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Devils want to recapture playoff glory

by Mike G. Morreale
If you don't think the New Jersey Devils are sick and tired of discussing their recent playoff failures, you haven't been paying attention.

It's become a broken record following three straight opening-round ousters, against the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and, most recently, the Philadelphia Flyers. Since winning the organization's third Stanley Cup in 2003, New Jersey hasn't advanced beyond the second round despite the presence of a future Hall of Famer in goalie Martin Brodeur, the franchise's all-time leading point producer in Patrik Elias, a perennial 30-goal scorer in Zach Parise, and most recently, an offensive machine named Ilya Kovalchuk.

If the Devils are in playoff contention once again as everyone anticipates, the subject of playoffs past again will dominate the headlines. It's time for the players to do something about it.

The fact Kovalchuk was locked up for the next 15 years in the early-morning hours of Sept. 4 was a starting point and provided a big sigh of relief for the organization. It enabled first-year coach John MacLean to begin setting his line combinations while establishing some semblance of a game plan.

General Manager Lou Lamoriello hired MacLean in June, brought back Jason Arnott to fill a void down the middle and bolstered his defense with the signings of steady Henrik Tallinder and crease-clearing Anton Volchenkov. He also signed a very capable backup goalie in Johan Hedberg.

Now he just hopes it can all come together.

The deal for Arnott gave the Devils two legitimate top lines and will enable MacLean to keep Patrik Elias at his natural position, left wing. While the line of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner was hitting on all cylinders for much of the 2009-10 campaign -- combining for 82 goals and 210 points -- a change might be in order under MacLean's regime.

A full season of Kovalchuk, who will be 42 when his 15-year, $100 million contract expires at the end of the 2024-25 season, gives the Devils a pretty formidable stable of wingers, including the possible inclusion of prospect Mattias Tedenby. During the preseason, MacLean shifted Kovalchuk from left to right wing for the first time in his career, alongside center Zajac and Parise. If it sticks, the trio could become one of the League's most entertaining and explosive lines.

Arnott, meanwhile, centered the club's second line, with Elias and Langenbrunner. Elias, don't forget, is capable of playing any position, so MacLean does have some flexibility. Arnott produced 19 goals and 46 points in 63 games with the Nashville Predators last season and is almost guaranteed a higher point total with his new mates this campaign.

Veteran forwards David Clarkson (24 points), Brian Rolston (20 goals) and Dainius Zubrus (27 points) also return to provide some depth along the wall. Clarkson, who was sidelined by injuries for a chunk of the season, was second on the team with 85 penalty minutes in 46 games in 2009-10. Rookie Jacob Josefson, the Devils' top pick (No. 20) in 2009, centered Clarkson and Zubrus on a third line during training camp and is regarded highly by MacLean.

It would appear Josefson is tailor-made for the Devils' style of play and could make the opening-night roster. He possesses tremendous speed and is defensively responsible. The 19-year-old had 8 goals and 20 points in 43 games for Djurgarden of the Swedish Elite League in 2009-10. Tedenby, 20, had 12 goals and a career-best 19 points in 44 games last season with HV 71, which captured its second Swedish Elite League title in three seasons.

The one notable omission along the blue line this season will be Paul Martin, who signed a five-year deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins in July. Lamoriello moved quickly to fill that hole with the acquisitions of Tallinder and Volchenkov.

"They are both big guys who move well," MacLean said. "I'm excited with the two of them and excited with the depth in our back end as a whole."

Tallinder, who spent his entire seven-season career with the Buffalo Sabres, should provide some leadership -- he partnered with Calder Trophy-winning defenseman Tyler Myers last season. Volchenkov, meanwhile, will offer some needed muscle in front of Brodeur. The 28-year-old Russian enters his eighth season after racking up 153 hits and 172 blocked shots in Ottawa in 2009-10.

Colin White, 32, returns for an 11th season after blocking 126 shots and throwing a team-leading 143 hits, and 27-year-old Andy Greene (team-leading 155 blocked shots) has proven he's more than capable of handling big minutes on the back end. Greene led the team in average ice time per game (23:31) in 2009-10 while playing 78 games. Bryce Salvador (95 hits, 109 blocked shots) enters his 10th season and third with the Devils, and Mark Fraser (118 hits) will look to build upon a productive rookie campaign.

One wild card will be second-year defenseman Matthew Corrente. Corrente impressed in his dual role as a winger and defender for coach Jacques Lemaire last season, finishing with 20 points and 74 penalty minutes in 43 games. MacLean said Corrente will compete for a job on defense this season.

"When I had (Corrente) in Lowell (AHL), he played as a defenseman, so I think he'll come in and compete for a position on defense," MacLean said.

The Devils' second-round draft pick (No. 38) in June, defenseman Jonathon Merrill, is bound for the University of Michigan after spending a season with the U.S. National Team Developmental Program. He won a gold medal with Team USA at the World Junior Championships this past January.

Devils fans might find it hard to consider life without Martin Brodeur, but it's going to happen one day and the organization seems to be preparing for the inevitable with the drafting of goalies Scott Wedgewood (No. 84) and Maxime Clermont (No. 174) this past June.

Still, the 38-year-old Brodeur has two seasons remaining on his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2012, so there's no reason to believe he won't be manning the cage with regularity during that stretch.

Brodeur went 45-25-6 with a 2.24 goals-against average and .916 save percentage in 77 games last season, while establishing the all-time NHL record for shutouts (110) after notching a League-leading nine. He also holds career records for victories (602), games played (1,076) and minutes played (63,520) upon totaling a League-high 4,499 minutes in 2009-10.

Lamoriello signed veteran goalie Johan Hedberg, 37, to occasionally spot Brodeur. Hedberg, who spent the previous four seasons in Atlanta and played at least 30 games in three straight seasons, becomes Brodeur's fourth backup in five seasons.

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