THE BOTTOM LINE
By Scott Burnside, Special to ESPN.com
Of all the teams to have undergone a significant makeover, none has moved so dramatically from its historic identity as the New Jersey Devils. Gone is Scott Niedermayer, arguably the finest puck-moving defenseman in the league, a free-agent signee in Anaheim. Gone is the team's physical identity in Scott Stevens, who retired.
Coach Pat Burns, who guided the Devils to their third Cup win in 2003, is recuperating from recurring bouts with cancer, replaced by on-again, off-again coach Larry Robinson. Leading scorer Patrik Elias is out for at least the first month of the season and maybe more recovering from hepatitis A, contracted while playing in Russia during the lockout.
So what of the Devils, then?
Offense: Up front, the team's future seems pinned squarely on the shoulders of young Zach Parise, son of former NHLer J.P. Parise. The rookie has had time to develop with the team's AHL team in Albany and had a turn with the U.S. team at the world championships, but it's a lot of pressure. Too much perhaps. Unless one or two members of an offensive lineup filled with underachievers steps forward -- like Scott Gomez, Viktor Kozlov, Jeff Friesen and Sergei Brylin, (at least one of those players is likely to be shipped off to keep the Devils under the cap) -- the playoffs will be a difficult challenge.
Defense: Newcomer Dan McGillis will be counted on to take on the physical role abdicated by Stevens. In previous years, it was hoped Colin White might assume that role, but the 6-foot-4 defenseman hasn't proved capable, in part because he lacks the necessary foot speed and hockey acumen to make hits and get back into the play. Richard Matvichuk, signed away from Dallas before the lockout, also will be expected to help provide a defensive conscience for the Devils.
Goaltending: The game's finest netminder, Martin Brodeur, is the final link to the Devils' near-dynasty of the past decade, and is now by far the team's most important player. If, as expected, this team struggles to score, Brodeur will keep the Devils close. Although the game's best puck-handling netminder has been shackled with new rules restricting goaltenders' movement, watch for Brodeur to be on the cutting edge of netminders who try for the home-run pass in the absence of the red line.
WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
YES If enigmatic Vladimir Malakhov returns to All-Star form and Brian Rafalski is capable of shouldering more of the offensive load from the back end, the Devils' blue line actually might be more dangerous than in the past.
If Malakhov reverts to the indifferent style of play that marked his time in Montreal and if David Hale and Paul Martin do not continue their development, the Devils will struggle defensively.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Scott Gomez. The former rookie of the year has struggled since winning the award in 2000, appearing regularly in someone's doghouse. If he's reunited on a line with Alexander Mogilny, it could be a career-saving move.
In the absence of crusty Burns, Robinson appears to have the perfect personality for retooling the team's identity. A proven winner and gifted teacher, Robinson will help the evolution of a crew of up-and-coming defensemen that includes Hale and Martin.
BEST OFFSEASON MOVE --> HAPPY RETURNS
Mogilny has played for Robinson in the past and developed into a fine two-way player as a Devil under his leadership, winning a Cup and turning in a 43-goal performance the following season. At 36, Mogilny is recovering from minor operations on his hip but remains one of the most talented, exciting players in the game. With special teams at a premium, his role as both a power-play specialist and a dangerous penalty killer cannot be understated.
WORST OFFSEASON MOVE --> BUDGETS
The Devils under GM Lou Lamoriello have prided themselves on allowing prospects to develop at the minor-league level, but he still needs to shed several million in salary, putting even more pressure on the farm system and imposing a sense of uncertainty on training camp.
Patrik Elias, LW
Elias led the Devils with 38 goals and 43 assists in 2003-04.
Martin Brodeur, G
Brodeur posted a 38-26-11 record and led the league in wins and shutouts (11).
“I think the game is more mental than physical. You have to be in tremendous shape, but you have to want to do it in your head. I didn't think I could put the mental parts there every day.”
— Scott Stevens on why he retired