How do you explain a team that had the NHL's second-best regular-season record in 1997-98 but suffered a humiliating first-round postseason loss to the Senators? According to the Devils, they fell head over heels into their own neutral-zone trap. "Most of the season we'd score a goal or two and then shut down the offense and play not to lose," says center Bobby Holik. "That got us into defensive habits, and in the playoffs we didn't have the creativity to score in a tight game."
No player better exemplified the Devils' lopsided season than Holik, who led New Jersey with 29 goals but didn't light the lamp in his final 22 games, including the postseason. Holik's drought kept alive a streak in which no Devil has scored 30 or more goals since 1993-94, the first season under coach Jacques Lemaire, a proponent of the offense-numbing trap. After three straight disappointing playoff performances, Lemaire resigned in May and was replaced by assistant Robbie Ftorek. "I believe in Jacques's system," says Ftorek, "though there will be some twists to it."
Ftorek plans to allow his defensemen to rush more aggressively, and he will rely less on a checking fourth line. After losing star center Doug Gilmour to free agency, Ftorek will turn to rookie Brendan Morrison, who showed promise at the end of last season by scoring five goals in 11 regular-season games. More goals would ease the stress on netminder Martin Brodeur, who had a minuscule 1.89 goals-against average but who was fatigued by the spring after playing in 70 regular-season games.
Brodeur and the rest of the players plan to pace themselves this season. Following a blueprint perfected by the two-time defending champion Red Wings, look for the Devils to be less dominant in the regular season in hopes of being more dominant when the stakes are higher. "No matter how many points we have during the season, we start the playoffs with zero like everybody else," says Holik. "If you win the Cup, you're on top of the world. Who cares about anything else?"