When rookie right wing Nicklas Bergfors came to the Devils' training camp a year ago, he saw a lineup that was pretty much set with veterans. There was only one spot open for a young forward and that went to Petr Vrana, mostly because Vrana could not be sent down withough clearing waviers.
Bergfors knows that picture has changed, however, after the off-season departure of veterans such as Brian Gionta, Mike Rupp. John Madden and Bobby Holik. Vrana, who was sent down after playing only 16 NHL games last season, is gone too after choosing to sign to play in the Czech Republic this season instead.
"It was kind of a full team last year," he said. "I saw they had 12 forwards from the start. You always go into a camp that you want to make it and play at your best, but I honestly didn't see any spots (available) last year. I know there's a few this year. That's a better feeling going into the camp."
That the Devils didn't sign any significant players to fill the vacancies -- other than 2002 seventhr-round pick Ilkka Pikkarainen -- appears to be a sign that the team has left an opening for Bergfors to make the team.
"That's what I'm hoping for," he said. "There's spots right now in camp. I see that as they want to give the young players a chance and it seems like I'm going to be one of them to take that chance."
There also has been focus on Bergfors entering camp the last two years because of his status as the team's 2005 first-round pick and the progress he has made in the minors. He made the team in camp two years ago, but was suffered a shoulder injury in the season opener in Tampa Bay and didn't play in the NHL again that season. After a minor groin strain and a veteran-laden roster kept him from making the team last season, injuries helped him get in eight NHL games. He had one goal and one assist.
So, this camp is just the latest big one for him.
"I take it year by year, but right now I'm here and it's a big camp for me," he said.
The last two seasons, Brent Sutter was the Devils' head coach. This season, Jacques Lemaire is head coach. Bergfors doesn't think the coaching change changes anything for him.
"Not really," he said. "I haven't really been up here for a long time (in terms of games). Camp is different. I've heard good stuff about Jacques."
Bergfors, who was unable to attend the team's rookie camp in July because of what he called "personal" reasons, said he's trying not to think about there being pressure on him to make the team.
"I try to get that away from me," he said. "Go out and have fun and focus on what I'm going do and not what other people want me to do."
Bergfors said he is no longer concerned about the shoulder injury he suffered two years ago, "but I know it's there." -- meaning he still has to take care of himself physically. He said the groin injury he had last year was "nothing."
He had a bounceback season in Lowell in 2008-09, putting up a team-high 22 goals and 29 assists in 66 AHL games, after having just 12 goals and 15 assists in the same number of games the previous season.
"I felt better last year," he said. "I had bigger offensive goals and it worked out good. I finally got back to doing stuff that I was drafted to do. I felt it was a modest step in my offensive play."
Bergfors wouldn't say that Vrana's decision to play in Europe this year was a positive for him.
"We've been good friends," Bergfors said. "After (the way) his season turned out last year, he had bad luck with his injury (a broken leg). You lose a lot of good players all the time, but there are good players coming in. I wish him good luck."
Bergfors wouldn't discuss whether he'd end up going back to Europe some day if things don't pan out for him soon in New Jersey.
"I don't know about that, yet." he said. "Right now, it's all about making the team. I know there are some spots open, so it will be a good test. I've got take that and not think about something else."
I asked Bergfors what he thought about the team drafting Swedish players -- Mattias Tedenby and Jacob Josefson -- with its first-round draft picks in 2008 and 2009.
"We're good people," he joked.
"They're good players," Bergfors said. "Sweden had really good years the last three years with the draft. I've seen (Tedenby) on TV. Josefson I haven't seen, but I know they're good players. It doesn't matter what country they are from."
Bergfors did not want to discuss his "personal" reasons for not attending the rookie camp in July, but did say it was not a death in his family -- as some had speculated.
Defenseman Harry Young, the Devils' eighth choice in 2008, will be attending his second camp with the team. Young, who captained Windsor to the Memorial Cup last season, is eligible to return to junior for one more season as an overage player, but is also eligible to play in Lowell or Trenton if he is signed. He said this morning, however, that has he yet to sign a contract.
Some of the top players in the NHL were scheduled to be at Prudential Center's practice rink today for a photo shoot for TSN in Canada. The group inlcudes two-time Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin, Chris Pronger, Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara, Patrick Kane, Jeff Carter and former Devil Scott Gomez.