New Jersey Devils Preview
By Jon A. Dolezar, SI.com
After a summer spent sipping champagne out of Lord Stanley's Cup, the New Jersey Devils are ready to hit the ice and fend off all comers.
They first may have to fend off their critics who chide them for playing a boring style of hockey, but as long as they score more goals than they give up, what's the big deal about how they do it? The ring is the thing, and the Devils have three in the past nine years, thank you very much.
Some organizations get by on talent alone, but in New Jersey, the Devils rely on hard work, impeccable leadership and a time-tested system as much as the skill in the locker room. Sounds an awful lot like The Sopranos, doesn't it?
The Devils' resurgence to the top of the NHL was remarkable because a good chunk of the roster was remade within a calendar year of falling to the Avalanche in the 2001 Stanley Cup finals. Popular scoring-line players Jason Arnott, Bobby Holik and Petr Sykora were jettisoned as the team went for a speedier core of forwards.
The drive surrounding the Devils' organization starts at the top and works its way down to the worker-bee players who are asked to buy into the system.
CEO Lou Lamoriello is notoriously stern and can be paranoid about maintaining his veil of secrecy. Head coach Pat Burns can be cantankerous and hates losing more than most bench bosses. Together they remade a roster that was bounced in the first round in 2002 and turned it into a Stanley Cup champ a year later.
Lamoriello didn't even have much time to savor the Devils' Cup win before he had to turn his attention to the NHL Draft and free agency period.
"I think you enjoy everything immediately," Lamoriello said. "But then you have to put it behind you becuase you know it's not going to help you in September. Nobody is going to know what you did last year. You kind of allow yourself to get complacent if you sit around thinking about your success too much. But when winning gets old, it's time to get on the beach with a cigar."
So long as Martin Brodeur is in goal for the Devils, Lamoriello may be savoring victory cigars in June rather than retirement cigars on the beach.
Jeff Friesen, LW -- Friesen couldn't live up to the hype in San Jose or Anaheim, and his first three months in New Jersey weren't much to write home to Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan about, either.
Lamoriello has built the Devils around the philosophy of not having just one go-to guy, but even he can't deny that Friesen's impressive postseason run raised his value in the eyes of the organization.
Friesen scored just seven goals and nine assists in his first 35 games in a New Jersey uniform, and once again looked like the talent tease he was in his first two NHL stops. But he scored 16 goals and 19 assists to go along with a plus-17 rating in the final 46 games of the regular season and a seemingly new player was born.
The Bruins and Lightning did a good job keeping Friesen in check in the first two round of the playoffs, but he exploded for three game-winning goals in the Devils' seven-game triumph over the Senators in the East finals. The momentum carried through to the Stanley Cup finals, where Friesen tallied three times in the first two games, including the game-winner in Game 1. That gave him a remarkable four game-winning goals in a seven-game span, solidifying his position as a clear difference-maker on the occassionally offense-starved Devils.
Friesen credits playing alongside Joe Nieuwendyk for much of the season as a reason for his second-half and postseason surge.
"It felt great to be such a big part of the team's success," Friesen said. "Joe really saved my career in a sense, and he taught me how to work hard to be a great player."
On a team that gets criticized for not having enough offense or for playing too rigid of a system, Friesen's fleet feet and hard shot make him among the top offensive threats.
Defensive depth -- Logic dictates that the defending champs likely have fewer weak spots on their roster than other franchises, and it's really nitpicking to even criticize the Devils' depth on the blueline.
It's hard to find a group of top-four defensemen any better than Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski, Scott Stevens and Colin White, but the Devils lost the next four on the depth chart after that impressive quartet.
Gone from last year are Tommy Albelin, Ken Daneyko, Richard Smehlik and Oleg Tverdovsky, to be replaced by free-agent pickup Sean Brown and some combination of minor-league veteran Ray Giroux and youngsters David Hale, Matt DeMarchi and Paul Martin.
"Our four top defensemen get X number of minutes of ice," Lamoriello said. "These young fellows will get the same amount of minutes as the people did last year. They will have time to develop."
Martin and DeMarchi were teammates for the past three seasons at the University of Minnesota, so they know winning, too, as the the two-time defending NCAA champions. Martin has a higher offensive upside (77 assists in three years at Minnesota), but DeMarchi (473 PIM in four years at Minnesota) is bigger, tougher and more NHL ready. Both Minnesota products could be passed by Hale, whom the Devils selected with the 22nd pick in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. Hale only produced 26 points in three seasons at North Dakota, but scouts believe the 6-foot-2, 225-pounder could become a Stevens-type player.
"What we will get out of them is quality minutes every time because they are going to try to do everything to the T," Lamoriello said. "So I look at it as them making us better overall because of the enthusiasm they'll bring to the other four."
It's good to have a strong weak link when you are at the top of the heap.
Can the Devils repeat?
As long as No. 30 is healthy, there's no reason why they can't. Brodeur has inherited the mantle as the best goaltender in the world from boyhood idol Patrick Roy.
Even if the Devils don't bring back Nieuwendyk -- who they remain hopeful of re-signing -- they still have plenty of leadership and scoring. Jersey did just fine without Nieuwendyk in the Cup finals, though his presence would give Burns added depth and enable him to play John Madden and Sergei Brylin.
Madden doesn't have the scoring touch or panache to his game that Sergei Fedorov, Peter Forsberg and Mike Modano do, but Madden is emerging as a world-class two-way player. The defensive work he did in the postseason against Joe Thornton, Vincent Lecavalier and Daniel Alfredsson would make Frank Selke blush with envy, but Madden is still best as a third-line center who can shut down the opponent's top line while providing the threat of a counterattack.
New Jersey has played in the Stanley Cup finals in three of the past four seasons, but the East is still the more wide open of the two conferences so anything could happen. A team could come along like the Hurricanes did two years ago to challenge the Devils' supremacy, but New Jersey did nothing in the offseason not to deserve at least the preseason co-favorite role with Eastern Conference finalist Ottawa.
Zach Parise, C, 5-11, 185 pounds
Zach Parise may have been the Devils' dream draftee. He's fast, unselfish, he doesn't mind playing a bit of a defense and he buys into the team system.
Lamoriello didn't like the possibiliy of being pegged as an "NCAA guy", but his success in drafting and signing former college players has been ahead of his peers. Brian Gionta (Boston College), Madden (Michigan), Rafalski (Wisconsin) and Jay Pandolfo (Boston University) all are former college stars, and the Devils have spent their top pick in three of the past six years on college players.
Lamoriello went back to college hockey again this summer by selecting Parise in the first round. Many people thought Parise would go before the 17th pick, so when the skilled North Dakota center still was available at that position, Lamoriello swung a deal to move up to grab the son of 14-year NHL veteran J.P. Parise.
"He brings the total package," Lamoriello said. "He brings hockey sense, enthusiasm, a passion for the game, 100 percent effort all the time and tremendous character. We couldn't be more excited to have him in the organization. He's a prototype young Devil."
Parise will return to North Dakota for his sophomore season, but he likely will compete for a roster spot in 2004-05, assuming the NHL can avoid a work stoppage.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.