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By Scott BurnsideIf there was any further evidence required that the New Jersey Devils live in their own little world separate from the rest of us, it was the decision to bring back coach Jacques Lemaire, who led the Devils to their first Stanley Cup back in 1995. It's not that Lemaire is a bad coach, but there just remains a cult-like draw to New Jersey.
Think "Hotel California" and you've got a sense of it as players and coaches consistently return to the Devils' fold, like Brendan Shanahan, who is back for another season after joining the Devils midway through 2008-09, forward Brian Rolston and, of course, Larry Robinson, who remains part of the Devils family after two go-rounds as coach. Go figure. Maybe that's why the Devils, despite obvious holes in their lineup, are a perennial playoff team. Many liked the Devils to march deep into the playoffs last spring and it looked like they would until Carolina stunned them with two late goals in Game 7 of the opening round.
This season, the lineup is even more threadbare, but somehow you know they'll be hanging around the playoff hunt come mid-April.
1. The curious case of Martin Brodeur
Here's the weird thing. Brodeur suffers the first significant injury of his Hall of Fame career, missing more than half a season, but the Devils keep winning until he returns thanks to backup Scott Clemmensen. Brodeur didn't miss a beat, going 10-1 en route to a new all-time NHL wins record. The Devils finished atop the Atlantic Division, just two points behind second-seeded Washington in the East, even though Brodeur hit a flat spot just before the playoffs.
In the postseason, an unusually well-rested Brodeur was at times spectacular against Carolina, but was beaten twice in the last 80 seconds of Game 7 to bring the Devils' season to a shocking halt. It marked the fifth straight season Brodeur has been unable to guide his Devils beyond the second round of the playoffs. He is likely to start for Canada at the Olympics, adding to what appears to be another heavy workload for the Devils. For a 37-year-old, none of this seems to add up to anything resembling a long playoff run, if there's a playoff run at all.
Does president and GM Lou Lamoriello have a number of games in mind that he'd like to see Brodeur play to? He just laughs.
"One thing with Marty I've learned, never put a number. It's like age, it's only a number," Lamoriello said.
2. Devil of a Plan B
With Brodeur getting older and the fact he hasn't had his best stuff in the playoffs in recent years, one would think the Devils would be starting to think about the future of their goaltending, or, at the very least, find someone that could realistically step in and give Brodeur some rest. Well, if you're a Yann Danis fan, the Devils have done that. And to be fair, Danis did perform capably while filling in for the New York Islanders last season with a .910 save percentage and 2.86 GAA. Still, Danis looks like any one of a handful of backups to Brodeur over the years -- a guy whose main job is going to be opening the gate at the end of the bench.
3. The Elias quandary
When we talked to Lamoriello at the time of the Lemaire hiring this offseason, he mentioned captain Patrik Elias as one of the players who would need to have a better season. Well, Elias, the franchise leader in points, is already battling the injury bug that has plagued him since the lockout and is out three to six weeks after having surgery to correct a groin problem. That's not good for Elias, who finished second in team scoring behind Zach Parise with 78 points last season. Right now, look for Dainius Zubrus to fill in as the Devils' second-line center. That's not particularly good news.
4. Zach Parise
On a team that has been all about defense almost since its inception, Parise is poised to become the franchise's most dynamic offensive presence. He may already be there after his 45-goal, 94-point performance last season. How does he follow that up? Maybe he doesn't. With Lemaire back at the helm, personal stats often take a hit, and it won't be a huge surprise if Parise sees his totals go down under Lemaire's tutelage. It'll be a shame if it turns out that way.
5. Paul Martin
And no, we're not talking about the former Canadian Prime Minister, although, by next summer, Martin may be more of a household name in hockey circles as he stands as one of the top potential free agents for the summer of 2010. Martin, a shoo-in to make the U.S. Olympic team, has a rare blend of size, skill and smarts and is one of the main reasons the Devils' anonymous blue line helped the team rank fourth in goals-against per game last season. If the Devils struggle, does Lamoriello look to move Martin before the trade deadline or can he lock up Martin long-term? Perhaps the bigger question is whether Martin follows a long line of Devils players that look to expand their horizons and move on regardless of what Lamoriello comes up with.
One might assume the Devils were near the bottom of the league offensively, but under former coach Brent Sutter, they were actually fairly dynamic, finishing tied for 14th in goals per game and 15th in terms of power-play efficiency. But power-play staple Brian Gionta is gone to Montreal, and with Elias hurt, the Devils once again look to be goal-starved unless they can find some homegrown scoring talent in the form of rookie Patrice Cormier or Ilkka Pikkarainen, a Finnish Devils prospect from a couple of years ago.
7. One-line team
The Devils' top line of Travis Zajac, Jamie Langenbrunner and Parise is as solid an offensive group as there is in the conference, no doubt about that; but what comes after that? Good thing for the Devils Lemaire has lots of practice at working with just one line given his time in Minnesota, another team that struggled to put a series of offensive units on the ice.
8. Anomaly city
The Devils are always a hard team to figure out. Only Boston allowed fewer 5-on-5 goals than the Devils and that speaks to a commitment to team defense in the absence of stars that should only intensify under Lemaire. It is the kind of statistic that could mean the difference in earning a playoff berth. Still, as solid as they are defensively, the team struggled to slow teams down on the penalty kill last season (20th overall). With former Frank J. Selke Trophy winner John Madden now in Chicago, the task of improving on that element of the Devils' game will be even more onerous. Another curious stat: the Devils were the NHL's runaway leader in converting the first goal of the game into victories, going 37-5-2.
9. A scheduling note
Talk about sweet. The Devils enjoy a three-week period from late November through the week before Christmas when they will play nine of 10 games at home. Their only road trip is a relatively short jaunt to Buffalo. That's assuming, of course, that you think playing nine of 10 in Newark is a bonus.
10. Olympic exposure
Look for Brodeur to carry a significant weight for the Canadians in Vancouver, while Parise will be counted on to lead the U.S. team offensively. Martin will be in for the U.S. and Langenbrunner is in the hunt, too. Pending his health, Elias could be part of a Czech team that won bronze in 2006. Defenseman Johnny Oduya is on the Swedes' long list, although by no means is he a given to make the defending gold-medal squad.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 51-27-4
• Division: First in the Atlantic
• Conference: Third in the East
• Playoffs: Ousted by Hurricanes in first round
• Almost every season, we predict the Devils will swoon. One of these years, it will actually happen. We're pretty sure this is it. The clock runs out on the Devils' 12-year playoff run as they will finish fourth in the Atlantic and outside the playoff tournament.
• It's a chicken-egg thing with Lemaire.
Did the Minnesota Wild become a stultifying, unimaginative offensive team because their personnel dictated that was their personality or did Lemaire impose that personality on the squad? A moot point given that the Devils don't really have the personnel to play anything but that kind of hockey.
Hard to imagine this will go a long way in selling hockey in Newark, but if anyone can keep the Devils in the hunt for a playoff berth, it's Lemaire.
Devils president and GM Lou Lamoriello said just watching Lemaire in training camp has reinforced the decision to bring him back. "There's no change. It's almost like he never left," Lamoriello said. "I feel more excited now because I see his excitement, his enthusiasm."
F -- Zach Parise
• Can Parise continue to thrive offensively under Lemaire's tight structure?
F -- Jamie Langenbrunner
• One of the key parts of the Devils' attack last season.
F -- Travis Zajac
• Needs to have a step-forward season.
D -- Paul Martin
• Will he still be a Devil by the end of the season?
D -- Johnny Oduya
• One of the great names in the game.
Best Bet: Zach Parise, F: You might think we should shave off a few points from Parise given the return of uberdefensive coach Jacques Lemaire. Well, we did. Projecting Parise for a 12-point drop in his scoring still lands him as the fifth-best skater in ESPN's standard game. Lemaire may bring in some of his defensive tactics from Minnesota, but at the end of the day, Parise and Travis Zajac aren't going to be reined in too much offensively. The only caution to offer is that you should monitor Parise's shots on goal through the early part of the season. Much of his increased value stems from the 37 percent increase in shooting he experienced last season. If that tails off because of Lemaire's defensive leanings, Parise could be in trouble.
Risky Move: Patrik Elias, F: A bit streaky at times, Elias is still a solid asset as a fantasy forward. He was played off the Devils' top line last season by Jamie Langenbrunner, but still saw power-play time with the first unit and managed to get 78 points. New Jersey rolls two lines deep with top talent, but Elias is unlikely to match last season's strong showing, given the roller-coaster ride that has been his career. Bank on him as a No. 3 forward and anything more than that is gravy.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Will the New Jersey Devils be able to repeat as Atlantic Division champs this season?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.