The 2011-12 season was something of a moral victory for the New Jersey Devils. After a somewhat troubling off-season in which rumors of bankruptcy swirled around the franchise, the team that many experts predicted would miss the playoffs altogether fell just two wins short of recapturing the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2003.
Granted, New Jersey did nearly get knocked out in the first round, surviving a Game 7 overtime scare with the Florida Panthers -- but they mounted an incredible amount of momentum in dispatching of their Atlantic Division rival Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers -- two of the three teams the Devils finished behind in the ultra-competitive division. Though they finally dropped in six hard-fought contests to the red-hot Los Angeles Kings, there was a solid foundation laid for the team to build upon next season.
With new coach Peter DeBoer at the helm the Devils were as stingy as ever in allowing goals to their opponents -- yielding just 209, or the third lowest total in the Eastern Conference behind the Rangers and Boston Bruins -- but there seemed to be a bit more of a swagger to the New Jersey offensive attack than in recent years.
The Devils boasted five players with 20-or-more goals, which included three with at least 30. Ilya Kovalchuk led the way with 37, followed by departed captain Zach Parise's 31, and burgeoning power forward David Clarkson's 30. Long-time Devil Patrik Elias chipped in with 26, while winger Petr Sykora added 21.
That's the good news.
The bad news is the usual balance in scoring -- a trademark for the organization during three previous Cup-winning campaigns -- was almost non-existent during the regular season for a second consecutive year. Journeyman Dainius Zubrus scored 17 times and Calder Trophy-candidate Adam Henrique was able to notch 16 -- but after those top seven goal scorers -- no one else lit the lamp more than seven times.
Throw in the fact that New Jersey defensemen scored just a collective 13 times for the season, and it's amazing that the top players were able to continue producing with the obvious additional defensive attention they received.
The Devils did suffer some amount of bad luck along the way. Travis Zajac, one of the forwards counted on to be a regular contributor, missed all but 15 games due to a nagging Achilles tendon injury. When he returned just before the postseason began, the influence of Zajac's presence was distinctly evident. He was a catalyst for the New Jersey offense, and a healthy Zajac for the duration of the upcoming season could really help the Devils' attack.
Still, the organization's ultimate architect, Lou Lamiorello, has his work cut out for him. Kovalchuk is the lone forward who is signed to play beyond 2013-14, while just four others -- the club's entire fourth line of Ryan Carter, Steve Bernier, and Stephen Gionta, as well as tough guy Krys Barch -- are the only other forwards signed for the 2013-14 season.
The club's crease will have a familiar look to it as free agents Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg each re-signed two year deals to remain as the team's devilish duo.
Though he wasn't as dominating as several years ago Brodeur, the all-time winningest goaltender with 646 victories, bounced back from a subpar 2010-11 season to record 31 wins last year. There's no reason to believe he won't be able to log close to 60 games again this season, and Hedberg provides excellent backup when Brodeur requires a rest.
The Swedish-native posted a stellar 17-7-2 mark last season, with 2.23 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage.
Still, age may end up being a concern for the club over the long haul of a full regular season (if there is a complete regular season, that is), as Brodeur is already 40 years old and Hedberg will hit the 40 mark next spring.
As a matter of fact, the remaining Devils who were so crucial to the success of winning three Stanley Cups in a decade-long stretch are getting long in the tooth. Elias, New Jersey's all-time franchise leader in every important offensive category, turns 37 before the playoffs begin. If the club decides to re-sign him, UFA Sykora will be 36 in November.
But the revamping of the blue line over the past couple of years has been a key for the Devils continued good fortune. Gone are the days of Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Ken Daneyko, but the corps assembled by Lamoriello has gelled nicely in a short time.
Physical defensive defenseman Anton Volchenkov was brought in as a free agent during the summer of 2010, and has become the Devils top shutdown guy.
Two-way defender Marek Zidlicky was acquired just before the trade deadline from the Minnesota Wild when he was unhappy with his role on the team. His offensive flair was welcomed for a team struggling to generate any kind of scoring opportunities from the blue line, and that continued throughout the playoffs. The 35-year-old Zidlicky has one year remaining on his contract, and if he continues to have a positive impact on the club in the upcoming season, it's likely talk regarding a possible extension will commence sometime after the New Year.
After missing the entire 2010-11 campaign due to injury, Bryce Salvador had an interesting season last year in New Jersey. He played his typical defensive style and failed to score a goal while suiting up in all 82 contests. But the postseason saw a different Salvador, as he netted four playoff goals. His steady play was rewarded with a new three-year pact just before Salvador was set to test unrestricted free agency.
Perhaps the brightest ray of hope in the Devils' defensive corps are their two youngest blue liners, 19-year-old Adam Larsson and 25-year-old Mark Fayne.
Larsson stuck with the big club just months after being selected with the fourth-overall draft pick and played in 65 games, scoring twice and posting 18 points. The Swedish rookie made some mistakes that resulted in his sitting some games as a healthy scratch late in the year and postseason, but showed tremendous promise. He has size and is still developing, and with his skill set appears destined to eventually be a star player in the NHL.
Fayne was a mid-round pick in 2005 and seems to be something of a late bloomer. Following the completion of his college career at Providence and a brief stay with Albany of the AHL, he received the call to New Jersey around Thanksgiving of 2010. The team was in the midst of their worst season in decades, sitting dead last in the overall league standings. Maybe not so coincidentally, that's when the Devils turnaround began. Though their furious late run for a playoff spot came up just short, there was something to build upon heading into the 2011-12 season. Fayne was solid in his debut, racking up four goals and 14 points in 57 contests, then continued that progress last year with four goals and 17 points.
The duo looks to be building blocks among the core of the team's defense for years to come.
Andy Greene, Henrik Tallinder, and Peter Harrold round out the group, which is becoming one of the more versatile collections of rear guards in the game.
There is much work to be done in securing the future of the organization, especially at forward, and eventually in the goal crease. But as the clouds that were hanging over the franchise with the pending bankruptcy looking like they're clearing, it would seem there is no need for any panic in the Garden State.
But that's just the way things seem to go in New Jersey. Lamoriello somehow seems to always keep his teams competitive no matter what the circumstances, as evidenced by New Jersey's 12 seasons of 100-or-more points over the course of the last 15 NHL campaigns.
Expect more of the same in the upcoming season. Look for another year hovering just above the 100-point mark, for DeBoer to have the club playing an up-tempo game, and for the general manager to make improvements to his squad along the way. All the while, constructing more and more momentum from what was started last year and into the spring.
That seems to be the annual deal with the Devils.