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Friday, September 22, 2006
Updated: October 2, 12:29 PM ET
New Jersey Devils season preview

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STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

Yes, the cap situation in New Jersey has cost GM Lou Lamoriello whatever head covering he might have left. But the Devils didn't win three Cup championships between 1995 and 2003 by accident. Still, it's mind-boggling that the Devils opened camp slightly over the $44 million cap -- and that was without their best player, Brian Gionta, and their best defenseman, Paul Martin, under contract. Talk about having to pull a rabbit out of the salary-cap hat. Still, the Devils might not be Cup contenders right now, but Lamoriello will find a way to ice a competitive squad, as witnessed by last year's surprise return to the Atlantic Division title. And with Claude Julien, who got short shrift in Montreal, behind the bench, the Devils will be well-prepared and difficult to play against.

Offense: Brian Gionta comes off a franchise-best 48 goals and was a plus-18, and assuming Lamoriello can find a way to get him under contract there's no reason to suggest his production will tail off, especially if he continues to play alongside former Rookie of the Year Scott Gomez, who registered a career-best 84 points. Gomez has had his ups and downs in New Jersey and at times appeared to be on the way out. But he has matured into a gifted playmaker and an important part of the fabric of the team. No one, however, is more important to team chemistry than Patrik Elias, who returned after missing more than half the season recovering from hepatitis and led the Devils from also-rans to a division title. The fact that he stayed in New Jersey instead of chasing the big money elsewhere speaks to the loyalty Lamoriello inspires and guarantees the Devils will be competitive. They will, however, need secondary scoring to come from somewhere, which means there'll be more pressure on sophomore Zach Parise, who had only 32 points as a rookie. Travis Zajac and Nicklas Bergfors will challenge for roster spots up front.

Defense: Even if Lamoriello manages to get everyone under contract, including defensemen Martin and David Hale, the Devils' defense will continue to search for ways to fill the void left by Scott Stevens' retirement and Scott Niedermayer's departure for Anaheim before the start of last season. Brian Rafalski is a horse, averaging 25:31 per night last season, and Martin is fast becoming one of the brightest young defenders in the game. But depth is a real concern given that there are no young studs on their way from Albany.

Goaltending: Martin Brodeur. Enough said. OK, Brodeur is 34, and for a time at the beginning of last season it looked like he might have started the slow decline that all elite goaltenders face. But Brodeur responded in the second half with superlative play en route to his fifth 40-win season. The problem for the Devils is that in order to get the best out of Brodeur in the new high-traffic NHL, they'll need to rely on him a little less frequently -- and there isn't anyone in the Devils' house who can even remotely be counted on to play 20 games or so.

Coaching: Claude Julien became the fall guy in Montreal when goalie Jose Theodore started to go sideways last season. Funny how GM Bob Gainey, who took over for Julien, followed Julien's plan of keeping Theodore on the bench. Julien is a nice fit for Lamoriello's disciplined team (the Devils were the NHL's least penalized team a year ago) and has enough smarts to be able to coax a little more offense out of the swamp dwellers, who were 22nd in goals scored. The Devils were the lowest-scoring team in the East to qualify for the playoffs.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
7th Despite some questions on the defensive side of the puck, the New Jersey Devils will be back in the postseason for the 10th straight NHL spring, finishing second in the Atlantic Division and seventh in the Eastern Conference.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Even
Stock even. If all goes according to plan, this will be the last season for the Devils in the swamp as they hope to move into a new rink in nearby Newark next season. That can't hurt the punky attendance that has marked the Devils' recent seasons at Continental Airlines Arena.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
The Devils regularly save their best for the season's second half. So when it comes to your team, don't give up on your Devils. Goalie Martin Brodeur wasn't hurt by the team's defensive losses a year ago, so there's little doubt he can't be a top-2 option once again. The question is whether New Jersey will break up the "EGG" line. Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez displayed remarkable chemistry, so Patrik Elias would be more likely to move to a second line. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Devils:
1. Travis Zajac, 21, C, North Dakota (WCHA)
Statline: 45 GP, 17 G, 27 A, 20 PIM
2. Nicklas Bergfors, 19, C, Albany (AHL)
Statline: 65 GP, 17 G, 23 A, 10 PIM
3. Jeff Frazee, 19, G, Minnesota (WCHA)
Statline: 6-3-2 record, 2.36 GAA, .910 SV%
4. Ari Ahonen, 25, G, Albany (AHL)
Statline: 3-13-0 record, 3.98 GAA, .892 SV%
5. Petr Vrana, 21, C, Albany (AHL)
Statline: 74 GP, 12 G, 23 A, 91 PIM
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New York Devils
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record 46-27-9 (101 points)
Division Finished first in Atlantic
Conference Finished third in East
Playoffs Second round: Lost 4-1 to Carolina

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Travis Zajac
With all due respect to second-line center Sergei Brylin, the Devils are desperate for depth down the middle. Zajac had 47 points in 46 games with North Dakota last season.
Winger: Patrik Elias
The longtime Devil was a force with 45 points in 38 games last season and should be a 100-point man this season as the Devils' undisputed leader.
Center: Zach Parise
Much was expected of the rookie from the familiar hockey family, but he'll need to get better to keep the Devils close offensively.
Defense: Colin White
Colin White. The big man (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) will never be Scott Stevens, but he is now the team's most physical presence on the back end.

Key Moves
TOP TRIO
Who knows what's up with Alexander Mogilny? The talented, enigmatic Russian was banished to Albany last season, and now there are rumors he'll retire with chronic hip problems. Then, there's Vladimir Malakhov, Lamoriello's worst mistake of last season. The big defenseman who "retired" midway through last season hasn't been seen at training camp this fall. Both players will continue to haunt Lamoriello unless the masterful GM can somehow find a way to make their combined $7.1 million salary-cap hit disappear.

SportsNation
Rating the Devils
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