NEWARK, N.J. – Except for the new coach, a couple of defencemen and having US$100-million superstar Ilya Kovalchuk around for a full season, the New Jersey Devils haven’t changed much.
Martin Brodeur is in goal. The nucleus up front still features Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner and the expectations, of course, are very, very high.
The Devils enter the 2010-11 season looking for their 14th straight post-season berth. They are also under a little more pressure after being eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs for a third consecutive year.
“Obviously, you don’t forget something like that,” veteran Brian Rolston said of the embarrassing five-game loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. “We all have a memory. But this is a new team and a different approach. We certainly can be one of the best teams in the East, but we all know ultimately what’s important. This team has been one of the best teams in the NHL for a considerable amount of time, but we’ve faltered when it counted.”
The job of turning things around belongs to John MacLean, the former Devils who rose through the coaching ranks and was selected to replace the retired Jacques Lemaire.
It’s a big job.
Since winning their third Stanley Cup in 2003—the others were in 1995 and 2000—the Devils have not made it past the second round.
“I’m excited, anxious, ready to go,” MacLean said. “I think I have controlled emotions right now. I’m trying to keep everything in check. I think we have some good lines, some good depth. I think we have good speed. We’re able to do some damage offensively. We have great enthusiasm. I think we’re all anxious to get it going.”
During training camp, MacLean has tried to get his team to play a transition game, while continuing to stress responsibility in the defensive end.
The 38-year-old Brodeur continues to be the backbone of the team. He had 45 wins and nine shutouts in helping the Devils allow a league-low 191 goals and win a second straight Atlantic Division title.
“We have a high level of excitement,” Brodeur said. “That’s the best way to describe it. I love this locker room, because we have a bunch of guys who want to be here. No one ever wants to leave here. It’s great. Everyone wants to be a part of this team. This could be a lot of fun, because we have a great atmosphere. It’s a lot different than in other years.”
One major change is the fallout from the Kovalchuk signing. The 15-year deal that the Russian forward signed put the Devils over the NHL salary cap and they will be starting the season on Friday night against Dallas with a league-minimum 20-man roster.
That means everybody plays, every night, unless president and general manager Lou Lamoriello makes a deal or two to cut salary.
New Jersey got under the league’s $59.4 million salary cap on Wednesday by making roster moves with injured defencemen Bryce Salvador and Anssi Salmela.
Even with 20 players, there is a lot to like about the Devils, starting with the new top line of Parise, Zajac and Kovalchuk, who has moved from left wing to the right side to fit on the line.
“I can’t wait to get going,” said Kovalchuk, whose original 17-year, $102 million contract was rejected by the NHL because it tried to circumvent the cap. “I know we’re going to have a great year and I’m excited about that.”
The Devils, who were fined and lost a future first round draft pick because of the illegal signing, have added some size. They signed free agent defencemen Anton Volchenkov (six-foot-one, 226 pounds) and Henrik Tallinder (6-3, 214) and acquired Jason Arnott (6-5, 220) in a trade with Nashville.
A member of the Devils’ Cup winner in 2000, Arnott is centring the No. 2 line with Elias and Langenbrunner on his wings, while the No. 3 line has Dainius Zubrus centring for Rolston and David Clarkson.
Gone from the defence is Paul Martin, who signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
However, Volchenkov is a big hitter in the Scott Stevens mould and Tallinder is a solid defender.
“We expect to go all the way every year,” said Parise, who had 38 goals last season. “It’s just the expectations that are placed on us. But we have a new team and it’s the start of something new with new leadership. We have to move on from last year. We have a good atmosphere this year. We all understand that what happened the last few years is unacceptable. We have high standards here and we have not met those standards in a while.”
If theDevils fall short again, there might be a lot more changes next season.