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1998-99 New Jersey Devils Team Photo - Click to View Full Size

1998-99: Building Around Balance

While Jacques Lemaire was known as a veteran’s type of coach, Robbie Ftorek was known as a developer of young talent. It’s why he had so much success coaching the Devils’ minor-league affiliates in Utica and Albany.

Ftorek replaced the ultra-successful Lemaire at the start of the 1998-99 season. Ftorek’s influence is well-documented, as his fingerprints would be on the team that would capture the Devils’ second championship. The Devils still remaining from the late 1990s credit Ftorek as a key ingredient to the team’s eventual successes.

“You saw the turnaround when Jacques left,” goalie Martin Brodeur said. “Robbie really gave this organization new blood.

“Jacques wasn’t a guy who gave a lot of responsibility to the younger guys. He was a veteran coach. Robbie brought a renewed focus. A lot of what we accomplished with him translated to our success later on in 2000 when we won the Cup.

“That’s when you really saw the transition of youth coming in, and that really boosted our organization up to where it is now.”

Ftorek was an assistant under Lemaire for two seasons before taking over his first New Jersey head coaching job. He led the Utica Devils (AHL) in 1992-93 and then the Albany River Rats (AHL) from 1993-1996, winning the Calder Cup in 1995.

The Devils' "A Line" (Petr Sykora, Jason Arnott, Patrik Elias) is formed.

A slew of Devils from the 1998-99 season, including Patrik Elias, Sergei Brylin, Brad Bombardir, Kevin Dean, Denis Pederson, Petr Sykora, Jay Pandolfo, Sheldon Souray, and Krzysztof Oliwa, all played for Ftorek at some point in the minors.

They knew him. They all liked him. They all played hard for him.

“He gave me my first big opportunity here,” said Elias, now the Devils’ captain. “He really believed in me. I never thought of myself as a top guy, but he talked to me, and put me in these situations, that’s all I needed.”

The Devils went 47-24-11 for 105 points in 1998-99, finishing first in the Atlantic Division for the third straight season.

As good as they were in the first half of the season, going 23-13-5, the Devils were even better in the second half with a 24-11-6 record, including a 16-4-4 stretch over their final 24 games, which again earned them the top seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

“You have to have good young guys coming in, and we had that,” Elias said. “You had a chance to come in here and prove yourself under Ftorek.”

However, once again the Devils’ successful regular-season didn’t translate into post-season glory. For the second straight year, the Devils lost in the first round of the playoffs, this time
succumbing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games after holding a three games-to-two edge.

They won game one at home, 3-1, but dropped the next two before winning two straight by scores of 4-2 and 4-3. The Devils lost game seven at home, 4-2.

“You have to go through ups and downs, and you have to realize what it takes,” Elias said. “It’s not about just playing hard. It’s about being lucky and being healthy, too. There are a lot of things that play into being successful.”

The Devils must have learned that because it was the last playoff series they would lose until the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals.

Devils/FSNY play-by-play announcer Mike Emrick broadcasts his 2000th professional hockey game on April 3, 1999.

“It’s not a question of being ready, it’s a question of the experience,” Brodeur said. “It’s easy to get up and easy to get down, but 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.

“In 2000, we had everything under control.”

However, before they could get to 2000, the Devils’ youth had to continue passing tests along the way to hockey immortality.

Sykora led the team with 29 goals and 43 assists. His team-high 72 points proved the Devils still held the defensive philosophy instilled by Lemaire, but now the youngsters were also starting to put the puck in the net on a regular basis.

“We had a good blend of guys, a good mix of offense and defense,” Pandolfo said. “These were offensive guys that were reliable defensively.”

Bobby Holik finished second on the team with 37 assists and 64 points. His 27 goals were also tied for second with Jason Arnott, who added 27 assists.

In his second full campaign, Elias continued his development with a 50-point season, notching 17 goals and 33 assists. Brendan Morrison, who was not around when the Devils made their 2000 run – he and Pederson were dealt for Alexander Mogilny on March 14, 2000 – registered a modest 13 goals and 33 assists.

John Madden also made his Devils’ debut, appearing in four games.

Brodeur again had a marvelous season, allowing 160 goals for a 2.29 goals-against average. He was 39-21-10. Scott Stevens was a plus-29. Ken Daneyko was a plus-27. Scott Niedermayer was a plus-26.

“We weren’t built around the 100-point guy, or a couple of gun-slingers, like a lot of teams were,” Daneyko said. “We were built around balance, and that was so important for us. That’s what wins Cups, not just a couple of star players."

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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