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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 into."

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.

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 clan, thanks.

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 agent for.

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 it."

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 defenseman.

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, either.

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 now).

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 other teams.

Try again.

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 Penguins.

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.


 

 

Archives:
Oct. 07, 2010 Two Bucks on Canucks
Aug. 07, 2010 The Day the NHL stood still
Jul. 08, 2010 The Crown with Big Time Thorns
May 27, 2010 The Crown Jewel
Apr. 22, 2010 The ME in Team
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