For over a decade, the New Jersey Devils were among the NHL’s elite franchises, but their slow decline since the lockout suggests their days among the elite are over.
It wasn’t that long ago the New Jersey Devils were one of the elite franchises in the NHL.
From 1993-94 to 2003-04, the Devils advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals four times, winning three championships. No other NHL team had a better record during that period. Only the Detroit Red Wings could match that level of success during that stretch.
During that time frame, the Devils also advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals five times, were Conference champions four times, and Atlantic division champions five times.
They pioneered the defensive system known as the “neutral zone trap”, and while it was copied by almost every other NHL club, few played it as well as the Devils.
Over that period, they were led by goaltender Martin Brodeur and defensemen Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko, who played on all their Cup championship teams.
Other notable blueliners who contributed to at least one of their Cup championships included smooth-skating Brian Rafalski and rugged Colin White.
Though renowned for their defensive system, the Devils also had significant offensive firepower. For many of those seasons their forward lines included such notables as Bobby Holik, Patrik Elias, Claude Lemieux, Jason Arnott, Bill Guerin, Scott Gomez, Petr Sykora, John Madden, Alexander Mogilny, Jamie Langenbrunner, Joe Nieuwendyk, Stephane Richer and Brian Gionta.
The architect was general manager Lou Lamoriello, and few of his peers could match his savvy moves during this period, be it via trade or at the draft table.
It was via the draft Lamoriello had arguably his greatest success. Between 1990 and 2004, the Devils found, selected and groomed a significant number of players who would not only go on to lengthy NHL careers, but would play key roles in the club’s rise to dominance.
During the period, the Devils selected Brodeur (1990), Niedermayer and Brian Rolston (1991), Sergei Brylin (1992), Jay Pandolfo (1993), Elias (1994), Sykora (1995), White (1996), Gomez and Gionta (1998), Paul Martin (2000), Zach Parise (2003) and Travis Zajac (2004).
Of that group, all but Martin, Parise and Zajac played on Devils championship teams.
Lamoriello’s scouts proved adept at finding undrafted gems, which the Devils GM was only too happy to sign. Madden (1997) and Rafalski (1999) fell into that category.
In addition to strong drafting, Lamoriello also made several worthwhile trades to bolster his roster. Between 1990 and 2002, he acquired Arnott, Lemieux, Mogilny, Langenbrunner, Nieuwendyk and Stephane Richer, who were key factors in one or more of the Devils championship teams.
Lamoriello also gained a reputation as a tough negotiator with his free agents. That would usually result in his dealing away those he couldn’t reach suitable terms with, or eventually losing them to unrestricted free agency.
More often than not, however, Lamoriello always seemed to find quality replacements, either via the trade market, or his pipeline of prospects.
The Devils GM was also notorious for his coaching changes, as between 1997 and 2004, the Devils replaced their bench bosses five times. That included firing Jacques Lemaire and Larry Robinson, who had coached the Devils to their first two Stanley Cup titles.
Players and coaches could come and go, yet the Devils carried on as one of the NHL’s top teams. For a decade, they were a perennial Cup contender, overseen by one of the top general managers in the business, anchored by a handful of star players, supported by a strong secondary cast, with an almost cult-like devotion to defensive hockey.
But since the NHL lockout, the Devils have been in a slow, steady decline, bottoming out in 2010-11, when they missed the playoffs for the first time in fifteen years.
Some die-hard Devils fans might excuse that as a mere blip, similar to their performance in 1995-96, the last time they missed the post-season. They’ll point to the Devils record between 2005-06 and 2009-10, when the club topped the Atlantic division in four of those five seasons, winning no fewer than 46 games, as proof their club has not fallen out of elite status.
Sadly for those fans, they may be engaging in wishful thinking.
The 1995-96 Devils had young stars in Brodeur, Niedermayer, Holik, Sykora, and Brylin, who’d yet to reach their respective playing primes. Stevens at 31 was still in his prime, while Daneyko at 33 still has a few years left in the tank. Elias, White and Gomez were waiting in the wings, Lemieux had yet to make his return, and Arnott, Langenbrunner and Nieuwendyk had yet to be added via trade.
For the ’95-’96 Devils, the best was still yet to come. The same cannot be said for the present roster.
Despite the Devils’ solid regular season records from 2006 to 2010, they came up short in the post-season, advancing to the Conference Semi-Finals twice, and failing to advance beyond the Conference Quarter-Finals in the next three seasons.
Brodeur, the franchise goaltender, is ageing, and injuries have begun to catch up with the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer. Though only three years removed from winning his fourth Vezina trophy, it is apparent Brodeur’s best years are now well behind him.
Even if he does bounce back this coming season, Brodeur can’t play forever.This coming season is the final one of his contract, and Brodeur has hinted it could well be his last.
More worrisome is there’s no one in their system currently capable of stepping up to replace him when he finally does retire. At some point within the next couple of years, Lamoriello will have to find a replacement, and franchise goalies aren’t exactly an easy commodity to land via trade or free agency. Even then, they would have huge shoes to fill, replacing not just a superstar, but one who has set many records for goaltending excellence.
Stevens and Niedermayer, the long-time blueline anchors, both left the team in 2005, the former forced into retirement by concussion, the latter to unrestricted free agency. Daneyko, the longest-serving player in Devils history (20 seasons), retired in 2003.
Losing Stevens and Niedermayer were serious blows to the Devils defense corps, which they’ve been unable to suitably replace. Their depth was further weakened when Lamoriello failed in 2007 to re-sign Rafalski, who signed with the Detroit Red Wings, where he played in two more Cup Finals, earning another championship in 2008.
Failing to find comparable replacements via trades or the draft, Lamoriello finally turned in the summer of 2010 to free agency, inking Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, neither of whom came close in 2010-11 to suitably addressing their needs, though to be fair to Volchenkov, he spent considerable time sidelined by injury.
Elias, the Devils all-time leading scorer, is 35 and into the twilight of his career. White, for many years a reliable physical presence on the blueline, has seen his performance decline as age (33) and his style of play are taking its toll.
Gomez and Gionta were both lost to free agency in 2007 and 2009 respectively, and while it could be argued they were replaced by far better players in Parise and Zajac, management has failed to find suitable secondary scoring depth once those two were moved into more prominent offensive roles.
Put simply, most of those notable Devils drafted between 1990 and 2004 are now gone, either via trade, free agency or retirement, and Lamoriello was unable to adequately replace them.
Once considered one of the league’s top general managers, Lamoriello in recent years has faced a growing chorus of criticism.
Questions about Lamoriello’s management first arose in 2005, when he signed veteran defensemen Vladimir Malakhov and Dan McGillis to contracts, only to discover early in the ’05-’06 season they struggled to adjust to the new NHL rules favoring offense over defense.
Lamoriello was able to exploit loopholes in the collective bargaining agreement – the very one he helped negotiate for during the 2004-05 lockout – to remove Malakhov’s and McGillis’ contracts from his cap space, but his critics argued if the Devils GM had been on his game, he never would’ve signed those two in the first place.
The Devils draft record since 2000 clearly hasn’t been as strong as it was in the previous decade. While they did draft Martin, Parise and Zajac during that period, they’re the only notable talent selected during that period.
Martin, by the way, was yet another player the Devils lost to the free agent market, signing with Pittsburgh in 2010.
It’s clear the pool of young talent the Devils used to tap into to maintain their roster depth has grown shallow in recent years.
Some could argue the Devils high placement in the standings prevented them from landing top prospects. That’s true, until one realizes between 1990 and 1999, the Devils were capable of drafting well regardless of where they placed in the standings. They found talent in the first round (Brodeur, Sykora, Gomez), the second (Elias, White, Pandolfo) and third rounds (Gionta).
Of course, it remains to be seen how the Devils prospects selected since 2009 pan out, as it’s still too early to write them off, but it’s apparent this team hasn’t had the same level of success at the draft table as it once enjoyed.
Under Lamoriello’s management, the Devils traditionally avoided expensive free agency signings, but after acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk from the Atlanta Thrashers midway through the 2009-10 season, they shocked the hockey world in July 2010 by signing Kovalchuk, now an unrestricted free agent, to a 17-year, $102 million, heavily front-loaded deal.
The league however voided the contract as a circumvention of the salary cap, resulting in the Devils ultimately signing Kovalchuk to a slightly shorter (15 years), slightly less expensive ($100 million), only slightly less front-loaded deal.
Many NHL analysts were stunned by the two contracts, fuelling speculation Devils ownership, not Lamoriello, was behind this move, as it was so uncharacteristic of the usually tight-fisted GM.
It also didn’t help when Kovalchuk struggled through the first half of last season, and while his performance improved when Lemaire was hired midway through the season on a interim basis, he was clearly not the offensive force he had been in Atlanta.
Kovalchuk is far more talented than his first full season as a Devil suggests, and should regain his high-scoring ways, but it does suggest a problem both with roster depth and coaching.
Since 2005, the Devils continued to lack continuity behind the bench.
After Pat Burns was forced by cancer in 2005 to step down, there’s been several head coaching changes. Robinson and Lemaire made interim returns, and Lamoriello took a couple of spins himself behind the bench. Claude Julien only last one season, ousted some say because he clashed with several veteran Devils. Brent Sutter lasted two seasons, then bolted for Calgary. John MacLean lasted only half a season and was replaced by Lemaire for the remainder of the ’10-’11 campaign.
Lamoriello surprised many observers this summer by hiring former Florida Panthers coach Peter DeBoer, but given the Devils history of numerous coaching changes, it remains to be seen how long he’ll hold that job.
During the Devils “glory years”, their depth of talent and strict adherence to their defensive system made it possible for the club to adapt to the revolving door of head coaches. Last season suggests that is no longer the case.
Their devotion toward their defensive system was successful for a number of years, particularly between 1994-95 to 2003-04, widely considered the NHL’s “Dead Puck Era”, and even in the years since the lockout ended, when the league implemented rule to improve the offensive game, the Devils still managed to have success with their defensive game.
Ultimately, however, their lack of offensive depth proved their Achilles heel, particularly in the post-season. Between ’05-’06 and ’09-’10, the Devils never finished higher in goals-per-game than 15th, and spent four of those five seasons among the bottom third offensively.
Last season, the Devils gave up the fewest shots-against per-game (26.1), had the ninth-best per-game GAA (2.52) and the 11th best penalty kill, yet they finished dead last in goals-against per game (2.08). and 26th in shots-for per-game. Little wonder they missed the playoffs.
Granted, they played without Parise, who missed almost the entire season to injury, but it’s debatable how improved those offensive numbers would’ve been had he played.
Despite the addition of Kovalchuk and a returning Parise, the Devils still lack significant offensive punch up front, and Lamoriello still failed to find a quality puck-moving defenseman to replace the long-departed Niedermayer and Rafalski.
Looking at the Devils current roster for next season, it’s not one which favorably compares to those great Devils championship teams, and it remains to be seen if they’ll be as solid a regular season club as they were in the recent past.
For many years, critics of the Devils would predict their doom, yet thanks to their best players, pipeline of promising talent, key additions via savvy trades, and their strong defensive system, they would defy those predictions to remain among the class of the league.
But there now appears to be too many factors – frequent coaching changes, aging franchise goalie, lack of home-grown talent, inability to replace departed talent, – catching up to the Devils.
Even if they rebound and become a playoff contender next season, or over the foreseeable future, their days as one of the dominant teams in the NHL appear to be over.
It’s going to take a considerable rebuild, which will take several years to accomplish, for them to return to their once-accustomed perch amongst the NHL’s best teams.