2007-08 Team Preview: New Jersey Devils
AP Photo/Bill Kostroun
The Starting Line
By Scott BurnsideOf the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs last season, none scored fewer goals than the 216 scored by the New Jersey Devils. That they qualified as the second seed in the Eastern Conference is a testament to the superlative play of Martin Brodeur, who produced a league-record 48 wins, and the Devils' unyielding defensive discipline. But as another offseason passed, another couple of key elements were taken out of the equation as gifted playmaker Scott Gomez is now a New York Ranger and the team's top puck-moving defenseman, Brian Rafalski, is now a Detroit Red Wing. The Devils will open the 2007-08 season with nine straight road games as they await the opening of their new rink in Newark. That will put even more pressure on new coach Brent Sutter. After two years of predicting the demise of the Devils, one has to wonder whether it's finally at hand. OFFENSE
The old adage that defense wins championships has served the Devils well, with Cup wins in 1995, 2000 and 2003. But, for a number of years in that period, people sometimes forget the Devils were one of the top offensive clubs in the NHL. No more. Crunched by the salary cap, GM Lou Lamoriello continues to suffer major talent leakages without having the cap room to fill the void adequately. This summer, when Lamoriello saw 115 points walk out the door with Gomez and Rafalski (plus 12 more when Brad Lukowich returned to Tampa), he managed to bring in Dainius Zubrus (60 points), Karel Rachunek (26 points) and Vitaly Vishnevski (13 points) for a net loss of 28 points right off the hop. Factor in the hit to the Devils' 16th-ranked power play and all of a sudden the playoffs might be a stretch in what promises to be a much more competitive Atlantic Division. A groin injury saw Brian Gionta's goal production drop to 25 from a franchise-record 48 the year before, and he will have to bounce back this season. Zach Parise emerged as a steady offensive presence with 31 goals in his sophomore season, and Travis Zajac chipped in 17 as a rookie. Both will need to keep moving forward. Reports that winger Jamie Langenbrunner, who had 23 goals and 60 points last season, missed the start of training camp and could miss significant action with a sports hernia would be a significant blow to the Devils. DEFENSE
The Devils, thanks in large part to the heroics of Brodeur, were the stingiest team in the East and ranked third overall in goals-against. And although the loss of Rafalski will be difficult to overcome, the Devils once again promise to be an exceptionally difficult team to play against with the arrival of solid blueliners Vishnevski and underappreciated Rachunek. Johnny Oduya, the 221st pick in the 2001 draft, and Andy Greene, a free-agent signee, both proved they're solid NHLers in their rookie seasons and will see their ice time open up under Sutter. The real key will be Paul Martin, one of the game's most underrated and smartest players, who signed a long-term deal in the offseason and becomes the Devils' de facto blue-line quarterback. If Martin can assume the leadership role, the Devils will be back in the playoff hunt. GOALTENDING
Brodeur. Need we say more? His assault on Patrick Roy's all-time wins record will resume in October, and although it's hard to imagine Brodeur will repeat his NHL-record 48-win campaign, there seems little doubt he is destined to become the greatest goalie of all time. That said, the fact the 35-year-old veteran played in 78 games last season was nuts and perhaps cost the Devils a trip to the Eastern Conference finals as he faltered against Ottawa in the second round. Expect newcomer Kevin Weekes to shoulder a greater load in New Jersey after coming over from the Rangers. Brodeur still will play the vast majority of the games, but it will be up to Sutter to make sure that -- assuming the Devils are in playoff contention -- Brodeur hasn't been wasted in getting them there. COACHING
Look back at almost every coaching opening in the NHL the past three years and Brent Sutter's name likely came up in the discussion. The tough-as-nails former NHL player has evolved into what most believe to be the finest coach outside the NHL, leading Canada's entry to two straight gold medals at the world junior championship. The Canadians were undefeated in those two tournaments. Sutter's Red Deer junior team also won a Memorial Cup, and he recently coached a Canadian junior all-star club to a dominating victory over Russian juniors in the eight-game Super Series (the Canadians went undefeated). So, can he do it at the NHL level? The smart money says yes. To help him get over the hump, Sutter has surrounded himself with guys who know the ropes; Larry Robinson, who guided the Devils to a Cup win in 2000 and a Cup finals appearance in 2001, and longtime Devils John MacLean and Tommy Albelin. The Devils' starting road trip will give Sutter and his team lots of bonding time, which might not be a bad thing. Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
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• Record: 49-24-9
• Division: First in Atlantic.
• Conference: Second in the East.
• Playoffs: Ousted in the second round by Ottawa.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
First in wins (48), third in GAA (2.18), third in save percentage (.922) and first in shutouts (12), it's hard to imagine Brodeur can approach those numbers again. The real issue isn't the numbers but what he has left in the tank come April. Defenseman: Andy Greene
The rookie went from averaging 14:15 a night in the regular season to 17:03 in the playoffs, an indication of the strides taken by the 24-year-old native of Trenton, Mich. His puck-moving skills will help offset the loss of Rafalski to free agency. Forward: Brian Gionta
The diminutive scoring machine played in 57 straight games to start the season, but later went down with a groin injury that hampered the rest of his season. He'll need to get back to full wattage if the Devils are to be playoff worthy.
MORE FROM BURNSIDEBuzz Cut
There are two things about the Devils that remain constant, Lamoriello, and that what Lou says goes. Now comes along Sutter, a guy who's not used to marching to anyone's beat but his own. The smart thinking has Lamoriello backing off and letting Sutter run this ship the way he sees fit. If not, Sutter won't be in New Jersey long and Lamoriello will have created a coaching wasteland. Where Penguins Will Finish
The Devils will finish third in the Atlantic Division and ninth in the Eastern Conference.
SPORTSNATIONWhere do you think the New Jersey Devils will finish this time around? Who will lead the Devils in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!