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1997-98 New Jersey Devils Team Photo - Click to View Full Size

1997-98: A Learning Experience

As the 1997-98 season dawned, it was clear again that the Devils were the team to beat in the Atlantic Division. They were once again a major threat in the Eastern Conference. It wasn’t farfetched to talk about the Stanley Cup when you talked about them either.

By the time the season ended with a disappointing opening round playoff loss to eighth-seeded Ottawa in six games, it was evident that this was just “Year Two” of what became a five-year championship plan.

“You have to hate losing,” Jay Pandolfo said. “It has to stick with you throughout the summer and into the next year. The type of guys they bring in here, most have won in the past. They know what it takes to win, and no one likes to lose. That helps when you have a bunch of guys who can’t stand losing.”

The Devils didn’t lose too much during the 1997-98 regular-season. In their fifth and final season under Jacques Lemaire, the Devils finished 48-23-11 for 107 points, first in the Atlantic Division and first in the Eastern Conference.

They were two points shy of tying the Dallas Stars for the Presidents’ Trophy. They allowed a league-low 166 goals, thanks mostly to Martin Brodeur’s incredible 1.89 goals-against average and his first of five 40-plus win seasons.

Brodeur went 43-17-8 overall, allowing only 130 goals with ten shutouts. He won the Jennings Trophy for the second straight season, and became just the third goalie in history to record back-to-back seasons with a goals-against average below 2.00.

Devils obtained Jason Arnott and Bryan Muir from Edmonton for Bill Guerin and Valeri Zelepukin.

He was an All-Star for the third time in his career.

“He showed a lot of poise, which I think is his biggest attribute right now,” former Captain Scott Stevens said of Brodeur. “If something bad happens, it slides right off. He can overcome those little things. A lot of goalies have trouble overcoming that. He’s obviously a very skilled athlete. He skates and handles the puck well. You don’t get a lot of people that athletic playing goal.”

Patrik Elias also played his first full NHL season, dressing for 74 games, recording 18 goals and 19 assists, and registering a plus-five rating.

Elias had played just 18 games over the previous two seasons and had just two goals, three assists and was a minus-four.

“I had such a blast. We had a great team, a winning team,” Elias said. “You have to have good young guys coming in and we had that. You had a chance to come in here and prove yourself. Still, those first couple of years, Jacques (Lemaire) was the type of coach who had more of a trust in the older guys. He knew what to expect from them so it was tough to prove yourself, but it was a good experience. That defensive style he preached helped us accomplish something great.”

Bobby Holik again held the team-lead for points with 65, including a team-high 29 goals. He was also a plus-23, which was second only to Randy McKay’s plus- 30. McKay also had 24 goals and 24 assists.

Scott Niedermayer had a team-high 43 assists. Doug Gilmour, who General Manager Lou Lamoriello brought in near the end of the previous season for veteran leadership, had 13 goals and 40 assists in just 63 games.

Another veteran brought in the previous season, Dave Andreychuk, finished with 14 goals and 34 assists in 75 games. Petr Sykora, the youngster who had a career-year two seasons later, had 16 goals and 20 assists in 58 games. Sykora had skated in just 19 games the season before.

“We had a good blend of guys, a good mix of offense and defense,” Pandolfo said. “These were offensive guys who were reliable defensively. That made a big difference.”

However, as the team continued to change its face from old to new, of course some of the old had to be shipped off.

John Madden signed as a free agent in June 1997.

Lamoriello traded long-time Devil John MacLean to San Jose on December 7, 1997. MacLean still remains as the Devils’ alltime leader with 347 goals and 701 points. He is second in franchise history with 354 assists.

However, roughly a month after the old left, the new came in.

This time the new was a hulking, 23-year-old center and former first-round draft pick by the Edmonton Oilers. Jason Arnott arrived via a trade on January 4, 1998. The Devils gave up Bill Guerin and Valeri Zelepukin, who each, like MacLean, started their NHL careers in New Jersey.

Arnott came to the Devils as a points-producer – he had 238 in four-plus seasons with the Oilers. He played 35 regular-season games with the Devils to close out the 1997-98 season and had 15 points. In his next three-plus seasons with the Devils, Arnott had 206 points and was a plus-58.

“He came in here and he really picked it up for us again,” Pandolfo said of Arnott, who in the next season was put on the now famous “A-line” with Elias and Sykora, a line the Devils rode to the 2000 Stanley Cup.

It was clear at the time that Arnott was brought to the Devils to help the team win right away. The Devils made good on that through the regular-season.

However, once the post-season hit, the ingredients stopped working as they had been. The Devils couldn’t cook anymore, and Ottawa knocked them out in six games, with three of their four wins coming by just one goal. The other was a 3-1 win in game six.

“It’s not a question of being ready, it’s a question of the experience,” Brodeur said to explain the Devils’ first-round exit. “It’s easy to get up and easy to get down, and it’s how you’re able to control your emotions. When you’re young and you don’t know better, you think it’s the end of the world when you’re down 2-0. The next thing you know guys are pressing in areas they shouldn’t press, and we aren’t killing penalties the way we should.”

It would become a valuable learning experience.

Dan Rosen covers high school sports and the NHL for The Record (Hackensack, N.J.). He is a regular contributor to Center Ice Magazine.

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