New Jersey intrigues me this season and not just because they have salary-cap issues to end all salary-cap issues - and the rest of the league is said to be watching gleefully to see how general manager Lou Lamoriello extricates himself from this one. Remember, the Devils had salary-cap issues to end all salary-cap issues coming out of the lockout too, and eventually Lamoriello found a way of pawning off Vladimir Malakhov to the San Jose Sharks, even at the cost of a first-round draft choice. If he could navigate out of that corner, he'll be able to steer around the Ilya Kovalchuk mess as well, and I'm going to predict now that it will not be at the cost of a core player either, a Jamie Langenbrunner or a Travis Zajac, someone in that category.
No, what fascinates me about the Devils is that as good as Pittsburgh is, or Washington, they may have the best top-six forwards in the NHL right now - provided you believe Jason Arnott and Patrick Elias are still capable of playing at a high level, a decade after they were primary forces in the Devils' 2000 Stanley Cup run. All that really needs to happen is that they stay healthy. On a points-per-game basis, Elias had 48 in 58 games; and when Arnott was in the Nashville Predators' line-up, he was similarly productive.
With those two, Langenbrunner - captain of the U.S. Olympic team, plus Zajac, Kovalchuk and Zach Parise, the Devils boast a formidable offensive collection of talent - and that doesn't even include David Clarkson, is one of those useful third-line guys with a nice blend of skill and belligerence (to channel the Leafs' Brian Burke, one of Lamoriello's proteges at Providence).
Lots of people thought Parise might have been miffed by the Devils' off-season moves, on the grounds that there'll be no money left to sign him next year when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. I don't see it that way. Great players like to play with other great players; and if Kovalchuk happens to be a difference-maker for the Devils this year, that will only enhance Parise's value on the open market.
Not every player is looking for 15-year terms anyway; and even if the looming presence of collective bargaining negotiations chills the free-agent market next summer, a player of Parise's stature - potential top-10 scorer, smart and skilled, U.S.-born - always gets his money. It was something we talked about last week in New York - that even up here north of the 49th parallel, the Devils were and are in the headlines on a regular basis. We had a pretty good laugh at the seeming absurdity of that - that the once dull and plodding Devils are now one of the NHL's more attractive gate attractions. Who knows? Maybe they'll even show up on NBC at some point this season and break into that Philadelphia/Detroit/Pittsburgh/Washington monopoly.
Parise made the point that the Devils are improved - not just because of Kovalchuk and his 50-goal potential, but because Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder solidify the defence. The only red flag he saw was that one and probably two players currently in the dressing room won't be around for the season opener; and nobody wants to see friends pushed out, especially when it isn't their playing abilities at issue. But no matter who goes and who survives, the Devils have a team capable of winning it all with what's left.
"We've got some good players," Parise told me, "but you know what? At the end of the day, we still got to play. We've had pretty good teams the last few years and we've underachieved. That's what it comes down to. There are so many good teams, you've got to play and you've got to play every night. It's not easy any more."