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.”