Well, who saw that coming?
The New Jersey Devils finished sixth in the Eastern Conference with a 48—28—6 record and 102 points. New head coach Pete DeBoer had them playing well offensively while the team's trademark defense in front of Marty Brodeur limited opponents to 209 goals, third-fewest in the East.
They topped the Florida Panthers in seven games, with a double-OT goal by rookie Adam Henrique. They upset the Philadelphia Flyers, coming off their first-round war with the Pittsburgh Penguins, in five games. Then the Devils knocked off their arch rivals, the New York Rangers, in six games on another Henrique goal — their fifth conference title in 17 years.
Leading the charge: Brodeur, who defied his age with a 2.12 GAA and matched opponents like Henrik Lundqvist and Jonathan Quick save for save.
Alas, the run ended at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings, 4-2.
And then the captain went West.
Can the New Jersey Devils withstand the loss of Zach Parise?
"Our Goalie Can Eat Your Goalie."
The Devils were in the hunt to retain Zach Parise until the final stages of his free-agent courtship, but the winger decided on birth home over his only NHL home — signing a 13-year deal worth $98 million with the Minnesota Wild, with his buddy Ryan Suter.
Also leaving the 2012 conference champs: Alexei Ponikarovsky, who signed with the Winnipeg Jets; defenseman Matt Taormina, who signed with Tampa Bay; and Eric Boulton, who left for the New York Islanders. Petr Sykora is an unrestricted free agent.
But perhaps the most significant losses for the Devils beyond Parise were on the bench: Larry Robinson, the best assistant coach in the NHL, left for the San Jose Sharks, while Adam Oates, the team's special teams guru, left to become head coach of the Washington Capitals.
Joining the Devils: Forwards Bobby Butler of the Ottawa Senators and Krys Barch of the Florida Panthers.
A little more leaving the roster than coming aboard, no question.
At forward … Parise takes 31 goals and 38 assists with him to Minnesota, leaving Ilya Kovalchuk as the team's primary offensive star. Kovy thrived under DeBoer, scoring 37 goals and 46 assists. His 19-point playoff performance while fighting through an injury was revelatory for many of his critics. Can he hit 29 power-play points without Oates there?
Henrique (51 points) and Travis Zajac (limited to 15 games due to injury) should jockey for the top center spot, unless one flips to the wing; the latter having lost Parise, his primary linemate during his tenure with the Devils, and the former trying to avoid the sophomore slump.
Anchoring the Devils' second line will be Patrik Elias (78 points), entering his 17th season with the franchise and coming off his best offensive season since 2009. He's in his walk year, as are Dainius Zubrus (44 points) and David Clarkson, coming off a brilliant 30-goal campaign under his former junior coach DeBoer.
Two players the Devils are counting on to blossom: Jacob Josefson, who has been limited by injuries during his first two NHL seasons; and Mattias Tedenby, who needs to be a hell of a lot better than one goal and a minus-15 in 43 games.
One of the driving forces behind the Devils' run to the Final was its checking line, and GM Lou Lamoriello brought all three back: Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter (5 goals in the playoffs) and Steve Bernier, whose bonehead boarding call in Game 6 against the Kings directly led to the team's demise.
On defense … Bryce Salvador earned a new contract with a remarkable 14 points in 24 playoff games and stellar defensive play. Marek Zidlicky can look solid one minute and befuddled the next, but proved to be a solid defensive partner for Salvador. At the very least, he wasn't the complete liability he was in Minnesota.
Mark Fayne built on the promise of his rookie season with a strong year, posting 17 points. That's despite losing his usual defense partner, Henrik Tallinder, to injury for all but 39 regular-season games.
Anton Volchenkov makes the most money and throws the body more than anyone on the defense. He also was terrible at times in the playoffs, while having his ice time limited. Andy Greene does all the little things right, and remains a quietly steady presence on the blue line
Adam Larsson's rookie season saw him play 65 games, hit the bench a few times and finish with 18 points in 65 games with a minus-7. At 19 years old, he looked overmatched at times but also showed flashes of the foundational defenseman the Devils drafted him to become.
Peter Harrold contributed some quality minutes in the playoff run, but this defense corps is a little crowded when everyone's healthy.
In goal … Brodeur's back for his 20th NHL season, signing a 2-year deal with the Devils after teasing that he'd look elsewhere as a free agent. Coming off a memorable playoff run, Brodeur's regular-season numbers have settled into the sub-.910 save percentage and over 2.40 GAA range. He's played under 60 games in each of the last two seasons, and Johan Hedberg is back as the Devils' other goalie.
People wondered how much Brodeur had in the tank during his playoff mastery. His answer: More than anyone previously thought. He's one player for whom a shortened season could be a benefit - hey, remember 1995?
An ode to the gentle, compassionate New Jersey Devils fan that chants "Hey, You Suck!" after their opponents score.
DeBoer found a way to integrate offense into the traditional Devils defense. The open lines of communication with his players put everyone from the veterans to the rookies at ease. He had Dan Bylsma's studious nature, with a touch of intensity. He knew exactly what this team needed throughout its run: Pushing the right buttons, playing the right lines, and taking the right psychological approach when others (like John Tortorella) teetered on the edge.
But next year will be challenge, light Parise and Robinson (especially) and Oates. Matt Shaw, Dave Barr and Devils legend/newbie coach Scott Stevens join the staff, but in the end it's on DeBoer to maintain the franchise's excellence. If he can't … well, maybe he can call in Taylor Stevens for some diversionary tactics.
Lamoriello IS the Devils. He did everything he could to retain Parise, and it didn't work. He's called the captain irreplaceable, but the fact is that Lamoriello hasn't adequately attempted to ease the offensive loss. The Devils have cap space to play with but also ownership concerns at the moment — will Lou move to fill that void? And if so, what would he move?
Kovalchuk. Already the team's primary offensive star, he'll now be looked to for more leadership in Parise's absence. He showed something special in the playoffs last season; he needs to exhibit the same mettle in the regular season.
Larsson. He wasn't quite ready for prime time last season, but he got better as the season wore on and the experience will only help in his development. He should have a significant improvement from Years 1 to 2.
Clarkson. DeBoer coached him to a 30-goal season, establishing career highs in goals and points per game average in a season that saw him play 16:22 per game. It's entirely possible that Clarkson's turned the corner and is now an elite power forward; just as it's possible he could regress.
"The Los Angeles Kings defeated the New Jersey Devils for the Stanley Cup in 2012. The end of the series featured a handshake line. Players said 'nice going'; and 'good job'; and 'congratulations'.
"But Cam Janssen didn't mean it. Cam Janssen thinks the Los Angeles Kings are obese women.
"Damn fat broads, man ... [The LA Kings are] the fat broads you just regret banging. I've been there and done that."
"Been there. Done that. And he'll do it again."
"Paid for by Dustin Penner Is Not a Broad, LLC."
The Devils had their moment last postseason as one era nears its end (Brodeur, Elias) and another's seeds were planted (Henrique, Larsson). Parise is irreplaceable, and capturing lighting in a bottle with players like Clarkson, Salvador and the checking line is going to be difficult.
Provided Brodeur doesn't break down and the team can recover some of the goals that left with Parise, the Devils will be right in the playoff mix, but there's better competition for playoff spots in the East than last season.
Making the cut, however — with three playoff teams in the division, another potential three in the Southeast and the Bruins, Senators and Sabres in the Northeast — won't be easy.
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