Preseason projections for the top teams in the Eastern Conference didn't deviate much from the usual suspects.
The physically imposing Boston Bruins boasted the size, skill and depth that allowed them to bruise their way to the Stanley Cup in 2011. The New York Rangers, coming off a conference-leading 109-point regular season, added coveted winger Rick Nash in the biggest blockbuster trade of the summer. And let's not forget the loaded Pittsburgh Penguins, who have two of the game's most potent scoring threats -- reigning Hart Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin and center Sidney Crosby -- and a burgeoning star James Neal coming off a 40-goal season.
Now, who also had the New Jersey Devils?
Granted, the team lost its face of the franchise when Zach Parise signed with his hometown Minnesota Wild in July, but still the team got no love from the pundits -- not even after the team's remarkable run to the Stanley Cup finals in June.
That's OK, though. As teams around the league have sorted out the kinks and fine-tuned their rosters, the 2012 Eastern Conference champion Devils have climbed right back to where they finished last spring: No. 1.
Underestimated? You bet.
"You always have people that underestimate you, but that's part of the fun of it, proving people wrong," said forward David Clarkson. "All that matters is what we believe in this room."
Clarkson knows all about proving the critics wrong, as he continues to do just that this year.
Despite skepticism that he could ever recapture the magic that led him to a career-high 30 goals last season, Clarkson is leading the team with 10 goals in the first 14 games of 2013. It's becoming hard to chalk up all his scoring to "puck luck" and opportune bounces.
In sustaining his role as one of the team's most effective contributors, the gritty 28-year-old winger hasn't abandoned what earned him accolades last season. He is driving the net, playing in the high-traffic areas and scoring the greasy goals that are sure to earn him a nice payday should he make it to unrestricted free agency in July.
Clarkson is just one of the many players who have chipped in this season for the Devils, who seem to have a seamless cycle of production. One guy goes cold -- first-line center Travis Zajac just snapped an 11-game goal drought -- and another guy picks him up -- veteran Patrik Elias finished with a goal and two assists in the team's 5-3 win over the Flyers on Friday for eight points over the past five games.
The grinders, too, who were critically important in the team's surprising run last spring, have reprised their roles. In fact, the high-energy, hard-checking trio of Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier now comprise the team's third line, not the fourth.
"They know where to put those guys," one NHL scout said, "And they know how to get the most out of them."
The well-balanced attack from the forwards and the understated sturdiness of the defensemen have been vital, but none more so than the team's tandem in net.
Forty-year-old Martin Brodeur (7-2-2) is far from ready to ride off into the sunset and bask in the comfort of an illustrious 19-year career. The future first-ballot Hall of Famer has been stellar, even better than his 2.42 goals-against average and .907 save percentage suggest. Beloved backup netminder Johan Hedberg, no spring chicken at age 39, has been downright outstanding with a dazzling 0.65 goals-against average and .973 save percentage in his first three games of the season.
Credit is also due to general manager Lou Lamoriello, who has put together a well-rounded, high-character group of overachievers despite the team's nebulous financial situation, as team owner Jeff Vanderbeek recently completed a refinancing of the club's debt.
In typical Lamoriello fashion, he has made some savvy moves in the past two seasons -- trading for defenseman Marek Zidlicky, acquiring (twice) physical winger Alexei Ponikarovsky, plucking Carter off waivers and calling up spark plugs like Gionta and Bernier -- that have paid dividends despite going almost completely unheralded.
"It seems like every year we lose guys like Zach [Parise], [Brian] Rafalski, Paul Martin, [Scott] Gomez, [Brian] Gionta. All the guys who have ended up leaving, Mr. Lamoriello find a way, every year, to find someone who fills a void, or he picks up two guys somewhere," Clarkson said. "Something always seems to happen, and it's a credit to the organization."
But there has been another common denominator in the team's success, both last year and early this season, and that's coach Pete DeBoer.
DeBoer, who can be equal parts cerebral, fiery and folksy, may be the best dark horse emerging among the Jack Adams candidates this season.
Players both like and respect him. His hockey acumen is obvious, his communication skills are probably his biggest strength, and his ability to gauge the temperature of the team has gone far.
"He leads, in my mind, in a very good way," Hedberg said. "He can put his foot down when needed, but he can also have a good laugh with the boys."
It took time for the first-year coach to install his up-tempo, aggressive and offensively opportunistic system last season -- about 30 games, new captain Bryce Salvador estimated -- especially after the many years the team was entrenched as a staunchly defensive-first club. But with each passing point earned last season, every obstacle cleared, players began buying in. That was reinforced further with the success the Devils had in the playoffs. Now, the team can recognize when it's playing well and diagnose what's happening when it is not.
"It's critical for us. You build up a belief system in what works and what doesn't for you, and that foundation is always there," DeBoer said. "It's just a matter of tweaking it or getting back to certain things when you go off the rails or lose. You look for the symptoms why. It's much easier to reset when you have that foundation."
DeBoer, who was fired after his third season with Florida in 2010, isn't hobbled by that experience. He doesn't micromanage during practice or harbor any insecurity or paranoia. He is open and receptive with suggestions from his staff and is comfortable delegating responsibility as he sees fit.
"He's intelligent, and he has common sense. They don't always go together," Lamoriello said. There's no question of his hockey background, from playing to coaching in junior and then his experience and what he went through in Florida. I think we were beneficiaries of that. You know what you would do different and what you wouldn't. I immediately sensed he was comfortable in his own skin and that anything that went on [there], he learned from it."
That said, DeBoer still has a long road ahead before he gets his team back to the playoffs.
With the tight race a compressed 48-game schedule has created, it's unlikely the Devils won't be knocked off the top of the heap at some point. Heck, they may not even win the division. They have talent like Ilya Kovalchuk and second-year center Adam Henrique, yet their numbers are not terrific. A solid plus-nine goal differential, a fifth-ranked goals-against average (2.14) -- but beyond that it's hard to quantify why the team is doing so well.
"This is just a team that doesn't beat itself," one former NHL coach said.
That's because, regardless of which high-profile players come and go, the Devils have established something that has changed little with personnel: a winning culture bred by selflessness and strong team concept reinforced by success.
So go ahead and laugh about the Devils as contenders.
They'll laugh all the way to the playoffs.