Key additions: Larry Robinson, Head Coach; Alexander Mogilny, RW (FA - TOR); Vladimir Malakhov, D (FA - PHI); Dan McGillis, D (FA - BOS); Richard Matvichuk, D (FA - DAL); Krzysztof Oliwa, LW/RW (FA - CGY); Darren Langdon, LW (FA - MTL); Zach Parise, C (D - 2003, 1/17); Aleksander Suglabov, RW (D - 2000, 2/56)
Key losses: Scott Niedermayer, D (FA - ANA); Scott Stevens, D (Retired); Pat Burns, Head Coach; Jan Hrdina, C (FA - CLM); Igor Larionov, C (Retired); Turner Stevenson, RW (FA - PHI); Tommy Albelin, D (Retired); Raymond Giroux, D (FA - MIN); Jiri Bicek, LW (FA - Europe)
Key players unsigned: Paul Martin, D; David Hale, D
Forwards: The Devils seem to be in some trouble up front. Their best player has Hepatitis (no, not that kind, this kind) and won't be back until November, no one seems to know where the goals are going to come from, and the team is already more than an Alexei Kovalev over the salary cap. Then again, the Devils always seem to be in some trouble up front? In 2003-04 the Devils only had two forwards (Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez) who had more than 37 points (155 NHLers, total, bested that mark), yet finished 14th in the League in goals scored. In the salary cap era balance and depth are the keys to success and with twelve double-digit goal scorers in 2003-04, the Devils had both. They have lost two of those forwards (spring-rental Hrdina and Stevenson) to free agency, and will have to trade another one or two (likely the disappointing Jeff Friesen and/or the injury-prone Viktor Kozlov) in order to get under the cap, but the team is confident that their contributions will hardly be missed. The Devils brought back Mogilny via free agency for a second tour of duty in the swamp. If he can stay healthy, his return will help the team cope with the absence of Elias as he will seek to recapture the chemistry he had with Gomez in his first turn as a Devil, when, in 2000-01, he posted his best numbers since the mid-90's. In fact, when Elias returns, the Devils will likely have their most potent group of forwards since, well, the last time Mogilny played for the team. New Jersey is also very high on Parise, who is coming off a strong first professional season at Albany of the AHL (18 goals, 40 assists). Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian Gionta, Sergei Brylin, Jay Pandolfo and defensive-specialist John Madden will all be counted on to again score a dozen or more goals. Ultimately, the Devils offensive success will hinge on Elias's return and Mogilny's health and production but most of all on everyone pulling his weight by kicking in the occasional goal. Isn't that the way it always is in Jersey?
Defensemen: Defensemen like Niedermayer are irreplacable. So are defensemen like Stevens (who is as good as retired - even his goalie expects him to call it quits). That said, General Manager Lou Lamoriello has done an awfully good job of filling their spots on the roster. Brian Rafalski has shown that he is ready to take his game to the next level. He's not Niedermayer, but there isn't a team in the NHL that wouldn't love to have him. Colin White is a mean s.o.b. in front of the net, and the team hopes that Martin and former first round pick (22nd in 2000) Hale are the Niedermayer and Stevens for the next generation of Devils. The additions of Matvichuk, McGillis and will provide physical presences in the defensive zone and Malakhov, another second-time Devil, will help in all situations. At the end of the day, losing Niedermayer and Stevens would be a crushing blow to most bluelines, but the Devils have been able to fill some holes and deal with the losses better than could be expected. So far.
Goaltenders: With apologies to Rink readers for ripping off John Buccigross, what Sam Beam is to Iron and Wine, Martin Brodeur is to the New Jersey Devils. Seventy or more starts in each of the past seven seasons, with at least 38 wins each year. Two Vezinas, a Calder and four Jennings trophies. Three Stanley Cups and an Olympic gold. Eight All-Star games. The youngest goalie in NHL history to win 400 games. His career goals against average is a miserly 2.17 and his career save percentage an equally stifling .912. Taken with the second-to-last pick in the first round of the 1990 Entry Draft (do you think some of the teams that passed on him are kicking themselves?), Brodeur, now 33, has become a legend, inspiring a wave of French-Canadian butterfly goalies like Marc-Andre Fleury, Roberto Luongo and Jose Theodore (Patrick who?). Brodeur will face this year without security blankets Niedermayer and Stevens in front of him for the first time in his career. New rules have reduced the size of his pads and will prevent him from handling the puck as much as he has in the past (the League punishing a player or two who have tailored their game around a certain skill seems patently unfair, but that's another article for another time). But despite all the change around him, there will be at least one constant: Martin Brodeur will start 70 games this year and he'll probably win at least 38 of them.
Bottom line: It seems that every September the puck pundits are predicting that "this is the year" that the Devils miss the playoffs . They don't have enough offense. Teams have figured out how to beat the trap. Martin Brodeur is overrated. Yet every year the Devils continue to show the League that they are one of the best coached, best disciplined and best managed teams around. And in every spring but one since the 1989-90 season, they've been playing postseason hockey, usually one or two breaks away from winning it all. Lou Lamoriello has been busy this offseason and, as mentioned above, his work is not done yet. But then again, his work is never done. As the Devils battle for playoff position come March, Lamoriello will be working the phones as always, looking for another playmaking center or scoring winger to make another run at the Cup and prove the pundits wrong yet again.
Update (9/6): Scott Stevens has announced his retirement. One of the great defensemen of this generation and a guy Caps fans have been pining over for years, Stevens' presence on the ice will be missed (except by Eric Lindros, Paul Kariya, Ron Francis...).