The faded inspirational placard at the Devils' training site reads, THE NAME ON THE FRONT OF THE SWEATER IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE NAME ON THE BACK. But for New Jersey the names on the back are likely to require restitching after this season. The core of the Devils' roster, including goaltender Martin Brodeur, defenseman and captain Scott Stevens, center Doug Gilmour and underrated wing John MacLean, will be free agents next summer. As a result, a sense of urgency has settled over one of the NHL's top teams.
"We all know the situation with contracts and free agency, and so people might be saying it's now or never," says coach Jacques Lemaire. "But it may work to our advantage, since players in the last year of their contracts know they need to do well."
For now, the Devils, with canyonlike depth, are focused on regaining the Stanley Cup they won in 1995 and exorcising the demons of last season's playoffs. New Jersey, a veteran team that finished first in the Eastern Conference with 104 points in 1996-97, was bedeviled by a startling absence of firepower and discipline in the conference semifinals, when its season was ended by the Rangers. "It was disappointing," says Gilmour. "I know when we get another crack, we're going to handle the pressure better."
After a summer to stew, the Devils have returned virtually intact. Defensemen Shawn Chambers and Dave Ellett are the only significant deletions from last year's cast, and several understudies, including versatile Kevin Dean, are prepared to step in. Moreover, New Jersey has an ideal mix of veteran leadership and talented prospects—left wing Patrik Elias; former Michigan star Brendan Morrison, a center; and rugged defenseman Sheldon Souray, for example—as well as a solid counterattacking defense.
The Devils' biggest strength is between the pipes, where Brodeur is faced with the challenge of trying to improve on last season's 1.88 goals-against average. Offense, however, remains a huge concern. In 1996-97 New Jersey didn't have a 30-goal scorer, one reason its power play was among the league's most anemic. "We have to capitalize and thrive on aggressive forechecking to create more chances," says Gilmour. "We have guys capable of scoring a lot of goals."
In fact, in the Devils' first intrasquad scrimmage, Brodeur failed to stop seven shots, yet he left the ice in high spirits. "If the guys can put the puck in the net like that during the season," he said jokingly, "we ought to win the Cup for sure."