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Elias takes future forward

http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/hockey/s...99p-23850c.html

By SHERRY ROSS

DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER

Patrik Elias

Every Devil had to adjust when training camp opened. Patrik Elias just had to make more changes than anyone else.

He already had lost linemate Jason Arnott in a March 19 trade to Dallas. In July, his remaining linemate and best friend Petr Sykora was traded to Anaheim, and another player Elias counted as a friend, Bobby Holik, signed as a free agent with the rival Rangers.

The biggest move, though, was signaled when Elias, a restricted free agent, signed a new contract with the Devils on July 15. General manager Lou Lamoriello, in a break from his hardball negotiations of the past, took care of his most valuable forward before things could get too ugly.

Not only is Elias among the top left wings in the game, but his attitude and prominence on and off the ice signifies a shifting of the leadership of the two-time Stanley Cup champions to the next generation. And Elias wants to be the leader of a winner, wants to regain the feeling of the last championship.

"It was unbelievable, it was so much fun," Elias said of the 2000 Cup run. "That's the goal we have to shoot for. We have to get that feeling we had two years ago. We have some new guys here, some young guys, and the excitement is a lot bigger than it was last year."

The Devils should have enough talent to win the Eastern Conference almost by default, but that alone would fall short of what new coach Pat Burns and Elias plan for this season, which opens tomorrow night in Ottawa for the Devils.

Goaltending

Martin Brodeur is the best goalie in the East, and his status alone is enough to count the Devils among the top contenders on this coast. Corey Schwab is an able backup. Signed as a free agent during the offseason, Schwab (who started his career in the New Jersey organization) was 12-10-5 with a 2.73 GAA for Toronto last season.

Defensemen

The Devils' top six make up the top defense corps in the NHL, and maybe the best ever assembled by Lamoriello. The group is a versatile mix of physical stalwarts (Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko and Colin White) and flashy "offensemen" (Brian Rafalski, Scott Niedermayer and newcomer Oleg Tverdovksy) who can be combined into three units.

Captain Stevens, 38, has been slowed by nagging injuries throughout training camp, which may be a warning sign that this warrior will have to pace himself a little better and take a few more nights off (he has missed only five of the team's last 246 regular-season games).

Forwards

Elias figures to play on a line with Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner, the two former Dallas Stars acquired last March. The second unit is more problematic. Scott Gomez, the No.2 center, has had trouble establishing chemistry with anyone other than Brian Gionta, but the duo's lack of size could mean trouble against bigger teams, and newcomer Jeff Friesen didn't look like a good fit in preseason. When Sergei Brylin plays with the pair, though, it's a trio of mites and men.

John Madden, the 2001 Selke Trophy winner, is the Devils' top checking center. Jay Pandolfo is his regular linemate, with a revolving cast in the other wing spot. Turner Stevenson, who missed most of last season with knee surgery, and Jim McKenzie add toughness to the fourth line.

Special teams

Tverdovsky should have the most impact on the power play (ninth last season at 16.9%). And wait until the Devils get to see what Nieuwendyk can do on tip-ins and rebounds over the course of a full season.

Penalty-killing was a starting weakness for the Devils last season (83.8%, tied for 18th in the league). The personnel hasn't changed much. The effort and results will have to.

Coaching

The Devils have gone through three coaches in 28 months. Burns will be a little tougher to take down. He seems ideally suited to coach a team that will need to rely on defense, and he is capable of playing the "good cop, bad cop" role all by himself, appropriate for a former police officer.

* * *

Three Devils questions

1. Who can do the best Bobby Holik impersonation?: Holik, who signed as a free agent with the Rangers, is a unique talent and personality. The Devils won't find another one like him, and will especially miss him come playoff time.

2. Score-O, or Oh No?: Patrik Elias has led the team in both regular-season and playoff scoring for three consecutive seasons. The goals will have to come from somewhere else as well, because opposing teams will be keying on Elias, especially with linemate Petr Sykora now an exile on Disneyland's Main Street.

3. Should new coach Pat Burns buy or rent?: Robbie Ftorek, Larry Robinson and Kevin Constantine were recent victims of power struggles. Odds are that Burns wins the next one.

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