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Devils eye big things under Lemaire

by Staff Writer / New Jersey Devils
Parise and Brodeur give the Devils a formidable one-two punch.

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The New Jersey Devils enter the new season with a combination no other team in the League can boast -- a surefire Hall-of-Fame goaltender and a forward who finished in the top three in goal scoring last season.

But this isn't the NBA, where two superstars can carry a team to a championship. This is the NHL, where it's all about a team concept and having the depth players who can complement stars like Martin Brodeur and Zach Parise. That's what new coach Jacques Lemaire will be searching for when the Devils open the season.

Free agency hurt the Devils during the summer, but by no means did it cripple them. Reliable forwards Brian Gionta and John Madden left; goaltender Scott Clemmensen, arguably the team's MVP last season, is gone; and even tough guy Mike Rupp found a new place to call home.

That just means more responsibility for some and an opportunity for new faces to make a name for themselves as New Jersey tries to defend its Atlantic Division title.

"I'm not disappointed by any means. It means opportunities for some young players," Devils GM Lou Lamoriello told the Star-Ledger. "And some of our veterans will take on more responsibility and more ice time. The priority for me was signing (defensemen) Johnny Oduya and Andy Greene. ... I'm really happy with this hockey team."

Whatever unhappiness Lamoriello felt when Brent Sutter asked to leave after two seasons behind the bench was more than quelled when Lemaire, who coached the Devils to their first Stanley Cup in 1995, returned for a second stint just weeks after resigning as coach of the Minnesota Wild.

"Jacques Lemaire is one of the most respected coaches in the game," Lamoriello said after re-hiring him after six years without a Cup. "He is a teacher and a communicator, and knows what it takes to have success."

While no one is ever going to mistake the Devils for the 1980s Edmonton Oilers, their 244 goals last season was their highest total since 2000-01, when they led the League with 295.

Parise (45 goals, 49 assists, 94 points) has emerged as a star. Patrik Elias (31-47-78), Jamie Langenbrunner (29-40-69) and Travis Zajac (20-42-62) enjoyed resurgent seasons. No matter who Zajac was centering, the Devils had a true offensive threat as a first line.

Three reasons for optimism

• Brodeur is healthy and distraction-free to start 2009. There's no way of knowing if he'll avoid injury this season, but his biceps tear last season was fluky and he's been a rock in net otherwise during his career. Plus, the stress of chasing Patrick Roy's all-time NHL wins record is a thing of the past.

• Have the Devils ever given you a reason not to be optimistic? A lot of fans might be worried after the losses of Gionta, Madden, Rupp and Clemmensen to free agency, but this isn't the first offseason where the Devils said goodbye to key players. Losing the likes of Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and Brian Rafalski on the blue line in recent years didn't result in the team missing the playoffs the following season, so why should this year be any different, even with a new coach?

Zach Parise is a blossoming superstar. One could easily make a case that once you get past the NHL's big three (Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin), Parise is the most explosive player in the League. After two straight 30-goal seasons, he broke out in a big way last year with 45 goals and 49 assists. Can one man carry a team? Absolutely not. But if Parise continues at that pace or even improves, he can help take pressure off the Devils' secondary scorers.
But as the season wore on, the secondary scoring just wasn't there -- and the departure of Gionta to Montreal and Madden to Chicago leaves the Devils even thinner up front. Dainius Zubrus, who had just 15 goals and 25 assists for 40 points in 82 games, is the team's leading returning scorer after the big four.

The Devils won't miss Madden's offense as much as his defense. The former Selke Trophy winner has long been one of the game's top defensive forwards and a great penalty killer. His departure opens the door for Rod Pelley, who Lamoriello believes can pick up where Madden left off.

Two forwards who can help fill the offensive holes are David Clarkson and Brendan Shanahan. Clarkson, 25, showed he could be in line for a breakout campaign in 2009-10. After scoring only 9 goals in his rookie season of 2007-08, he posted 17 last season and looked far more comfortable.

Shanahan is back in the mix after joining the Devils midseason and contributing 6 goals and 8 assists for 14 points in 34 games. Breaking camp with the team and playing a full season will help Shanahan show more of the form that's made him one of the League's top all-time goal scorers.

Even without Brodeur as the last line of defense for most of the season, the Devils' blueliners helped anchor the fourth-stingiest defense in the NHL.

Lamoriello locked up two of his younger defensemen, giving Johnny Oduya, 27, a three-year deal worth $10.5 million and Andy Greene, 26, a two-year deal worth $1.475 million.

"We are delighted to have Johnny Oduya stay with the organization," Lamoriello said in a statement. "He has developed into one of the more talented young defensemen in the National Hockey League."

Oduya played in all 82 games last season and was 7-22-29 while going plus-21. The Stockholm native is plus-48 over the past two seasons, the best on the team. Oduya and Greene along with Paul Martin, Colin White, Bryce Salvador and Mike Mottau give the Devils a steady (if unheralded) top six that contains a nice mix of the physical and the finesse.

One interesting battle could be for the seventh defenseman spot.

Jay Leach played 24 games with New Jersey last year, registering only one assist. But Lamoriello signed Cory Murphy, a more offensive defenseman, to a two-way contract in the offseason. In 32 games split between the Lightning and Panthers, Murphy had 5 goals and 11 assists for 16 points. He could provide help for New Jersey's power play which finished 15th at 18.9 percent.

Imagine finding out that Superman couldn't fight crime for a while because he was battling the flu. That's what it was like last year when Martin Brodeur had to miss four months with a torn left biceps tendon.

But Brodeur ironed his cape and returned for the final weeks of the season without missing a beat. He broke Patrick Roy's all-time wins record and goes into this season healthy and without having to deal with the burden of chasing history.

Brodeur does have other records he can break this season. He is three shutouts away from surpassing Terry Sawchuk's all-time mark of 103, and when he takes the ice on opening night, he will join Roy (1,029) as only the second goalie in NHL history to play in 1,000 games.

"I think it says a lot about a goalie to be that durable to play so many games, and on a good team. I take a lot of pride in it," Brodeur said. "Every year people are like, 'Why are you playing in so many games?' It's a pride thing that fuels me. There are not many goalies that are able to do it and I think I'm able to do it better than anybody. It drives me, so hitting that milestone proves to me that I was able to do it."

Should Superman get a cold again this season, Scott Clemmensen won't be there to fill in. After winning 25 games and posting a 2.39 goals-against average, he signed with the Panthers this summer, leaving the Devils with a backup battle between the newly signed Yann Danis and 22-year-old Jeff Frazee.

Danis appeared in 31 games for the Islanders last season, going 10-17-3 with a 2.86 GAA. Frazee, a former first-round pick, has played in as many NHL games as your high school science teacher. Whoever wins the backup job figures to be as un-busy as the Maytag repairman -- expect Brodeur to go right back playing 70-plus games again this season.

Author: Dave Lozo | Staff Writer
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