By Steve Lichtenstein
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Back in the summer of 2005, Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello was unable to keep All-World defenseman Scott Niedermayer from bolting New Jersey in favor of Anaheim.
He has never been replaced.
Not that it was Lamoriello's fault, for Niedermayer took less money for the opportunity to play alongside his brother. And players with Niedermayer's marvelous skating skills are not exactly what one would find on a waiver wire.
However, while the Devils have not been able to cop that fourth Stanley Cup, Lamoriello's gift has been his ability to retool the Devils on the fly to at least keep them competitive. In his 23 seasons calling the shots, his squads have failed to qualify for the playoffs only three times.
He's done it with limited resources and with total disregard for that long shadow cast by his rivals in Manhattan. Last season had to be especially sweet, as the Devils rose from obscurity to knock off the Rangers to win the Eastern Conference before bowing to the Kings in six games in the finals.
Unfortunately, as the Devils prepare for the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign, starting Saturday night on Long Island, they'll have to overcome a similar devastating offseason departure in order to repeat.
Again, no one should blame Lamoriello for All Star winger Zach Parise's decision to take his talents to the North Beaches on Minnesota's lakes. That was as much a family matter as financial.
But there's no denying that the Devils have no way of replicating all that Parise did for them. Few players in the NHL, never mind on the Devils' depth chart, have Parise's expertise in the two-way game—he's just as instrumental when you're up a goal as when you're down by one in the final minutes. It's not just the 31 goals and 38 assists that will be sorely missed; it's his work wielding that active stick on the Devils' record-setting penalty kill. It's his remarkable adeptness at coming away with the puck in tight quarters in the dirty areas of the ice.
The Devils certainly don't get that from left-behind superstar Ilya Kovalchuk. The Devils' $100 million (minus the escrow) man is more of a perimeter guy, relying on his magic hands and powerful shot to score 37 goals in 2011-12. He also gaveth nearly as much to his opponents, with repeated mind-boggling turnovers that turned into counterattacks.
To be fair, Kovalchuk did soldier through the postseason with a painful back injury, scoring 8 goals and 19 points in 23 games. At least he starts the new season in good health and, considering his "All Star"-worthy performance in Russia's KHL, in game shape (even if he caused a few heart murmurs last week with his back-and-forth dabbling about maybe not returning to the NHL at all).
Some of the funds Lamoriello earmarked for Parise were invested on Wednesday in an extension of center Travis Zajac's contract. This one, which will create a $5.75 million cap hit for 8 years for the 27-year old, was earned by Zajac during his impressive 2012 playoff run, which cancelled out the disappointment of the last two regular seasons in which he was first ineffective and then injured.
With 2011-12 Calder Trophy finalist Adam Henrique out until February with a hand injury, the Devils need Zajac to log big minutes early in the season. There's not a whole lot of depth up the middle.
But at least Lamoriello has amassed a roster with a decent mix of war-hardened veterans (forwards Patrik Elias and Dainus Zubrus plus defensemen Marek Zidlicky and newly-sworn-in captain Bryce Salvador) to mentor players entering their primes (winger David Clarkson and defensemen Andy Greene and Mark Fayne) and some young guns (center Jacob Josefson and defenseman Adam Larsson, though I'm still waiting to see what all the fuss is about over Josefson, the 20th overall selection from the 2009 NHL Draft. He's had a tough run of luck with injuries but he's also barely noticeable when he gets on the ice, with 19 points in 69 career games. He's the Devils' wild card—if he makes The Leap, the Devils will have better odds at a winning hand.).
Lamoriello will insist that the team continue to play a gritty, fairly safe style under coach Peter DeBoer. It's his trademark, even if it means lower approval ratings from viewers.
And, despite all the turnover through the years, Lamoriello has always been able to count on one man to protect the area between the pipes, the legendary Martin Brodeur.
While some hockey fans have given up their passion following the latest labor saga, I'm sure there would have been far more who would have never forgiven the League if a lost season somehow cancelled a farewell tour for the game's greatest goaltender.
The 40-year-old Brodeur signed a two-year deal in the offseason, but who knows how long he wants to continue to put in the hours, especially if he experiences a repeat of the 2010-11 season in which the Devils fell apart upon Parise's trip to the injured reserve list?
Then again, Brodeur did rebound to have a terrific year, with his intimidating presence resulting in a 7-2 shootout record and then standing tall to win three rounds in the playoffs.
It's not unfeasible for the Devils to follow that blueprint, taking the sixth seed to face a historically-weak Southeast Division champion and avoiding the top seed until the conference finals.
I just don't see it happening in 2013. The Devils look at best like a bubble team, with a big question mark stamped on their heart. I trust that Lamoriello will find the answer, but it might take him another year.
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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