Devils have doubters coming off Stanley Cup run

Reaching the Stanley Cup finals hasn’t made the New Jersey
Devils one of the favorites 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 center 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 offense. 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 defense 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.”