New look, same stage for Devs-Rangers

As rebuilds go, these are two of the more subtle varieties.

No prolonged residency in the NHL's basement for the New Jersey Devils or the New York Rangers. No prolonged absence from the NHL playoffs, as the Rangers have qualified in each of the four seasons since the lockout and the Devils have qualified every season since 1997.

But make no mistake, when the two teams face off at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night for the second of six divisional clashes this season, they will ice teams boasting dramatically different rosters and personalities from previous years. And not just in terms of age, but also in terms of the roles being assumed by a cadre of still-wet-behind-the-helmets players.

Take the New York Rangers.

Although they were routed 7-3 by visiting San Jose on Monday, the Rangers boast the Eastern Conference's second-best record at 7-2-0. They are being led offensively by newly acquired veterans Marian Gaborik and Vaclav Prospal, who have combined for nine goals and 23 points in nine games. But the real difference between this Rangers team and the one that struggled to sneak into the playoffs last season before being ousted in the first round has been the stability on the blue line, stability that is being provided in large part by four blueliners whose average age is under 23.

Most of the early-season attention has focused on 19-year-old Michael Del Zotto, who leads all NHL defensemen with nine points in nine games. And rightfully so. Del Zotto has helped turn around a power-play unit that ranked 29th last season. So far in 2009-10, the Rangers are seventh overall.

Coach John Tortorella acknowledged in a recent interview that the Rangers weren't sure what they were going to get with a young group that also includes Del Zotto's defensive partner (and off-ice running mate) Matt Gilroy, 25, along with the grizzled "veterans" of the blue line, Marc Staal, 22, and Dan Girardi, 25.

"The thing that we love about them is that they can really skate," Tortorella said of his young quartet of blueliners.

Will there be bumps on the road? Sure, and Monday's game was one of them. Tortorella said he knows it won't all be roses on Broadway.

"But we feel as though they can handle it right now," he said. "I think it's just a great opportunity for them."

Gilroy, last season's Hobey Baker Award winner as the country's top collegiate player, acknowledged his ascent from unknown quantity at the start of camp to a player regularly tapped to play power-play and penalty-killing minutes has been, well, hard to process.

"I was kind of, wow, what's going on here," he told ESPN.com this week. "I don't say anything, though; I just go out and compete."

Across the way in New Jersey, the Devils are quietly shedding one personality and replacing it with another without missing a beat.

This past offseason, veteran center Bobby Holik retired after returning to New Jersey for one last hurrah. Checking forward John Madden signed with Chicago and Brian Gionta left via free agency to Montreal. Brendan Shanahan decided early on he wasn't going to fit in with former/now new Devils coach Jacques Lemaire and left the team. Patrik Elias, 33, hasn't played a game this season with a groin injury.

So, who's minding the store?

Well, there's captain Jamie Langenbrunner, 34, and, of course, the incomparable Martin Brodeur, 37, in net; but the driving of the Devils' bus belongs to youngsters like Travis Zajac, 24, and Zach Parise, 25. The frequent linemates are tied for the team lead in scoring. On the blue line, Andy Greene, 26, and Johnny Oduya, 28, have moved into prime roles. Greene has been so impressive that veteran Cory Murphy, 31, was sent to the Devils' AHL affiliate in Lowell this week.

The Devils' youth movement is most pronounced up front, where 20-somethings Nicklas Bergfors and David Clarkson are also being given chances.

Brodeur has seen this movie before.

Under the watchful eye of president and GM Lou Lamoriello, there is always a planned order of succession in New Jersey. There are always youngsters being primed to take on roles with the team as veterans leave. Brodeur was part of that process in the beginning when he was a youngster, and he now sees it from the other end of the spectrum as the game's winningest goalie.

"It's always been the same," he said. "We know one way or another we're going to be competitive."

He noted how Paul Martin, another Devils lifer, has become the anchor along the blue line with Oduya playing a bigger role this season, roles that in recent years were occupied by players like Brian Rafalski, Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens.

"A lot of the younger players are a big part of the success of our team," he said.
"We see a lot of good signs with our hockey club."

The Devils continue to exist on the low side of the offensive meter (22nd overall in goals per game), scoring, on average, more than a goal and a half fewer than the Rangers.
But defensively, they remain solid under defensive guru Lemaire.

Brodeur recalled Lemaire from his first turn through New Jersey and sees a different man behind the bench.

"In the past, younger players weren't really his thing," Brodeur joked. "I was one of them. But you can see now the way he's enjoying having young players."

As for squaring off against the Rangers, something he's been doing on a regular basis since 1993, Brodeur said there is always something different about a date with the boys from Gotham.

Brodeur said half the kids on his sons' playground might be New York Rangers fans, so these games do generate more buzz and, as a result, mean something more to the players, who want to do well because it means so much to their fans.

"Our fans really care about these matchups," he said.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.