What happens when a team expected to make some noise in the Stanley Cup Playoffs instead goes quietly in a third consecutive opening-round upset?
Well, for starters, it's time to buck the trend.
That's precisely what Devils owners Jeff Vanderbeek and Mike Gilfillan and General Manager Lou Lamoriello thought they had done when they signed the biggest free agent prize available, Ilya Kovalchuk, to the largest contract in franchise history--17 years and $102 million. But less than eight hours after the Devils celebrated the agreement to keep Kovalchuk in New Jersey, the NHL rejected the agreement. Arbitrator Richard Bloch upheld that decision 20 days later, ruling the deal was a circumvention of the salary cap and collective bargaining agreement.
The sticking point was the fact Kovalchuk's deal was front-loaded to the point the skilled Russian would receive all but $4 million of the total value of the deal over the first 11 seasons. As it stands now, Kovalchuk is again an unrestricted free agent, but Lamoriello is hoping to rework a new deal that will comply with the CBA.
Like him or not, Kovalchuk would provide the Devils with that proven sniper they require in support players like Zach Parise, Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac.
The Devils won their ninth Atlantic Division championship in 2009-10 while reaching the 100-point mark for the 12th time in the last 15 full seasons, but fell far short of reaching their ultimate goal. The club earned the second seed in the Eastern Conference behind 48 victories and 103 points, but showed little life in a five-game loss to the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers in the conference quarterfinal round. The Flyers finished 15 points behind the Devils but were 9-2-0 in 11 regular-season and playoff meetings.
Even new coach John MacLean admitted disappointment watching the Devils falter in the first round for the third straight season behind the tutelage of Jacques Lemaire, who retired after a one-season return.
"It's frustrating for everyone within the organization," he said. "I've been a part of this organization for a long time when we weren't in the playoffs or were expected to do things, and now with expectations for this team to do things, it's always disappointing when you don't go as far as you should. You want to win the Stanley Cup; that's always the goal here."
First it was their coach, then it was their best defenseman, Paul Martin.
Lemaire retired from his post at the conclusion of his team's season, admitting the grind of an 82-plus campaign had gotten the best of him. It was Lemaire's second stint in New Jersey; he coached them from 1993-94 through 1997-98. Lemaire led the Devils to six postseason appearances and the 1995 Stanley Cup.
The biggest loss within the locker room was that of Martin, who signed a five-year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins in July. Martin played in 400 career games for New Jersey, but only 22 of those came in 2009-10, when he missed most of the season with a non-displaced fracture of his left forearm. Martin had 26 goals, 137 points and a plus-55 rating in six seasons with the Devils.
Defenseman Martin Skoula, traded to the Devils from the Toronto Maple Leafs for a 2010 fifth-round draft pick last March, returned to Europe and signed a one-year deal with Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League.
Among the forwards, center Rob Niedermayer, who had 10 goals and 22 points in 71 games, signed a one-year contract with the Buffalo Sabres on July 7. Wingers Jay Pandolfo and Andrew Peters were allowed to leave as free agents, as was steady defenseman Mike Mottau.
The Devils also traded right wing Matt Halischuk and a second-round draft pick to the Nashville Predators on June 19 for center Jason Arnott. Halischuk played 20 games with the Devils last season, producing 2 points. He also played 32 games for the Devils' then AHL affiliate, the Lowell Devils, notching 11 goals and 22 points.
The biggest arrival came behind the bench -- MacLean, who spent 14 seasons with the Devils as a player and eight more as a member of the coaching staff, succeeded Lemaire and became the team's 19th coach and the first former New Jersey player to get the job.
When Martin didn't sign prior to July 1 and quickly signed with Pittsburgh, Lamoriello knew he had to react quickly to fill the void -- and he did, reeling in one of the most sought-after defenders available by signing Anton Volchenkov to a six-year deal. Volchenkov, 28, has played his entire NHL career with the Ottawa Senators. He has 16 goals and 94 points with 297 penalty minutes in 428 career games and has produced 12 assists and 15 points in 61 playoff contests. But Volchenkov is at his best in the defensive zone -- he's the only player who's been in the top 10 in blocked shots in each of the last five seasons.
Lamoriello also inked defenseman Henrik Tallinder to a four-year deal. The 31-year-old Swede has spent his entire career with Buffalo. In 82 games with the Sabres last season, Tallinder scored 20 points (4 goals, 16 assists) with a plus-13 rating and was partnered most of the year with Calder Trophy-winning defender Tyler Myers.
"The two (defensemen) we got bring two different types of dimensions to our team," Lamoriello said. "Volchenkov … we've certainly played against enough. He's going to do something in our zone we haven't had recently … in fact, since Scott Stevens left. He's going to make it very difficult to play in that zone and complement the (Colin) Whites and (Bryce) Salvadors."
Arnott, acquired in the trade with Nashville, figures to be reunited with Elias. The two, along with Petr Sykora, formed the "A-Line" that played a big part in the Devils' 2000 Cup championship -- Arnott actually got the Cup-winner in Dallas.
Lamoriello also signed veteran backup goalie Johan Hedberg, who spent the previous four seasons in Atlanta. Expect Hedberg, now 37, to see enough action to give Martin Brodeur a few more nights of rest during the regular season.
With or without Kovalchuk (and the Devils certainly hope it's with him), New Jersey figures to have enough to make the playoffs again. It's what's happened after Game 82 in each of the last three Aprils that has left the Prudential Center faithful frustrated.
But Kovalchuk, who finished last season with 41 goals and 85 points in 76 games, isn't New Jersey's only big gun. Zach Parise had 38 goals and 44 assists for 82 points, while Travis Zajac (25-42-67), Jamie Langenbrunner (19-42-61), Elias (19-29-48) and Brian Rolston (20-17-37) rounded out the top six scorers.
Volchenkov and Tallinder will help in the defensive zone, but New Jersey doesn't figure to generate much offense from the blue line. Andy Greene was the top goal-scorer last season with just 6, and losing Martin takes away the Devils' best offensive defenseman.
Brodeur, now 38, played 77 regular-season games in '09-10 and didn't look as sharp as usual down the stretch and in the playoffs -- though a 45-25-6 record, 2.24 goals-against average, League-high nine shutouts and .916 save percentage are nothing to sneeze at. He added the career records for shutouts (110) and minutes played (63,520) to his career record for victories -- he'll pass the 600 mark early this season.