While if you asked most people what they thought would happen if Martin Brodeur went down last year, I think one person may have predicted them winning the division.
Then again that guy sells his toenail clippings for fifty cents down by the pier.
51-27-4, 106 points, finished third in the Eastern Conference—Lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games (First Round)
Yann Danis—G (one year/$500k), Ilkka Pikkarainen—F (Europe), and Ben Walter—F (Trade w/New York Islanders)
John Madden—F (FA), Brian Gionta—F (FA), Michael Rupp—F (FA), Scott Clemmensen—G (FA), and Kevin Weekes—G (FA)
Last season I went on record saying that the New Jersey Devils would be screwed if Martin Brodeur went down.
Well, he did and they weren't.
But simply because Scott Clemmensen was able to pull a career year out of who-knows-where doesn’t mean that the Devils are out of the woods.
Praise Pandolfo, Parise and a Little Bit of Langenbrunner
When you look at the front of the New Jersey Devils' lineup, you notice one thing.
The age certainly shines through.
With the recent resigning of Brendan Shanahan (whose 14 points in 34 games last year make him less-than intimidating), the Devils have five wingers who are 33-years-old or older.
Amongst them are Brian Rolston whose predicted "explosion" never happened last year after leaving a defense-first system (although, he was nagged by injuries), and Jay Pandolfo who dropped to just 10 points last year and experienced his worst season defensively in his career; he also saw his slimmest shorthanded ice-time per game margin since 2002-03.
Though some of the aged wonders in New Jersey are starting to slow down, some began to experience a renaissance last season. Jamie Langenbrunner had a career year, netting 69 points and finished with a career-high 29 goals, while Patrick Elias reached the 70-point/30-goal plateau for the first time since 2003-04.
A big reason for those two experiencing big years, was the youth integrated alongside them in Zach Parise.
Parise, who has long been touted as one of the best and most-intelligent players to be overlooked due to the Crosby/Ovechkin/Malkin/Kane/ect. era, he finally established himself amongst the elite last year, shattering his previous career highs.
His plus/minus improved by 17 points, he saw a 29 point increase over 2007-08, and scored 13 more goals last year. He also showed off some dazzling moves with his jaw-dropping skating ability.
While many thought the day would come, this year will be the first in a long line of those that will be defined by Parise's production.
With Parise drawing all of the attention on the top line, Travis Zajac should be able to thrive in a secondary scoring role. Blessed with a big frame and a propensity to shoot, Zajac should continue on as a 20-goal/60-point man in the NHL, with the ability to bump that up to the 65-range depending on his linemates.
One linemate that could slide well in alongside the big center is Matt Halischuk. The former Kitchener Ranger standout put up a solid debut campaign in the AHL, and even registered a point in his first NHL game.
Fellow Kitchener alum David Clarkson will also be back with the team, providing a sturdy third line presence, while Danius Zubrus will provide some scoring of his own.
In the fresh face department, most them aren't quite "fresh" as much as they were forgotten or seen infrequently.
Ilkka Pikkarainen is one of those quasi-fresh faces. Formerly property of the Devils, Pikkarainen went to the Finnish leagues for a few years where he evolved into a solid producer, netting 24 goals in his final season. While it's unlikely he has a mass impact in the NHL during his second go-around, it's still low-risk, high-reward.
Along with the Finn, Nicklas Bergfors will have another shot at the NHL come training camp, while Mattias Tedenby may get a look as well along with Tom Sestito, Bradley Snetsinger, and Michael Swift.
I Think You’ve Got a Rock-Solid Defense: "Oduya" Now?
Like those before him, Paul Martin has evolved into a defenseman that's undervalued by others, but fits perfectly in New Jersey. Over the past few years, the Minnesota native has seemed to settle in as a 30-point potential defender, while leading the team in time-on-ice last year with 24:22 per game.
The more impressive thing, is that not only is Martin settling into a role that sees him affect every end of the ice, but his shooting totals have gone up over the past few seasons, which will allow him to boost his goal totals after proving he moves the puck well.
Ranking right behind him on the depth chart is Johnny Oduya. After proving himself in 2007-08, Oduya earned his stripes and ice time in 2008-09, ranking second behind Martin in ice time and points for defenders, but potting two more goals than the Devils' leader.
An underrated commodity of his own, Oduya should continue to develop this year, offering the Devils a great duo—each of which have the right attitudes to lead this team.
With that, Colin White has even started to come out of his offensive shell a little bit, notching a seemingly unreal 17 assists (he had 19 back in 2000, but this is his highest total since then). White is a superb big-body presence that'll play through a brick wall to help his team, although, the style has led to some wear and tear on him.
From there, it's a bit of a drop off. Bryce Salvador returns to the team and while he seems to have found his footing in New Jersey over the past season and a half, there isn't much of a ceiling remaining for Salvador outside of his new found niche.
After him, the responsibilities fall to Jay Leach, Rob Davison, Mike Mottau, Cory Murphy, and Andy Greene—not necessarily your household lock-down names.
Because of that group, young defensemen like Tyler Eckford or Matthew Corrente will get some consideration from the big club at some point and a chance to strut their NHL stuff.
Marty, Marty, Marty
Martin Brodeur is a Hall-of-Fame goalie and one of the top-three goalies of all-time.
But there comes a time when every "great" must surrender his crown.
After falling victim to a strange injury last year, after taking a slapshot off of his left arm, Brodeur missed the biggest chunk of games during his career—50 games.
Because of that, many had the Devils as the savvy pick to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Finals, as a well-rested Brodeur would be dangerous.
Despite posting some amazing stats in the postseason, the man so many have come to know and love as "Marty" couldn’t help the Devils hold on—their third first round exit in the past five seasons.
At this point in his career, Brodeur shouldn't be the 75-78 game starter that he has been the past few years. It’s not that there’s any doubt that he can play that much, because the numbers and his performance clearly indicate that he can; however, it's the fact that the Devils have almost wasted their most dangerous weapon come playoff time.
Then you start to wonder if Yann Danis can afford Brodeur more time off?
Danis has put up some impressive seasons over his career (his 10-17-3 season with the Islanders last year proved that he could certainly stick), but he’s also been very inconsistent year-to-year.
If Danis can prove that he’s able to hold onto that consistency, then New Jersey may have found a replacement better than Scott Clemmensen (let’s remember that Clemmensen had played in 18 career NHL games coming in to last year) and can afford Brodeur that extra time.
If he's inconsistent or New Jersey is stubborn and continues to mount a heavy workload on Marty's shoulders, they may be in for a first round heart-wrenching exit again.
So What Does It All Mean?
Up front the Devils need some big performances out of their more established forwards, some consistency and the ability to step up from their defenders, and the same old Martin Brodeur if they're going to be successful this season.
On the bright side, they've always seemed to be able to pull it together, get those exact things, and they will once again challenge the Atlantic Division.
On the downside, the influence of Jacques Lemaire may hinder the offensive development of some of their key players.
Lemaire's style wasn’t enough to temper Marian Gaborik's offense, and nor should it slow Zach Parise’s, but gauging the rest of the team and how a slower tempo combats the up-tempo division rivals is difficult to do early on.
Third in Atlantic
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile, or you can email him at bryanthiel74@hotmail. You can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.