By Max Herman
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It may be difficult to believe, but for the first time since the 1995-96 season, the Stanley Cup Playoffs have begun without the inclusion of the New Jersey Devils.

By now you know of their journey. After finding themselves 27 points out of contention on January 8th, the Devils went 28-10-3 in the second half of the year, but it still wasn’t enough to get them an invitation to the dance.

You can point to the two losses against the last-place Senators in the span of ten days in mid-March as the tipping point, and certainly going 5-7-1 in the final 13 games didn’t pan out well for a team that was trying to gain ground in the standings. But the fact is this season was lost in October through December – not in March and April.

Regardless of how they got here, the mission now becomes ensuring that this doesn’t happen again next season. And after watching this team find it’s swagger in the second half of the year, the organization has to be feeling pretty good about their prospects moving forward.

And that spirited play may have earned them some good karma with the hockey gods. Despite having just a 3.6% chance of winning Tuesday’s NHL Draft Lottery, sure enough the Devils lucked out and now will move up to pick 4th despite sitting 8th from the bottom of the NHL standings at season’s end.

That sets the Devs up with their highest draft pick since 1991, when they used their 3rd overall selection on some guy named Scott Neidermayer, who you may remember as a top-2 defensemen on three Stanley Cup winning teams in New Jersey.

Certainly the Devils hope that this is just the beginning of their good fortune this offseason. Having said that, let’s break down the Devils’ main areas of concern in no particular order as we head into what figures to be a pivotal summer for Lou Lamoriello and company…

1) Replacing Jacques Lemaire

Although I don’t think it surprised anybody, head coach Jacques Lemaire decided he will not be back behind the bench next season and will instead retire…again. So what this means is that the Devils will now be looking for a new head coach…again…

This will mark the 11th coaching change the Devils have made since the end of the 1997-98 season, with 9 different guys already having graced the New Jersey bench during that span.

You’d think an organization with the kind of stripes the Devils have earned over the years would be a beacon of stability, but Lou Lamoriello seems to change head coaches more often than most people upgrade their cell phone.

No one is better suited to run this team moreso than Jacques, so replacing him may actually be the toughest obstacle the Devils face this offseason in many respects.

Many players will tell you that no one knows more about the game than Lemaire, and his commitment to tight defensive hockey is something that Lou will likely be looking for in Jacques’ replacement.

However, there is no denying that goal-scoring was a major issue for this team all year. So you can’t be shocked if Lamoriello brings in a guy who is known for having coached teams with some offensive punch either.

The list of available coaches will grow in number as teams start getting eliminated from the playoffs, but there are already a few candidates in mind that spark interest.

Canadiens’ assistant Kirk Muller is one of those guys, but the strike against him is that despite having ties to the Devils’ organization from his playing days, he has no previous NHL head coaching experience. Sound familiar John MacLean haters?

The Devils will likely play a wait-and-see game until the playoffs end so that they can weigh all of their options, but look for them to hire a coach before attempting to deal with the bulk of their player personnel decisions.

Max’s Top 3 Candidates (for now): Marc Crawford, Ken Hitchcock, Kirk Muller

2) Lock Up Zach Parise

This one is a lot easier said than done. In my mind, Parise is the engine that makes this team go and it is crucial that the Devils get him under contract for the foreseeable future. So on the surface the solution seems simple. Pay the man! Right?

Well not so fast there sparky. One thing that this season taught us is the importance of puck-moving defensemen who can contribute to the flow of the offense. For the Devils, the guy that does that best is Andy Greene. And it just so happens that Andy is a free agent this summer as well. Except he has the unrestricted tag and is free to test the open market.

With players of Greene’s nature at a premium, the odds are that some team is gonna be willing to pay him considerably more than the $750K he made this season. Or perhaps they could try to woo him by giving him a few extra years on the deal. It would be a step up for a guy who has only seen two contracts in his career, each for two years apiece.

You’d think that Parise’s cap hit – which was $3.125M for his last contract – will likely balloon to somewhere in the neighborhood of at least $6-7M. Taking that into account, all of a sudden taking an extra million in salary cap damage for Greene doesn’t sound so simple.

It wouldn’t shock me if the Devils tried to unload Brian Rolston in a deal just to free up some more cap room. Much like the rest of the team, Rollie had a very impressive second half, and now his $5M cap hit doesn’t sound completely crazy anymore. I can see a team with some cap room taking a chance on him knowing his contract comes off the books after next season.

Also, I’m curious to see if the Devils actually benefit from Parise missing so much time this year with his knee injury. Might some GM’s shy away from a long-term deal out of fear for durability issues? It remains to be seen.

3) Bolster The Blue Line

The Devils need to improve their defensive corps. I’m excited by the prospects of Matt Taormina, who displayed impressive ability in the brief time he spent with the big club before injuring his ankle and missing the rest of the year. Mark Fayne was also a tremendous surprise that figures to be part of the solution.

But as I mentioned above, the stay-at-home defensemen that the Devils have relied on for so many years have lost some of their value in today’s NHL. Nowadays, defensemen are relied upon more heavily to factor into the offense, and there are a few names on the free agent list this summer that would be great additions to any team.

Providing the Devils free up some room in their budget, I would love to see them go after a player like James Wisniewski or Christian Ehrhoff. Both guys had cap hits in the $3M range and they combined for 24 goals and 77 assists this season between the two of them.

Also, look for the Devils to possibly use their 4th overall draft pick on a highly touted prospect like Adam Larsson or Dougie Hamilton depending on their availability. Larsson is projected to go somewhere in the top 3, but Hamilton will likely be available.

4) Improve Scoring Depth With Another Forward

This is another area in which the Devils could invest their first-round pick if a guy like Gabriel Landeskog or Sean Couturier is available. But if they choose to go the route of free agency, there is some help available on the market when it comes to forwards who can put the puck in the net. Not a ton of it…but some.

Obviously Brad Richards will be the prize of the free agency sweepstakes this summer, but there are guys who aren’t making quite as much scratch who can provide the Devils great bang for their buck.

Chad LaRose, Ville Leino, Tomas Kopecky, Curtis Glencross, Jussi Jokinen…

What do these guys all have in common besides being unrestricted free agents this summer? They’re all 29 years old or younger, scored 15+ goals this season, and had cap hits under $2M for their most recent contracts.

Those names might not have you salivating, but oftentimes it’s the bargain shopping a GM does during the offseason that pays big dividends during any given year.

No matter what, it should be an eventful offseason for the Devils. And you can rest assured I’ll be here to give you my analysis each step of the way. A big thank you to my readers and Twitter followers for all of the support over the course of this season. And with that I give you this…

Max’s Stanley Cup Finals Prediction:

Canucks over Bruins in 7 games

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What do you think the Devils’ biggest priorities should be this summer? Leave your thoughts in the comment box below…