On opening night of this year, the Devils took on the Dallas Stars. Expectations were high for the season, as the Devils had acquired Volchenkov and Tallinder, resigned Kovalchuk, and returned most of their regulars from the year before. In other words, the Devils were considered legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. During the first period of opening night, the Devils came out on fire, scored two quick goals (and almost a third when Ilya Kovalchuk rang a shot off the post), and later blew that lead and lost in ot because of a gamble by defenseman Andy Greene. On that night, the Devils played with the following lines:
Parise, Zajac, Kovy
Elias, Arnott, Langenbrunner
Zubrus, Rolston, Clarkson
Pelley, Leblond (only dressed 11 forwards because of cap issues - Mair was practicing with team but unable to play because of this)
The Devils continued their slide into the abyss after that 4-3 Ot loss and eventually fired John Maclean on Dec. 23. At that time, the Devils were a team without an identity that was expected to finish last in the league, secure the first pick in the draft, and try again next season. After the Devils began winning consistently after 9 games under Lemaire, the team had installed many new parts that have shaped the Devils' recent success.
Against Pittsburgh March 25th (last night), the Devils played with the following lines. (bolded names are those who did not play opening night for the Devils)
Kovalchuk, Zajac, Palmieri
Rolston, Elias, Zubrus
Tedenby, Josefson, Clarkson
Mair, Steckel, Zharkov
If you are keeping track, that is a total of 8 new players the Devils played last night (and mostly every night during their recent run) that were not with the team on opening night. These players, except for Mair, who will most likely leave during the offseason, have proven themselves to be valuable. Jacques has nurtured these young pieces to play effectively at the pro-level.
Also consider that the Devils have played without Parise during this entire stretch. He brings a leadership and intensity few match and will bolster the Devils if he remains healthy/ resigns this offseason.
Do not forget about Matt Taormina also. If he returns to the form he showed at the beginning of this year, he will most likely be on the team next season. He brings an offensive flair that few Devils dmen have shown (if even for that short stretch before he was injured) in the past 5 years.
On opening night of this year, no one would have guessed that the Devils would install so many young pieces that are now valuable parts of a winning team. The Devils have shown that, despite the circumstances, these young pieces are the team's future. This would not have been possible had the Devils not sunken so far this season.