Had Jacques Lemaire not brought this franchise their first Stanley Cup back in 1995, fans of the New Jersey Devils would have thrown a ticker-tape parade when the defensive-minded coach announced that he would be retiring after last season. Lemaire, who became legendary for instituting the neutral zone trap, a smothering defensive system, took note that the style for which he became famous was no longer relevant in the new NHL.
But even as fans sat back and complained, the Devils made their way to yet another division title, playoff appearance and recorded the most wins in their franchise history with 48. Imagine that as a coach, leading your team to their best season ever and still the fans want to boo you out of town.
So desperate for a change of style were the Devils that they did something Lou Lamoriello had never done in his twenty-plus years of being a General Manager—do something stupid. It may sound ridiculous, but any way one spins it, the Ilya Kovalchuk contract is going to bog down this team for the immediate future. Don’t believe me? Check out the roster for the Devils game against the Penguins on October 11, when they dressed only three forward lines. They did this because they had injuries and could not afford to call anyone up. The NHL even investigated it because it was against the CBA, which stated that a team cannot play unless they have a minimum amount of players.
Conveniently, higher paid players Brian Rolston and Bryce Salvador are injured, so the Devils barely escape the claws of salary cap death early on this season.
Still, it was all worth it, right? Kovalchuk, the two-time fifty goal scorer was going to put fans in the seats, set career highs, and get rid of those two evil words forever associated with New Jersey Devils hockey…defense first!
Getting back to why this move was just plain stupid (putting aside the 15 year part, that is just laughable), the Devils had 27 games last season to see what Kovalchuk would bring. The team did not experience any dramatic increase in attendance (Newark is still Newark), and the Devils were not much better with him than without him. Sure he scored a point per game while he was here, but points are not all that matter. Kovalchuk is everything the Devils have not been in their 28 year existence. He’s flashy, offensive minded, careless on defense, not a terrific teammate, and has never done anything in the playoffs (not really his fault when you consider the team he played for prior).
The best part is he loves to overstay his shifts. This is important because we can all look back at a time when the Devils rolled four lines equally, sometimes with the fourth line getting more than the first, especially if the team was winning and they went into trap mode. During the end of last season and playoffs, if the Devils had a four-minute powerplay, he would be out there the entire time and look lethargic by the time it was over. The reason why this is important is because what effect will this all have on Zach Parise?
Before Kovalchuk’s acquisition last season, Parise saw that he had only one full season in front of him before reaching restricted free agency. As this team’s franchise player, he was going to make out like a bandit, sign a long term deal, and be content with the fact that the Devils were his team. But now the Devils will never be his team, because of Kovalchuk. Just think, you were going to be the team’s go-to guy, the player everyone looks to for the clutch goal late in the game—the hero, and now, that is all gone. No matter what kind of contract he signs, he cannot out-wait Kovalchuk because of the immensity of that contract.
Other teams may recognize this and try to poach Parise next season, and given the Devils financial situation, they may not be able to retain him. Either that or Parise signs a short term deal and then bolts when he hits unrestricted free agency. Either way, I do not see Parise being on this team a four years from now. You may think that players can put aside their differences and harmoniously play together on the ice, and be friends in the locker room, but more often than not, that is not the case. After all, hockey players are people too.
So now the Devils are six games into their new era, with the gun-slinging John Maclean as their head coach. The Devils began the season playing what was probably the most fast-paced hockey in the franchise’s history, and where did it get them? They lost a close one in overtime 4-3 to Dallas on opening night, got embarrassed in Washington 7-2 causing Brodeur to get pulled, lost to Pittsburgh 3-1 when they dressed only three forward lines, tightened up for a 1-0 win in Buffalo, fell to Colorado 3-2, and last night, played well in the first period to take a 1-0 lead on the Bruins before giving up four goals in the second to lose 4-1.
The Devils are not sacrificing defense for offense here, they are simply sacrificing defense. One could excuse the poor performance on a new system, if the team was actually scoring. But they have only scored 10 goals in six games, and have allowed 21. Martin Brodeur has looked awful, and he has been the goalie of record for all six games. Backup Johan Hedburg, who relieved Brodeur in the second period of the Washington game, did not look to hot himself—he allowed a goal on the first shot he saw and gave up another one shortly after.
It is because of all this that I give John Maclean until the end of October before he is reverting the team back to their old ways. Perhaps not a trap, but a defensive minded system. Lamoriello will insist on it because I have no doubt that he was not the one behind Kovalchuk, and wants to say, “I told you so.” to Jeff Vanderbeek. Brodeur, meanwhile, will insist on it because all he cares about now are what the stats will look like on the back of his hockey card. Should one look out of place towards the end of his career, we may have a catastrophe on our hands. That and the fact that Brodeur just cannot handle the work load he normally gets. Let’s face it, the 77 games he appeared in was the Devils post-season death sentence last year, but he still was playing behind a trap defense, and did not get as much work as other goaltenders in the league. Now he is going to want to play the same number of games, but because he will now have to face scoring chances like a real goalie, he will whine until the Devils change their system.
If John Maclean does not change this Devils style back to defense in the next two weeks, he will not be coaching this team much longer.