NEWARK, N.J. - When it came time to project the top teams in the Eastern Conference in this lockout-shortened season, the defending champion New Jersey Devils were one of the easiest to overlook.
Zach Parise had left to sign a $98 million contract with Minnesota as a free agent. Ilya Kovalchuk wasn't scoring like in the old days. Martin Brodeur was on his way to being 41 years old. David Clarkson wasn't going to score anywhere close to 30 goals like he did last year. And there was a no-name defence.
Indeed, the negatives went on and on and on.
Well, guess what?
Roughly a quarter of the way into the 48-game season, the No. 1 team in the East—and the No. 3 club overall in the NHL—is New Jersey (8-2-3).
"I don't know if people don't like us," No. 1 centre Travis Zajac said Thursday after the Devils practiced for an hour, prepping for Friday's game with the Philadelphia Flyers.
"We're not the kind of a team that is going to score six goals a night. We don't have highlight reel goals every night. We're just going to do whatever it takes to win. That's it. We'll come to the rink. We'll work hard. We'll play the right way and hopefully get some points. That's what it is all about for us."
To a man, the Devils insist the most important part of their game is coach Peter DeBoer's system. He needed a little time to get settled in with the Devils last year, but by the time his debut season was over, DeBoer had orchestrated playoff wins over Florida, Philadelphia, and the New York Rangers. His crew even battled back from an 0-3 hole in the Stanley Cup final before bowing to Los Angeles in six games.
DeBoer laughs a little when asked to explain "the system." It's not complicated.
"Our team identify is being able to put pressure on in all three zones and really dictate the pace of the game," he said. "In generalities, that's what it is about. That's what our system is built around. When we are playing well, we're putting that pressure on. We are on top of other teams and we're hard to play against. It's just getting that consistently every night."
DeBoer admits he was concerned heading into this season without Parise, the team's offensive catalyst for years, and Petr Sykora, a 36-year-old who was not re-signed after scoring 21 goals last season. He also knew he would be without second-year centre Adam Henrique, who missed time recovering from thumb surgery, an injury incurred while playing in the minors during the lockout.
"Looking back, I shouldn't be surprised," DeBoer said. "This is a group that relies on our team play. Last year, we had interchangeable parts. Zajac missed almost the entire year and we had over 100 points. Kovy missed a playoff game in the second round and we arguably had our best game that night. It's a group that has that team-play foundation that we can resort to when good players are out of the lineup."
The Devils don't have amazing statistics. They've scored 35 goals and given up 28. Their power play and penalty killing units rank in the No. 9-11 range in the league, and only Clarkson and veteran Patrik Elias, who are playing on the same line, are among the league leaders with 15 points.
Clarkson's nine goals are tied for fourth best in the league, and that might be the biggest surprise.
"We're here to do a job," Clarkson said. "When people doubt you and question you, it just pushes you harder. You want to prove them wrong. You want to prove to them what we can be. We believe in this room that we can be successful and that we are one of the top teams. We believe that every day we show up to the rink. It's something we will always believe."
While the Devils lost some key players, much is the same, starting with Brodeur. He was outstanding at the end of last season and nothing has changed this season. He has posted a 6-2-2 record with a 2.36 goals against average and a .908 save percentage. He has played in all but three games.
"He is playing that well," DeBoer said. "I think he is a special athlete. If anything, the way he handles the puck and his composure and the pressure he relieves for us helps our group up front, and on defence."
Brodeur, 40, isn't the only one playing well. Backup Johan Hedberg, 39, is 2-0-1 with a 0.65 GAA and a .973 percentage.
"I don't feel I'm at my age, I guess, is probably the best answer," Brodeur said. "Last year, it was all about am I going to retire? This year, it's like, 'You don't think you're too old?' I just play. I enjoy myself. We have a great bunch of guys and it makes it fun to come to the rink every day."
The defence is the same as a year ago with Bryce Salvador, Marek Zidlicky, Andy Greene, Mark Fayne, Adam Larsson and Anton Volchenkov getting most of the work.
Rookie Stefan Matteau has replaced Parise on the first line with Zajac and Kovalchuk, while the combination of Elias, Clarkson and Henrique have given New Jersey a potent second group. With Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier on the third line—a group that made up last post-season's surprising fourth line—and Jacob Josefson, Bobby Butler and Krys Barch rounding out the bunch, the Devils don't have a problem rolling four groups.
Salvador, who replaced Parise as captain before the season, said the Devils have chemistry. It's good guys who know how to play and win. However, he is the first to admit, things can change quickly.
"What I have noticed with this organization since I've been here, is they are always underdogs," Salvador said. "I think this franchise likes that."
Clarkson also likes feeling hungry.
"Losing (in the finals) was the toughest thing I ever went through," he said. "It shows you what it takes to get there. You hope if you ever get that chance again, you hope you are a little more ready for it."
Zajac thinks the Devils can win a fourth Cup in franchise history.
"You get that close you want to get there again, especially with the same group of guys," he said. "You feel like you owe each other to play your best each night and that's what we are doing right now."