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New Jersey Devils counting on same group to rise to next level

Playing the first three months without ailing leading scorer Patrik Elias, the Devils crawled out of the starting blocks and were barely over .500 when coach Larry Robinson abruptly resigned after seven losses in nine games.

The return of Elias in January coincided with the beginning of a 180-degree turnaround that culminated in New Jersey finishing atop the Atlantic Division.

Five months after being eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes in the conference semifinal, the Devils return all their key players under new coach Claude Julien.

"We've grown a lot from last year," said goalkeeper Martin Brodeur, who enters his 13th season with New Jersey after tying his career high in wins (43) last season. "This year they didn't make tons of big changes, so it's the same guys coming back. So we don't see any reason why we shouldn't be as successful as when we were able to turn it around."

Judging by their off-season moves, the Devils clearly agree with Brodeur that the current group has a chance to win the franchise's fourth Stanley Cup since 1994. General manager Lou Lamoriello shelled out US$42 million over seven years to keep Elias and $14 million over five years to sign right wing Jamie Langenbrunner.

He may have performed his best trick this week when he received permission to put Alexander Mogilny on the long-term injury list, thereby wiping his $3.5 million salary off the books. That, along with the trade of defenceman Vladimir Malakhov to San Jose, paved the way for Lamoriello to sign several players including last season's team-leading scorer Brian Gionta.

The lightning-quick Gionta was the big revelation a year ago, and he wound up setting franchise records with 48 goals and 24 power-play goals. Scott Gomez also had a career year with 33 goals and 51 assists. Along with Elias, they give the Devils three reliable scorers.

Defence was the team's primary question mark entering last season after the departure of Scott Niedermayer and the retirement of Scott Stevens, and it can still legitimately be considered so a year later. The equation was jumbled this week when recently re-signed David Hale was struck by a puck and experienced blurred vision. He did not practise Wednesday and is considered day-to-day.

The constant, as always, is Brodeur, who last season became the third goaltender in history to reach 100 overall shutouts. He started every game in the Devils' 15-game winning streak that spanned the end of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.

For Brodeur, the most appealing aspect of the upcoming season might be that the NHL schedule will return to its normal pace after a condensed year due to the Olympics.

"We're going to have time in between to practise, work on our game and what's wrong," he said. "Last year we didn't have time. If you were going well, it was awesome - look at us at the end of the season. But when you aren't going so well, you can go pretty fast the other way."

Facing Carolina in the first game will put the Devils' feet to the fire right away. No one seemed too worried at the thought, particularly considering the Hurricanes held their banner-raising ceremony before Wednesday night's season opener against Buffalo.

"You have to go through those situations, but when you can avoid it, it's great, it means less sitting around and waiting," Julien said. "We're going to go there and just drop the puck and let's go after these guys. This team I'm sure is disappointed with their loss to them last year after being on such a good roll."



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