Devils go back to the future

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! Sports

The New Jersey Devils followed a familiar script last season. They played fair defense, struggled to score and asked goalie Martin Brodeur to do everything else.

The future Hall-of-Famer did everything he could. Enough to win the Vezina Trophy for the fourth time in five seasons, but he couldn't deliver the big shiny Cup that New Jersey has captured three times since 1995. Don't fault Brodeur, who probably played too much, and it showed during the team's first-round ouster at the hands of the rival New York Rangers. Brodeur started all but five of New Jersey's 82 regular-season games. Yes, his workload was lightened from the previous season, but by only one start.

Change comes slow, if at all, in Lou Lamoriello's world. The team's long-time general manager has his way of thinking, and it doesn't vary much from season to season. Then again, it's hard to argue with success.

One thing that is different is there is no Scott Stevens, no Scott Niedermayer and no Ken Daneyko on defense. Yet the Devils try to keep playing as if they have those kind of intimidating, game-shaping players on the blue line. Lamoriello isn't a big fan of snatching players off the unrestricted pile, but he recognized a couple of things – his undersized forwards can't score enough goals, his defense is good, but not great and his goalie needs more help.

So Lamoriello got something new. Well, something old, but new again. Lamoriello re-acquire Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik, a pair of veteran forwards who have already had one long tour of duty each in New Jersey.

Again, Lamoriello isn't a big fan of change. Holik was a 21-year-old with 154 games of NHL experience with Hartford when Lamoriello got his hands on the native Czech the first time, way back in 1992. Holik developed into a textbook two-way center, fitting perfectly into the Devils' mold. He logged 10 seasons with New Jersey before chasing bigger money across the river in New York. That two-year stay with the Rangers didn't go well, nor did the three subsequent seasons in Atlanta where Holik had to endure the Thrashers' growing pains.

Now he comes home again, at age 37, with 1,252 career games under his belt.

Rolston started his career in 1994 with the Devils, who drafted the winger 11th overall in 1991. He was a steady contributor for five seasons, but was dealt to Colorado (and eventually shipped to Boston the same season) early in what would have been his sixth year with the Devils. Rolston suddenly emerged from the 40-50 point-a-season player he was for all of his career when he got to Minnesota three years ago. And suddenly, at ages 32, 33 and 34, he scored 34, 31 and 31 goals, respectively, along with 79, 64 and 59 points, respectively. He's 23 games short of 1,000, so like Holik, the question is how much does Rolston have left?

Last season: 46-29-7, 99 points, second place Atlantic Division, fourth place Eastern Conference. The season ended quickly however when the Devils ran into their arch-rival Rangers, and bowed out of the opening round in five games.

Imports: RW Brian Rolston (2007-08 team: Minnesota Wild), C Bobby Holik (Atlanta Thrashers), D Jay Leach (Anaheim Ducks), LW Jon DiSalvatore (Phoenix Coyotes), LW Kevin Cormier (Phoenix Coyotes), LW Chad Wiseman (Germany), C Fedor Fedorov (Russia).

Exports: C Sergei Brylin (Russia), RW Arron Asham (Philadelphia Flyers), D Karel Rachunek (Russia), D Sean Zimmerman (Phoenix Coyotes).

Three keys to the season: Don't expect second-year coach Brent Sutter to introduce radical changes to Jersey’s attacks. One school of thought suggests that adding Rolston and Holik to the mix doesn't put as much pressure on the newly-acquired vets to contribute big numbers, rather just contribute something to take the pressure off the players who are really going to make a difference and define whether this offensive is offensive enough.

Second, and make no mistake, this defense is not going to produce any Norris candidates, but it can work effectively if it finds chemistry with each other and gets in sync with the defense-conscious forwards. Colin White and Paul Martin are solid defensemen who won’t turn a lot of heads, but they can stop top lines.

That will be their job this season, assuming White has recovered from a serious eye injury. Depth on the blue line is a bit of a question mark. The team re-signed Bryce Salvador and Mike Mottau even if the fan base might have preferred to see the Devils wade into the marquee-name market. Andy Greene and Johnny Oduya have to be stable to complete the mix.

Third, Brodeur has no choice, but at age 36 he must continue to be a workhorse. Brodeur may have his little slumps here and there, always raising flags that this might be the time he slips a notch, but he's always bounced back to produce fabulous results and serve as that wild card that always keeps the Devils in the hunt.

Brodeur is just 16 wins shy of Patrick Roy's record 551 career regular-season victories. Not a selfish player, Brodeur can still focus on the number to serve as a reason to be sharp in the early portion of the season. He should break the mark sometime in December.

On the hot seat: We're not saying that Sutter is doing anything wrong behind the bench, just be forewarned if Lamoriello doesn't think things are going as well as they could, he's not shy to make a change. Ask Claude Julien or Larry Robinson or Kevin Constantine. Jacques Lemaire had the longest run as Devils coach (four seasons) than any of the 12 different coaches Lamoriello has tabbed since 1987-88, and that doesn't count Lamoriello going behind the bench for a spell not once but twice.

Poised to blossom: He's not necessarily expected to even make the team out of camp, but 23-year-old Finnish defenseman Anssi Salmela just might have something no one else really has on the Devils' blue line – a fairly impressive offensive skill set. Salmela scored 16 goals in 53 games for Tappara to lead all Swedish League defensemen. He's an undrafted free agent, who looks a whole lot better equipped to transition from Europe to the new NHL rather than the old one.

Analysis and prediction: Every time you want to give up on the Devils you come back to Brodeur and pause. It's hard to imagine unless their goalie goes down that New Jersey won't be part of the playoff mix for a 12th straight season. The Devils are still probably no worse than the second best team in the Atlantic, and they probably will be right there sniffing at the division lead late.

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