There is at least one undeniable truth about the National Hockey League: It's a difficult climb to the top, but it's 10 times more difficult staying there. Just ask the New Jersey Devils. Three times they have carted off the game's ultimate prize, in 1995, 2000 and 2003, and each time they have been unable to successfully defend that title.
After knocking off the pesky Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the spring of 2003 the Devils looked to be every bit as formidable last season, icing the game's most dominant defensive team, allowing a league-low 164 goals as Martin Brodeur garnered his second straight Vezina Trophy. But the Devils were disarmed with the loss of captain Scott Stevens, who played only 38 games before post-concussion syndrome ended his season. His future remains uncertain although the 40-year-old defenseman would like to return.
Even before Stevens' injury, the Devils had embarked on a conscious effort to remake their team, part of an ongoing master plan to keep a clearly defined balance of older "upperclass"-type players, developing players in their mid- to late-20s and a handful of younger, developing players on the roster.
Though Ken Daneyko retired, two rookie defensemen David Hale and Paul Martin joined the club as regulars. But injuries revealed a lack of defensive depth, and a lack of timely scoring caught up with the Devils as they bowed in five games to Philadelphia in the first round. Shortly after, Devils and their fans were rocked by the news that coach Pat Burns had been diagnosed with colon cancer. He is spending the summer receiving treatment and a timetable for his return is likewise uncertain.
General manager Lou Lamoriello spoke with ESPN.com this week about the challenges the Devils faced last season and the team's unwavering plans for the future.
ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last season, regular season and playoffs?
Lamoriello: Going into the season we certainly felt very good. When you're coming off a Stanley Cup win you always have a bit of apprehension. The summer's shorter and the celebrations are longer, but we were extremely pleased with the players and the shape they arrived in at training camp. Their focus was there and their commitment, and we felt that way right from the beginning. And any time you get 100 points you have to feel that things went well. This team competed as well as any team that we've had here during the regular season because they overcame significant adversity to get there.
We had a chance in the last game to win the division (a 3-1 loss to Boston). In the playoffs, we came off a couple of injuries, (along with Stevens, defenseman Brian Rafalski missed a dozen games down the stretch with a broken fibula and was not 100 percent in the playoffs) and this is not to take anything away from Philadelphia. There were close games that could have gone either way, but they didn't. We could have come out of it just as easily as we didn't. In the playoffs it caught up to us a little bit.
You can never replace a Scott Stevens. What he brings to the locker room. What he brings to the ice. What he brings anywhere.
As for the team's perceived lack of scoring, Lamoriello was nonplused.
I mean no disrespect, but I leave those discussions to you people. Even when we were one of the top-scoring teams in the National Hockey League people said we didn't score enough. We scored a lot more goals than we gave up. Unless something has changed, it's all about winning. You have to score more goals than you give up. It's all about the goal differential.
The Devils were 4th in the NHL with a plus-49 goal differential.
ESPN.com: Which player made the most significant strides in your estimation or had the biggest impact?
Lamoriello: If I have to look back at the end of a season at one or two players that stand out we haven't played the way our system dictates us to play. But our two young defensemen -- David Hale and Paul Martin -- are highlights because they came right out of college and we gave them a Devils uniform and gave them the minutes and the opportunity and they accepted them. And they are both character and quality individuals.
Martin, a University of Minnesota product, averaged 20:07 in ice time a night and chipped in 24 points while Hale, out of the University of North Dakota, had four assists while logging 15:01 in ice time per game.
We always say we don't want to be in a rebuilding year in New Jersey. Every one of us from management to coaches have to sort of buy into the process. These players had to go a little quicker. But if you'd told me in October or September that they would have been at this level I would have been ecstatic. So there were positive things that came out of (the injury situation).
ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey this season?
Lamoriello: I try not to deal in hypotheticals. Until we have our team actually finalized all of these things are just hypotheticals. Today, for instance, we made an addition to our club, Richard Matvichuk. When you do things it changes others. We'll know more when the time comes.
(As for Matvichuk) he certainly fits into the defensive defenseman side of our pairings. He brings size and strength and more important, experience in winning. He's in my mind relatively young at 31. It won't take him long to get into our system.
I would hope he's more of a compliment (to Stevens) than anything else because Scott's very important to our team. We're prepared for all situations and circumstances.
For many years, the Devils have been considered the best franchise at evaluating talent. In spite of regularly drafting late because of their regular-season success, Lamoriello and director of scouting David Conte always seem to find the right players for their system, players who step seamlessly into the mix. This training camp the team's top prospect Zach Parise, the son of longtime NHLer J.P. Parise, will get a long look as will a handful of other forwards including Finn Tuomas Pihlman, Russian Aleksander Suglobov and perhaps late-blooming Ilkka Pikkarainen, another Finn.
ESPN.com: Which player not on your roster has the best chance to make an impact next year?
Lamoriello: In my mind there are four young forwards. Any of them, given the opportunity, could make that step. Any of those four has the ability and the size and the strength to do what's necessary and we'll make the decision. All can play in Albany, and there's always a chance we could make a move that could open a spot like we did with David Hale and Paul Martin. We always say, the players will dictate who plays. No one else.
ESPN.com: What is the top priority in improving the organization?
ESPN.com: Anything more specific?
Lamoriello: Even if I thought we had a deficiency I would not talk about it.
ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment from last season?
Lamoriello: I don't think there's one highlight. Certainly, it would be the play of the two young players I've spoken about (Martin and Hale) and to see Scott Niedermayer at the end of the year recognized (with the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman) for what he's been doing for years.
ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
Lamoriello: Every game we didn't win.
ESPN.com: What activity, destination or hobby will take you furthest away from hockey this offseason?
Lamoriello: I think all of us have different ways of getting away. Reading a book, seeing a movie, spending time with children. All of these. But one specific area, I don't have one specific area. But you have to be able to step back because if you don't I don't think you make decisions with a clear head.
ESPN.com: Any book or movie suggestions?
Lamoriello: No, not really.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.