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Devils' reunion hopes to rekindle success

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Hey, did ya hear? The New Jersey Devils are getting the band back together.

Brian Rolston(notes) and eventually Brendan Shanahan(notes) – two veteran forwards who both enjoyed multiple early seasons of success with the Devils – came back into the fold last year. This offseason, it was Jacques Lemaire returning behind the bench for a second stint.

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Jacques Lemaire returns for a second stint as the Devils coach.
(Joel Auerbach/US Presswire)

Who's next? Tom Kurvers? Craig Billington? Valeri Zelepukin?

OK, we won't get carried away. But don't be surprised if the team's motto is, "Yes, in New Jersey, you can go home again."

Rolston and Shanahan won't have the responsibility or be expected to make the impact they made as younger Devils, but Lemaire has every bit as much say as to what goes on with the team as he did from 1993 to 1998. Lemaire guided the Devils to a franchise-first Stanley Cup during his second season and had New Jersey in the playoffs all but one of his five years behind the bench.

Joke all you want about how Lemaire's return signals a throwback in terms of how the Devils will play, too. Truth be told, Lemaire took what he had in those years and played to the team's strength. With Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer(notes) and Ken Daneyko on the blue line, and Martin Brodeur(notes) building a reputation as he built a wall in front of the goal, Lemaire simply let his team play defense all the way to those nightly 2-1 wins.

He and the Devils got tagged as being predictable, boring and lacking in entertainment. Big deal; they won and they had nothing for which to apologize. Truth is, the closer the NHL got to the lockout, the more boring and predictable the game became.

That was yesterday; this is today. Lemaire turned 64 years old a week before the start of training camp. He basically had to be talked into returning as Minnesota's head coach before last season, his eighth straight with the expansion Wild. Lemaire talked about fatigue and questioned how much longer he could maintain the pace.

A year later, Lemaire appears rejuvenated, even suggesting the Devils will play more of an offensive system than they displayed last year under Brent Sutter. Lemaire has already brought a sense of accountability early in camp, voicing his displeasure with some of the early performances.

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Shanahan

Last season: 51-27-4 (106 points), first place in the Atlantic Division, third in the Eastern Conference and fifth in the overall standings. The Devils were stunned in the first round of the playoffs by surrendering the tying and game-winning goals late in regulation of Game 7 against Carolina on home ice. New Jersey had two chances to eliminate the Hurricanes after taking a 3-2 series lead with a 1-0 victory in Game 5, but lost 4-0 in Game 6 and 4-3 in the decider.

Imports: D Cory Murphy(notes) (Tampa Bay), G Yann Danis(notes) (N.Y. Islanders), D Rob Davison(notes) (Vancouver) and F Ilkka Pikkarainen(notes) (Finland).

Exports: C John Madden(notes) (Chicago), RW Brian Gionta(notes) (Montreal), LW Michael Rupp(notes) (Pittsburgh), D Niclas Havelid(notes) (Sweden) and G Scott Clemmensen(notes) (Florida) and C Bobby Holik (retired).

Re-signings: LW Brendan Shanahan, C Travis Zajac(notes), D Andy Green and D Johnny Oduya(notes).

Salary cap: GM Lou Lamoriello and the Devils aren't nearly in the tough cap predicament they've been in the past couple of seasons. But with approximately $50.5 million committed already, New Jersey has only about $6.2 million to spend if it wants to go to the ceiling.

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Langenbrunner

Three keys: Since his second season in the league (1993-94), Martin Brodeur has been the focal point of everything Devils. Everyone wondered how New Jersey could hope to maintain its high standard of play and results without the future Hall of Fame netminder, and we all found out last season when an arm injury cut four months out of Brodeur's regular season.

Scott Clemmensen did an outstanding job in long-term relief of Brodeur and the Devils surprisingly ascended all the way to the top of the division in spite of the adversity. Clemmensen isn't there to provide insurance this season, though Brodeur returned with a clean bill of health and isn't expected to experience lingering problems.

Still, when the Devils open the season, Brodeur will be appearing in his 1,000th NHL game and his workload has to be a concern. Twenty-eight-year-old ex-Islander Yann Danis is slotted as the new bargain-basement caddy. Danis has appeared in 37 NHL games, 31 of which came last season.

The Devils, who finished in the middle of the pack in goal scoring, certainly have plenty of experience up front. And with that experience comes age. Jamie Langenbrunner(notes), Jay Pandolfo(notes), Patrik Elias(notes), Rolston and Shanahan are between 33 and 40 years of age, and they're still players the Devils are counting upon for production.

The quick emergence of a younger core headlined by Zach Parise(notes) and Travis Zajac has helped, but there is no more Brian Gionta and it will be incumbent on one or two of the younger newcomers to step up.

There are eight defensemen under contract, and the money is fairly evenly distributed among the top four – Paul Martin(notes), Johnny Oduya, Colin White(notes) and Bryce Salvador(notes). Mike Mottau(notes), Andy Greene(notes) and Cory Murphy figure to be in the mix as well, and there's free-agent pick-up Rob Davison to provide injury relief.

All in all, it's not the kind of fear-instilling group that New Jersey prides itself upon, but the game has changed, too, and it's important to have blue-liners who can move the puck as well as win battles in the corners. This unit will need to work together to support and complement Brodeur, even if there isn't a hint of a Norris Trophy candidate or standout offensive threat in the group.

On the hot seat: GM Lamoriello is the one on the spot here. He knows he lost a lot of talent in Brian Gionta and John Madden, two very different type players. He lost arguably last year's team MVP in backup goalie Clemmensen.

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Zach Parise (L) and Travis Zajac look to combine efforts to lead the Devils' offense.
( Christopher Pasatieri/US Presswire)

And he didn't come close to matching the experience or skills of the recently departed with the few additions he made. You get the feeling Lamoriello has something yet up his sleeve. If not, he's going a much different route in terms of trusting younger players to take on important roles. We shall see, but this is an interesting gamble by someone who doesn't make many, if any, mistakes.

Poised to blossom: He isn't expected to score a lot of goals or grab headlines, but if Rod Pelley(notes) can basically assume the role and fill the void left by the departed Madden, the Devils will be very happy. Pelley was given a vote of confidence – or was it a message to be ready? – when Lamoriello singled him out over the summer as a player in which the team has high hopes.

After making a cameo appearance during nine games of the 2006-07 campaign, Pelley stuck much longer during his official rookie season the next year by scoring two goals and six points in 58 games. To the surprise of some, Pelley spent the entire season last year back in the minors.

Time has passed: It's not so much one player as the team's identity. The Devils had to find other ways to win last season when Martin Brodeur was out for four months, and they did. Several years ago, the Devils had to look at their defense in a different light when Niedermayer departed after Stevens and Daneyko retired. Now, with John Madden gone, the trademark checking line is broken up.

Prediction: In a division with the Stanley Cup champion Penguins and the stout-looking Flyers, the Devils are probably running third – assuming they can hold off the New Yorks. As surprising as the Devils were during the regular season last year, it's hard to imagine they'll get so much out of so little. In fact, they could be fighting for their playoff lives come early April this season.