split time between New Jersey and Lowell (AHL) in 2005–06, and showed signs that he's got the potential to make a big impact in 2007–08. It might be too much to expect him to replace Rafalski's production, but Greene will likely prove to be yet another example of the Devils Scouting superiority.

Yes, it was a rough off-season for the Devils. But underestimating them would, as always, be a huge mistake. Any team built around Brodeur must be considered a legitimate threat, and the Devils should still be surrounding him with enough talent to make them a very dangerous contender.

Off-Season Grade: B

NEW YORK ISLANDERS


The opening days of free agency were an absolute bloodbath for the Isles, dwarfing even what the depleted Devils suffered through. Following an expensive buyout of Alexei Yashin, GM Garth Snow was hopeful that trade deadline acquisition Ryan Smyth would accept a long-term contract offer and become the team's new captain.

But Smyth instead signed with the Colorado Avalanche, while fellow deadline acquisition Richard Zednik, leading scorer Jason Blake, and top offensive defenseman Tom Poti also left for greener pastures. Even Sean Hill, the first NHL player to be suspended (20 games) for violating the league's substance abuse policy, decided to relocate, leading to speculation that the Isles would be icing an AHL-caliber roster this fall.

But Snow was persistent with his pursuit of second-tier free agents, and as a result, the Isles' prospects for 2007–08 now look far better. He inked 36-year-old power forward Bill Guerin to a two-year, $9 million deal, and promptly bestowed the captaincy upon the respected veteran.

Snow also brought playmaking center Mike Comrie aboard, a move that could pay huge dividends. Comrie hasn't drawn rave reviews from teammates and management at his previous stops, but he has tremendous talent. Because he's playing on a one-year, $3.38 million contract — and for no-nonsense head coach Ted Nolan — it's probable that he'll be on his best behavior with the Isles, making this a very prudent signing.

Twogrittywingers, RuslanFedotenko and Jon Sim, were also added, and should fit right into Nolan's system. What the Isles lack in elite-level talent, they should make up in gumption and tenacity. Nolan's club will again be difficult to play against, and with only $35 million committed under the cap, they will have plenty of room to make a big splash via trade.

FULL STORY
 
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