Evolving Devils out to do it again

New Jersey must adapt to changes on the blue line to make another run at the Stanley Cup.

Originally Published: October 3, 2003
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Wonder what shadowy assailants crusty Devils coach Pat Burns will conjure up now that he's beaten down unnamed critics in winning his first Stanley Cup?

Rest assured, the former Quebec cop will have no trouble finding ways to motivate his Devils as they begin their third Cup defense since 1995.

To make his point that the celebration is indeed over, Burns had his entire squad doing pushups doing training camp when drills weren't completed to his satisfaction.

That's no surprise given Burns' personality and the Devils' history. No team in the NHL pays greater attention to detail than the Devils. They don't spend on the big-name free agents, but they find quality players to slot into their system better than anyone else.

PROJECTED CONFERENCE FINISH. . .
2nd
STRENGTH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The poster boys for team defense and winning when it counts. They feel they can win every game 2-1 and, the thing is, they can.

WEAKNESS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Can they defend the Cup with such an anemic offense? Is the offense likely to get much better this season? We don't think so on either matter.

BEST OFFSEASON MOVE . . . . . . . . . . .
Igor Larionov's contributions to the Devils may not be reflected on the nightly score sheet, but he is a winner and exudes class. Will help out on the power play and come playoff time has a knack for being in on the big goal.

WORST OFFSEASON MOVE . . . . . . . . .
Oleg Tverdovsky was in and out of the Devils lineup but still has good offensive skills, and on a team that has trouble putting the puck in the net, perhaps Lamoriello could have pried open the wallet to keep him in the fold or at least found a suitable replacement.

PLAYER TO WATCH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Stanley Cup hero Mike Rupp. The 6-foot-5 center may struggle to make the opening night roster, but we haven't heard the last of Mr. Rupp.

FANTASY FIX. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Patrik Elias: Coach Pat Burns and the Devils rode a defense-first system to the Stanley Cup. Good for them, but bad for fantasy owners counting on Elias. Those 40 goals and 96 points Elias collected in the 2000-01 season seem like numbers from a bygone era. Pat Burns may take off the reigns now that he's demonstrated who is boss, but it's just as likely Elias will remain perhaps the most talented winger in the league not to score 30 goals.
AT A GLANCE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2003-04: Schedule | Roster
2002-03: Schedule/Results | Stats
While general manager Lou Lamoriello was criticized for his inactivity at last year's trade deadline, role player Grant Marshall, who came over from Columbus, chipped in six playoff goals.

Jeff Friesen, whom Lamoriello had acquired the previous summer for talented Petr Sykora and who struggled under Burns during the regular season, was the team's most important player in the final against Anaheim with five goals and a plus-6 rating in the final. He had 10 goals in the playoffs overall.

Once again Lamoriello and Burns will tinker with the lineup, especially on the blue line.

The challenge will be to coax more scoring out of the forwards.

Of course, that was the challenge a year ago, and it didn't seem to impair the Devils' march to a championship.

Offense

It seems like a long time ago the Devils were blowing the doors off the misguided notion they were a boring, trapping team. But as recently as the 2000-01 season New Jersey scored a league-best 295 goals.

Last year they scored only 216 goals and finished dead last in the NHL on the power play.

Patrik Elias, perhaps pining for old linemates Jason Arnott and Sykora, led the team with 57 points, well off his 96-point season two years ago. It was the fourth straight year Elias has led the Devils in scoring, but he has failed to become the dominant player many predicted.

Perhaps a second year under Burns will see a higher comfort level from both coach and players, resulting in better production from leaders like Elias, Friesen and Scott Gomez, the former rookie of the year who frequently found himself at odds with Burns.

Game 7 hero Mike Rupp, who scored the winning goal and assisted on two others in the Devils' clinching 3-0 victory, will have to fight for a forward spot with the additions of Erik Rasmussen, who didn't meet expectations in Los Angeles, and Larionov.

The oldest player in the league, Larionov will turn 43 in December and will essentially take Joe Nieuwendyk's place on the roster.

Larionov will give the Devils' woeful power-play some character but isn't likely to play more than 11 or 12 minutes a night.

Pascal Rheaume remains unsigned, and character guy Jim McKenzie is in Nashville.

Defense

It's along the blue line the Devils will mark the biggest change since defeating the pesky Mighty Ducks in seven games with the retirement of beloved Ken Daneyko and the departure of Oleg Tverdovsky and Richard Smehlik.

Youngsters David Hale, Paul Martin and Matt DeMarchi were the training camp favorites to crack the lineup, although veteran Tommy Albelin was also vying for a roster spot.

Regardless, the Devils will still be deep and disciplined with Scott Stevens returning for a 22nd campaign. The Devils captain for the past dozen years is sixth all-time in games played with 1,597 and will pass Ray Bourque and Larry Murphy early in the season for the most games played by a defenseman.

Scott Niedermayer, a candidate for playoff MVP with 18 points, Brian Rafalski and Colin White round out the Devils' defensive cornerstones. The Devils tied with Philadelphia for the fewest goals allowed last season, and as bad as their power play was, their penalty killing was exceptional as they led the league.

Not only do they have a superior penalty-kill system, the Devils simply don't take many penalties, ranking third behind Dallas and Montreal for the fewest penalties per game.

Goaltending

Although Martin Brodeur's numbers were impeccable in winning his first Vezina Trophy last year, one might have considered this a lifetime achievement victory as well.

Brodeur is the only NHL netminder to have four seasons of 40 wins or more and is tied with Patrick Roy with eight 30-win seasons.

With Roy's retirement, Brodeur ascends to the head of the NHL's goaltending class. And if anyone is going to approach Roy's all-time records for success, it will be Brodeur.

Technically sound, Brodeur thrives on a heavy workload, and his easygoing personality meshes well with his teammates. No goaltender in the league handles the puck as well.

Corey Schwab is an adequate backup, although it really doesn't matter who fills that role given that Brodeur has played in at least 70 games for six straight years. Only Glenn Hall had a longer streak at seven seasons.

Scott Burnside, a freelance writer based in Atlanta, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.