For as long as anyone can remember, the New Jersey Devils have been a competitive team.
They employed the best defensive system in the league, buoyed by one of the greatest goaltenders ever, and were able to get key offensive contributions when needed.
It's an organization that's used to success, but with Martin Brodeur entering the second to last year of his contract at age 38, a handful of players scattered into key roles 32 or better, and questions surrounding the offensive production on the blueline and outside of their prospective top line, one has to wonder if this can continue to be a complete team, or if there will be a transition period when the veterans retire.
The immediate concern is what happens after Brodeur hangs up the pads, as there is no one prepared to take his place. For the time being veteran Johan Hedberg will provide the insurance in the event of anything catastrophic.
But if you want to talk catastrophic, how about this team's current cap situation?
1) Bryce Salvador, Jamie Langenbrunner and/or Dainius Zubrus are amongst the cap casualties
Langenbrunner has already acknowledged that his impending free agency and $2.8-million cap hit mean that he might be the odd-man out. That still doesn't solve the problem though, as the Devils would still need to make another minor move just to get under the cap. Salvador has a $2.9-million cap hit, and with the way some of the younger defensemen are performing in camp, he might find his salary being sent elsewhere if the Devils have intentions of a late-season deal. And who knows what this means for camp tryout Adam Mair?
2) The Kovalchuk/Parise/Zajac line lasts a month
It's a nice experiment and immediately becomes one of the most dangerous lines in the league (if not THE most dangerous), but will the Devils be a threat offensively if that line gets shut down? That's not to discount the abilities of Langenbrunner or Jason Arnott, but I'd be much more content to shut down the top line and make the rest of the team beat me, rather than worry about one line with Kovalchuk, and another featuring Parise. Looking for offensive balance, the Devils split the line up on regular duty, but go back to it in times of need.
3) Zajak scores 75 points
Whether Zajak is paired with big-time threat Ilya Kovalchuk, the emerging and talented Zach Parise, or the whole line stays together, Zajac is in for a big year. Fifty assists is a reality, while if he benefits from Parise's playmaking and nabbing the rebounds off of Kovalchuk's shots, he could reside in the 27 or 28 goal neighborhood.
4) Despite all of this talent, New Jersey's single-season offensive records remain intact...for now
Brian Gionta's record of 48 goals, Scott Steven's 60 assists, and Patrik Elias' 96 points all remain offensive benchmarks for the team for at least this year. If I were going to peg one to fall this year, the likelihood of someone scoring 96 points is a little better than a 50-goal year.
5) Johan Hedberg plays 15 games
Seeing as 'The Moose' played over 40 games last year (47 to be exact), this would be a pretty mundane assumption. But remember, this is Martin Brodeur he's playing behind; the man who's played 70 games in every season but two since 1995-96. We always seem to say that "this will be the year his workload gets scaled back", but it's never true. This year, it happens.
Sidenote: Other than Brodeur's injury shortened season in 2008-09, there have only been a few goalies to play 10+ games behind Brodeur since 1997-98: Mike Dunham (97-98), Chris Terrari (98-99 to 2000-01), Corey Schwab (02-03), Scott Clemmensen (05-06), and Yann Danis (09-10). Of them all, Dunham was the only one to play in 15 games.
6) Brodeur wins just 38 games
It certainly speaks to Brodeur's consistency and, well, his awesomeness, that a 38-win season can be seen as insulting. But if Devils are planning on playoff success, Brodeur may need more rest, leading Hedberg past the conservative guess of 15 games. Keep in mind that New Jersey has also gotten out of the first round just twice in the past six years, and three times in the past eight. He'll also be 39 by the end of the season, so is a bit of a downward trend really that unlikely? Now that I've said that, he'll probably win 50.
7) Anssi Salmela is one of three Devils' defenders with 20 points
Based on his track record in Europe, Salmela could also be providing the big point shot as well. In his last two pro season overseas, Salmela had seasons of 11 and 16 goals, which could make him deadly on the point this year. He's struggled to find a consistent home in the NHL, splitting both of his big-league seasons between New Jersey and Atlanta, but the Devils re-acquired him for a reason. Given power play time, he could really develop this year. If he happened to score 10, he'd be the first Devil to reach double-digits since Scott Niedermayer did it in 2003-04.
And if you were wondering who the other two 20-point guys were? Last year's 37-point man Andy Greene, and newly acquired Henrik Tallinder.
8) Patrik Elias finishes with 63 points
It's hard to tell if there's a talented player that's as difficult to figure out as Elias in the NHL. He can put up 80 or 90 point in a season, or he can put up something in the range of 55-70. Last year it seemed like he was going to settle in to that range, but he wasn't healthy enough. This year he settles in once again.
9) Anton Volchenkov leads the NHL in blocked shots...with 250
Now that total may seem ridiculous, but he had a remarkable 273 the last time he led the league in that category (which was 2006-07, so no, him leading the league is not "obvious"). With a ton of offensive weaponry within the division, Volchenkov will have plenty of pucks to throw himself in front of—which he no doubt will.
10) New Jersey gives up 205 goals-against
While Volchenkov becomes a big defensive piece for this team, blocked shots don't always eliminate goals, as Andy Sutton and Dennis Seidenberg can attest to from their times with the Islanders and Panthers last year. The Devils have a system that their defenders buy in to, which has accounted for the long-term success of the team, but there's a fall off in depth and experience after the top-seven if injuries strike. Along with that there is the explosiveness up front, but with this being the most dangerous Devils team we've seen in a while offensively, it'll be interesting to see if the creativity backfires into opportunities for the opposition.
The Stretch (Remember to laugh...): New Jersey coaxes the Niedermayers to come back and join Jason Arnott and Brian Rolston as former Devils that have returned to the team. Trading for Rob though causes a pickle, as Buffalo wants Kovalchuk. New Jersey agrees, but the NHL vetoes the trade, citing that the Devils just wanted to unfairly unload Kovalchuk's contract on to another team after New Jersey just came to the conclusion that 15-year contracts are sheer lunacy. Buffalo instead settles for Salmela who'll be traded back at a later date.
Bryan Thiel is a senior writer and columnist for Hockey54.com—The Face of the Game! If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter at BryanThiel_88.