NEWARK, N.J. – Reaching the Stanley Cup finals hasn’t made the New Jersey Devils one of the favourites to win the NHL title in this lockout-shortened season.
Far from it.
Despite returning Ilya Kovalchuk, Martin Brodeur and almost everyone from the club that came within two games of winning its fourth Cup, the Devils have a lot of doubters heading into the 48-game regular season.
A big part of the concern is the loss of former captain Zach Parise. A 31-goal scorer last year, he returned home by signing with Minnesota as a free agent.
Not only did general manager Lou Lamoriello lose a face of the franchise, he also decided not to re-sign veteran Petr Sykora, a 21-goal scorer, and faces the prospect of starting without second-year centre Adam Henrique (16 goals), who is sidelined with a thumb injury.
Indeed, the Devils have a mountain to climb in the tough Eastern Conference if they are to repeat last season’s success.
Especially on offence. Lamoriello, after all, didn’t sign anyone to help Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias and David Clarkson to carry the load this season. And don’t think a 40-year-old Brodeur is going to save the team on a daily basis.
Hence, the doubt—from everywhere.
“I guess we have to prove them wrong,” said Clarkson, who is coming off a career-best 30-goal season. “Zach is a huge piece to the puzzle that got us to where we did, but at end of the day, there are opportunities that happen in hockey and in sports and guys are going to get chances. You look at what Mr. Lamoriello has done here in the past, and he always finds a way to find people or make the right decisions.
“I think we will be fine. If we stick to our systems and do what we are asked, I think we will be fine.”
The last time the NHL had a 48-game season, 1994-95, the Devils won their first Cup. That was a different team, though. The Devils had lost to the Rangers in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals the previous year and were returning a young, loaded, talented team with Brodeur in just his second true season.
The Devils are a veteran team this time around. Their advantage is knowing what they want to do under coach Pete DeBoer heading into the sprint, but they do not have the youth the 1995 team did.
A year ago, New Jersey posted a 48-28-6 record and finished fourth in the conference with 102 points. In DeBoer’s first season, they beat Florida in seven games in the opening round, knocked off Philadelphia in five in the second round, and the Rangers in six in the conference finals.
Los Angeles then defeated New Jersey in the Stanley Cup finals, in six games.
“The challenge is to be prepared to get up to game speed and to get your structure back in place without getting injured,” said DeBoer, who installed a new system last season. “That’s the fine line you walk with a five- or six-day camp.”
DeBoer has spoken with Jacques Lemaire, who guided the Devils to the Cup in 1995, Lamoriello and Brodeur about getting ready for the shortened season. He knows the necessity of being ready from the opening game, Saturday at the Islanders, on.
“This is one of these seasons where everyone is going to have a shot at it,” Brodeur said. “It depends on the chemistry. It’s the type of thing you need to get in the playoffs, and from there, a lot of things will happen. But it will be tough. You’re playing the same teams over and over. It’s hard to gain ground on teams. It’s hard to recover from bad starts or slumps in the middle of the season.
“It’s open to everyone this year.”
Kovalchuk, who played 36 games in Russia during the lockout, is the key for New Jersey. He led the team with 37 goals and 83 points last season and he looked in outstanding shape Wednesday, posting a goal and an assist in a scrimmage. He had missed the Devils’ first three practices after the lockout ended because of a decision to play in the KHL All-Star game.
However, Kovalchuk insists the only way the Devils will make up for Parise is for everyone to produce a little more support for Brodeur and fellow goaltender Johan Hedberg.
“If you believe in the style and everyone is on the same page,” Elias said, “you can be successful no matter who you lose.”
Kovalchuk agreed, saying there was no reason the Devils couldn’t make another run to the finals.
“I believe so,” he said.
The Devils have depth on defence with eight players. Bryce Salvador and Marek Zidlicky are the top pair, supported by Mark Fayne, Andy Greene, Anton Volchenkov, Peter Harrold, Henrik Tallinder and second-year pro Adam Larsson, who seemed to improve playing with Albany during the lockout.
Up front, Lamoriello is hoping Bobby Butler, who was signed as a free agent after a disappointing season in Ottawa, and Swedes Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby can pick up the scoring slack, along with veteran Dainius Zubrus.
“Right now, all we are worried about is getting ready for the first game,” Lamoriello said. “I think the important thing is to just do all the things that you have control of and let the end result take care of itself—and then adjust accordingly.”