The devil is in the details for an ailing team. New Jersey's run as a model franchise -- one that consistently made the playoffs, stifled even the most explosive offensive teams, and could rely on goalie Martin Brodeur to clean up any mess -- was destined to end at some point. Brodeur is 41. General manager Lou Lamoriello, one of the game's most determined executives and toughest negotiators, will be 71 in October. Call it a slowdown, a transition, a rebuild or a reset. Something was due to change. But for a team that won so often by slowing the game down on the ice, this off-ice overhaul has been striking in its depth and timing.
Zach Parise wasn't just any player. He was the team captain by age 26, its star forward and two-time team MVP whose boyish maturity was something to build a franchise around. Then he took his future to Minnesota as a free agent last summer.
Brodeur isn't just a goaltender. He is the staple on the league's lists of career records. He has another year on his contract, and it will probably be his last.
Ilya Kovalchuk wasn't just a good scorer; he was the player who represented a sea change in the franchise's philosophy, a guy with a million-year, gazillion-dollar contract who flashed, dashed, scored goals and may not always have thought defense-first with an eye to the legacies of Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko. Now he's gone, too.
Oh, and how hard did Lamoriello try to prevent that from happening? Feisty Lou isn't one to take this sort of double-cross without a legal tussle. Could he have looked at those dollar signs ($77 million remaining on the 15-year deal) and decided to cut his losses without offering much resistance?
Between 1987-88 and 2009-10, New Jersey won three Stanley Cups and only missed the playoffs twice. Now, with two years away from postseason action sandwiched around a trip to the final, where do the Devils go from here?
For one, New Jersey swooped in on a trade for Cory Schneider, who was sure to be Vancouver's longtime goalie once the club parted with Roberto Luongo, or so everyone assumed. At 26, Schneider brings superb numbers (55-26-8; .927 save pct.; 2.20 GAA), if mostly as a backup, into one of the most daunting positions in all of sports. Imagine being the Bulls' shooting guard after Michael Jordan, playing shortstop in Baltimore after Cal Ripken Jr., or doing anything after Wayne Gretzky departed the premises. Schneider won't come into the starting role cold; he'll spend a year as Brodeur's teammate before assuming the No. 1 spot. The Devils already know what they hope their most important position will look like.
On July 5, the first day of free-agent signings, the Devils inked a pair of unrestricted free agent forwards: Ryane Clowe, a former Ranger and Shark, and Rusty Olesz, a former Blackhawk. During the regular season and playoffs last season, Clowe and Olesz combined for three goals, 97 penalty minutes, and a -1 rating in 48 games. Olesz showed some modest skill during his days in Florida, and Clowe will give New Jersey some Devils-like toughness and a chance to regain some scoring pop -- he scored 15 goals or more in five seasons with San Jose -- but neither will compensate for the loss of power forward David Clarkson, who may clock 140 or so minutes in the penalty box each year, but he still scored 30 goals two seasons ago.
On the same day, New Jersey also inked forward Michael Ryder to a two-year, $7 million deal. He had 35 points in 46 games with both Dallas and Montreal last season, and he was a member of Boston's Cup-winning roster in 2011. With 213 goals on his resume, he'll give New Jersey some desperately needed pop.
Had forward Patrik Elias not re-signed recently, forward Adam Henrique, 23, would be the club's only returning player who scored goals in double digits. Henrique is a proven clutch performer, having starred in his one playoff campaign. The Devils may be counting on him more and sooner than they imagined.
Defenseman Eric Gelinas will be a Devils regular very soon. Gelinas amassed 16 goals with Albany two seasons ago and last season improved defensively despite missing two months after taking a puck in the jaw. At 6-foot-4-inches and 210 pounds, Gelinas fancies himself a Chris Pronger type, but the second-round pick from 2009 still needs to get a little meaner and improve his instincts away from the puck.
Remember when Ranger Stephane Matteau beat Brodeur with a wraparound goal in Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals? Well, both players' offspring are active members of the Devils' organization. Stephane's son, Stefan Matteau, spent two months with the NHL team last season and potted his first NHL goal in 17 games of action. At 215 pounds, he isn't as quick as some other young forwards, yet with Kovalchuk's faux retirement, New Jersey has another opening on right wing, which the 19-year-old may soon fill. Matteau scraps a lot more than his dad did and has some attitude to boot. His Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team, Blainville-Boisbriand, suspended and released him during last year's playoffs when he took an undisciplined penalty and then argued with his coach.
Brodeur's goaltender son, Anthony, was New Jersey's seventh pick, 208th overall, last month. Don't expect him to match his dad. This may or may not pan out, but it's a nice nod to the family of a franchise player.
Blake Pietila won't be joining the club just yet. New Jersey's fifth-round choice in 2011 has improved during the past two years and will act as co-captain next season at Michigan Tech. In January, he won the gold medal at the World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia. Pietila scored a goal and added a shootout winner in Tuesday's scrimmage at New Jersey's rookie camp.
Defenseman Adam Larsson won't turn 21 until November, so there is time for him to develop. Optimists compare the Swedish backliner, New Jersey's top draft pick in 2011, to Nick Lidstrom, and at 6'-3" and 220 pounds, he has a good deal more size than the Red Wings legend. But so far with two goals in 102 NHL games -- and albeit, limited minutes -- Larsson has some improving to do before his trajectory can be realized.
Like Henrique, he, and his rebuilding team, will be asked to grow up quickly.