November 1, 2010 :: 4:35am ET
A Fine Mess
Has time passed by
an NHL icon?
LOS ANGELES, CA -- So Oliver Hardy turns
to Stan Laurel and says, "That's another fine mess you've gotten me
Seventy-seven years later, that film quote can be heard echoing
throughout the halls of the Prudential Center and is reverberating up
and down the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway.
The New Jersey Devils top the list of early season disappointments and
there's a substantial cast of characters that are culpable for the
Devils sitting in the nether regions of the NHL's Eastern Conference.
In this sad tale, every facet of the organization has skin in this
game; the executive suite, hockey operations, coaching staff and the
ultimate source, the on ice participants.
A 3-8-1 start for a team some picked to
win the Stanley Cup (I believe some of those nice folks are domiciled
at The Fourth Period) has been magnified due to the passion play
between the $100+ million man, Ilya Kovalchuk, and new head coach John
MacLean bleeds Devils' red, playing the first 15 years of his 20-year
career in New Jersey and still the franchise leader in goals, the
epitome of a company man. The genesis of the issue between employee
and boss is a common one in industry, workplace attendance.
Some say the player was late to a meeting, others say he missed it. In
the big picture, it's minutia.
Kovalchuk slyly smiled and didn't respond when he was benched for New
Jersey's tilt against Buffalo a couple weeks ago. I'd smile too if I
was asked to take the night off and make $75,000 in the process.
MacLean was a smidgen less tight lipped with his assessment, "It's
over. The issue is over, it's an internal matter."
The simultaneous move of resting future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur
the same night of the benching resulted in a 6-1 defeat; not the first
step to having MacLean mentioned in the same breath with Toe Blake or
William Scott Bowman.
So while no one inside the New Jersey organization was guilty of
throwing the player under the bus, a former teammate was happy to
drive a Greyhound through (and over) his character.
Bobby Holik spent three seasons in Atlanta as a teammate of Ilya and
while professing to liking him personally, didn't do him any favors
when talking to Hockey Night in Canada Radio recently.
"It's still something that doesn't make sense," he said. "The trade at
the deadline didn't make sense; the Devils' signing him didn't make
sense. If you want to talk about team first and everybody plays for
the team, why do you sign [a] player who's not exactly known for that?
If I want to make my team to the next level, that's not the player I'm
going to go after."
Please take Mr. Holik off the holiday card list from the Kovalchuk
You might be befuddled if you were asked
to coach 15 skaters in your third game behind the bench, too. To make
matters worse, the Devils are in the midst of a season high six-game
road trip that includes five difficult Western Conference opponents.
If the trip is a flop, could the results oriented and demanding
Lamoriello drop the hammer before the 20 game mark? If he would take a
drastic measure, he wouldn't own up to a situation he was the change
Due to injuries and salary cap issues, the Devils' resident genius, GM
and part owner Lou Lamoriello left the cupboard bare for his neophyte
coach against division and conference rival Penguins.
That's where we'll start with Mr. Lamoriello, a pillar of the NHL
(urban legend is the "L" in NHL stands for Lamoriello), but struggling
mightily in the age of capologists.
When we last left Lou, he was looking like the runner-up in the
Kovalchuk bidding at the stroke of midnight on July 1. Many thought
the Los Angeles Kings and GM Dean Lombardi were going to get the rose
from the Russian sniper but a funny thing happened on the way to the
altar hard by the Pacific shores. A pesky thing called Drew Doughty,
Wayne Simmonds and Jack Johnson's pending contracts got in the way of
Lombardi emptying the Kings' coffers, so Dean's final answer was a
little over $6 million for a decade or so. With the Kings head man
unwilling to up the ante, Kovalchuk and agent Jay Grossman decided
that 72 and sunny in December with a rising team just wasn't a good
enough inducement at those numbers.
Though most didn't believe it, the Kovalchuk crew had a Plan B. We
won't go into the machinations around the contract that was finally
banged out, those details were repeated to hockey fans ad nausea and
we'll spare you a reprise.
Given the state of the team's roster, it IS interesting that
Lamoriello continues to be queried about who made the call on the
player's signing. Last week, the GM was on Team 990 Montreal radio and
stated: "We're far past that (decision) and I'm not going to dwell on
The validity of the question stands intact due to the sticky roster
situation both GM and coach has to deal with both now and later.
My spin agrees with the consensus, this signing was solely the work of
Devils majority owner Jeff Vanderbeek, the pressure to draw fans to
the Rock was too great with this unique talent lingering in free
agency. The drama surrounding the contract issues kept the Devils in
the news for weeks during the summer and as the old saying goes, all
publicity is good publicity -- even if it means having two press
conferences announcing a signing for the same player.
If the deal was truly Lamoriello's doing, it defies logic, twice;
after all, this is the GM who once fired his PR guy for undertaking a
promotional campaign to capture a Norris Trophy nomination for a star
Lou defines old school in the 2010 NHL, but we resist the notion that
the fine mess the Devils are in is a payback to Vanderbeek for tying
up that much green in one star player. While Lou was acting under
orders, the consequence of the signing is where Lamoriello whiffed on
the puck. When the call came from the executive suite to sign
Kovalchuk on the heels of signing Anton Volchenkov and Henrik
Tallinder, there should have been sirens going off in the New Jersey
bunker that players had to be moved to make the roster manageable.
It's not like the roster looked like Kovalchuk and the Seven Dwarfs,
There's the captain, Jamie Langenbrunner, with his $2.8 million cap
hit and certainly disinterested in playing in New Jersey given his
playoff performance against the Flyers last spring.
Brian Rolston, even at 37-years old, still had gas in the tank and a
wicked shot from the point, but that $5.2 million hit, oh my. His
running mate, not on ice but in that purgatory called Long Term
Injured Reserve; Bryce Salvador had to have some interest with a hit
of less than $3 million.
Two moves and Lamoriello would have cleared the space to cover
Kovalchuk cap hit for 2010-11 (forget future years, the future is
Then Labor Day rolled around and magically or better said mystifying,
none of these assets moved. Surely something would be done in training
camp when injuries and poor performance create needs for 29 of the
So with rosters set, they dropped the puck the first week of October
with the Devils ultimately unprepared to start the season and the
results through 12 games affirm it.
Short of thinking this is the GM giving massive payback to the owner
for disrupting his master plan, the question must be raised about the
'genius' of Lamoriello.
Back in the day when there weren't $100 million deals and it was
solely about draft and developing, Lamoriello was an unquestioned
leader. As teams integrate a capologist into their management team,
perhaps the modern day NHL has morphed this genius into a savant.
There's no job listing for a capologist on the Devils website, so
maybe HR might develop one ASAP.
Those Devils supporters who think that it's far too early to think the
kingdom is crumbling, they're probably right; pound-for-pound the
Devils roster is as good as any with the exception of my pick as the
Eastern Conference representative for the Stanley Cup Finals, the
With better health and Kovalchuk delivering what he's both paid and
expected to do, New Jersey should contend for the Atlantic Division
crown and hover in the top four of the East.
For those that think the sky is falling, I'll support their claim with
two words: Zach Parise.
While not as big a name nor as dynamic player as Kovalchuk, Parise has
matched his better known teammate's point production over the last two
seasons. He's a home grown, marketable talent (by virtue of a past
feature in our magazine) who's a fan favorite (most nights you'll see
as many nine jerseys sporting 17 at the Rock).
His current cap hit is generous for his talent, a little north of $3
million, but his 2010-11 salary of $5 million makes the upcoming
summer unsettled for both the player and the organization.
At 26, Parise's still a restricted free agent and regardless of who is
agent will be, he will want comparable digits, if not term, to Ilya's.
Even if Lamoriello gets up to speed on all things salary cap, this
summer may have Devils' fans witnessing the polar opposite to this
year's scenario: the GM says 'we need him and I made cap space' but
the owner says 'we don't have the green.'
If that were to occur, the New Jersey faithful will echo those Oliver
Hardy words loud and long.
Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com. You can also visit
Dennis on Twitter.