Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Cap Behind Them, Devils Set To Challenge For Cup

You just knew in your heart of hearts, the Devils would find a way out of this cap mess and get all their key players signed in time to kickoff what could be another banner season.

Now that Team President and GM Lou Lamoriello miraculously rid himself of the $7.1 million owed to Vlad Malakhov (dealt to Sharks) and Alexander Mogilny (Long Term Injury Exception) in a three day span, he was able to re-sign RFA's Brian Gionta, Paul Martin, David Hale, Erik Rasmussen and Scott Clemmensen.

The team's leading goalscorer Gionta from last season inked a three-year deal worth an average of $4 million-per-season. Meanwhile, third-year defenseman Martin will make $2 million. Rasmussen and Clemmensen each signed for $450,000 while Hale got $550,000.

All in a frantic attempt to finally meet the $44 million cap a day before the season officially begins. And with the madness of the past couple of days finally behind them, what Lamoriello has assembled is a roster which could deliver the club's fourth Stanley Cup in 12 years.

Let's take a closer look at why:

FORWARDS: With 48 goal man Gionta signed, the Devils could reunite their dynamic top unit of Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez and Gionta (EGG Line). With Elias fully healthy this time around and probably the new team captain, that should provide an immediate boost. If new coach Claude Julien opts to keep that line intact, he could roll the dice on rookie pivot Travis Zajac. The 2004 first round selection out of North Dakota impressed during preseason and made the team. A second line comprising of second-year forward Zach Parise, Zajac and right wing Jamie Langenbrunner could be possible. If that's the case, Parise will be looked upon for an increase in production. Playing primarily with Gomez and Gionta down the stretch last year, he improved significantly. Used more on the wing, the center was more effective in all facets. The checking line of Jay Pandolfo and John Madden will be getting a new linemate. Gone is vet Grant Marshall. In his place could be interchangeable forward Sergei Brylin. Only Brylin and Martin Brodeur are left from all three Cup wins. Brylin tends to fly under the radar but can be used in any facet. With Jason Wiemer out possibly for the season, Rasmussen will be back to center a grind line which includes bruising forward Cam Janssen and 2003 Game 7 hero Mike Rupp. Julien also might opt to use recently signed Dan LaCouture. Aside from dropping the gloves, LaCouture can skate better than Janssen. It could depend on the opponent how much that line is utilized.

DEFENSE: Anchored by veteran Brian Rafalski, this unit should once again be effective. Especially in Julien's familiar system which he used with Montreal. Rafalski should begin the season teamed with Brad Lukowich. Towards the end of last season, they worked well together after Lukowich replaced the injured Richard Matvichuk. Matvichuk will start the season on the injured list due to a bad back and his return is uncertain. Meanwhile, the Devils will send out a second pair of Colin White and Paul Martin to match-up against opposing top lines. The duo had solid chemistry in their first year together and will look to build on it. While White will provide physicality, the mobile Martin can jump into the play and contribute offensively. If he can improve on his 37 points (20 power play) from last season, it would be a tremdendous boost for New Jersey's blueline. Rounding out the D should be Hale and ex-Shark Jim Fahey. Fahey was part of the Malakhov deal and should be serviceable. In a bit of a surprise, Tomas Harant also made the roster over Johnny Oduya, who was optioned back to Lowell. Harant will bid for playing time.

GOALIE: The Devils might have decided to take three netminders to start the season with due to Frank Doyle's impressive preseason but only one is capable of making them an instant contender and backstopping them to another championship. That's the impact the game's best goalie Martin Brodeur has on his team. Always their most important player, the two-time Vezina and three-time Cup winner will once again be relied on heavily. In better shape than last year, look for the 34 year-old veteran to get his usual workload of 70-75 starts. Maybe Julien will even give him the odd day off and get both Doyle and Clemmensen into more than five combined games. But make no mistake about it. Any run at another Cup depends on the durable Brodeur. If he goes down, all bets are off.

COACH: A year removed from a crazy scenario which saw Lamoriello step behind the bench to rally his troops to its sixth Atlantic Division crown, the do-everything executive moved back upstairs and went back to a formula that's had success before. Bringing in a former Montreal coach. Like Jacques Lemaire, Larry Robinson and Pat Burns, Julien was the Habs' coach before being axed last season. And like his predecessors who all delivered Cups in East Rutherford, he believes in defensively responsible teams who will sacrifice to win at all costs. He's with the right organization and shouldn't have any problem getting his players to buy in. They're all about winning.

Prediction: One can look at this team two ways. They didn't really improve due to Lamoriello's hands being tied. However, a full season of Elias and a more mature Parise should pay dividends. The real key could be Zajac. If he proves ready, that could give the Devils two scoring lines and the usual reliable checking line which Madden's unit provides. Due to where they are pertaining to the cap, Lamoriello won't have much maneuverability to improve the team at the trade deadline. So, it will largely depend on the core already in place. The time is now to win another Cup. Expect another Atlantic championship and a deep postseason run.

Atlantic Division Champions
Predicted Record: 48-25-9, 105 points, 2nd overall East

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