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(AP) - Reaching the Stanley Cup finals hasn't made the New Jersey Devils one of the favorites to win the NHL title in this lockout-shortened season.
Far from it.
Despite returning Ilya Kovalchuk, Martin Brodeur and much of the club that came within two games of winning its fourth Cup, the Devils have a lot of doubters heading into the 48-game regular season, which begins Saturday night against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum.
A big part of the concern is the loss of former captain Zach Parise. A 31-goal scorer last year, he returned home by signing with Minnesota as a free agent.
Not only did general manager Lou Lamoriello lose a face of the franchise, he also decided not to re-sign veteran Petr Sykora, a 21-goal scorer, and faces the prospect of starting without second-year center Adam Henrique (16 goals), who is sidelined with a thumb injury.
Indeed, the Devils have a mountain to climb in the tough Eastern Conference if they are to repeat last season's success.
Especially on offense. Lamoriello, after all, didn't sign anyone to help Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias and David Clarkson to carry the load. And don't think a 40-year-old Brodeur is going to save the team on a daily basis.
Hence, the doubt - from everywhere.
"I guess we have to prove them wrong," said Clarkson, who is coming off a career-best 30-goal season. "Zach is a huge piece to the puzzle that got us to where we did, but at end of the day, there are opportunities that happen in hockey and in sports and guys are going to get chances. You look at what Mr. Lamoriello has done here in the past, and he always finds a way to find people or make the right decisions.
"I think we will be fine. If we stick to our systems and do what we are asked, I think we will be fine."
The last time the NHL had a 48-game season, 1994-95, the Devils won their first Cup. That was a different team, though. The Devils had lost to the Rangers in seven games in the East finals the previous year and were returning a young, loaded, talented team with Brodeur in just his second true season.
The Devils are a veteran team this time around behind new captain Bryce Salvador. Their advantage is knowing what they want to do under coach Pete DeBoer heading into the sprint, but they do not have the youth the 1995 team did.
A year ago, New Jersey posted a 48-28-6 record and finished sixth in the conference with 102 points. In DeBoer's first season, the Devils beat Florida in seven games in the opening round, knocked off Philadelphia in five in the second round and ousted the Rangers in six in the conference finals.
Los Angeles then defeated New Jersey in the Stanley Cup finals, in six games.
"The challenge is to be prepared to get up to game speed and to get your structure back in place without getting injured," DeBoer said. "That's the fine line you walk with a five- or six-day camp."
Kovalchuk, who played 36 games in Russia during the lockout, is the key for New Jersey. He led the team with 37 goals and 83 points last season and looked in outstanding shape Wednesday, posting a goal and an assist in a scrimmage. He had missed the Devils' first three practices after the lockout ended because of a decision to play in the KHL All-Star game.
The Islanders expect to get defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky into their lineup at some point, they just don't know when.
The 36-year-old Visnovsky was acquired in an offseason trade from Anaheim and then spent time playing in the KHL during the lockout. He hoped a no-trade clause in his NHL contract would block his move to the Islanders, but he lost that appeal.
Then the KHL said it would honor an agreement with the NHL and forbid Visnovsky to play once the NHL resumed play.
On Friday, the Islanders suspended Visnovsky for failing to report to the team.
"Lubo has personal reasons for not reporting to the Islanders right now, all of which have absolutely nothing to do with the New York Islanders," Visnovsky's agent, Neil Sheehy, wrote in an email to The Associated Press on Monday. "We will have to see how this situation plays out."
New York (34-37-11) finished 14th in the 15-team East last season - 13 points below the postseason cutoff - but the young team is feeling good about its chances of taking a step forward.
"Every team is optimistic," said John Tavares, the fourth-year forward who led the club with 81 points last season. "I think it's trying to be consistent ... for us to be sharp."
The Islanders have missed the playoffs five straight years and six of seven. They've reached the postseason just five times in 18 seasons and haven't gotten as far as the second round since 1993.
With top prospects forward Ryan Strome and defenseman Griffin Reinhart in juniors prepping to join a young core that features Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey, the Islanders could be building a foundation that could really flourish once the club relocates to Brooklyn for the 2015-16 season.
Bailey, though, is currently suspended after sustaining an injury while playing overseas.
It's unclear which of their veteran goalies, Evgeni Nabokov or Rick DiPietro, will be in net Saturday as New York tries to end a three-game losing streak against the Devils.
Updated January 18, 2013