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 May 9, 2007
  

Deconstructing the Devils
Are the New Jersey Devils destined for mediocrity just as they're entering a brand new arena? TFP Columnist Greg Wyshynski explains why the Devils could be right back in the Cup hunt next season.
 

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Of all the numbers that fill an NHL box score, this is the one New Jersey Devils fans look for first; and in the team's final game – we assume – in the dank swamps of East Rutherford, that number read: "19,040."

A sellout crowd. A delicious irony.

How many triumphs under president/general manager/soon-to-be-former head coach Lou Lamoriello have occurred in front of more empty seats than cheering fans?

How many post-seasons have been overshadowed by chatter about a lack of fan support, from the threatened relocation of the team to Nashville in 1995 to the meager audiences in the Meadowlands during the Devils' two rounds of playoff action in 2007?

That all changes next year, according Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek, who recently told The Record (NJ) that the team could sell out every game next season in its new arena in Newark.

Is a New Jersey Devils season without daily concerns about fan support utterly wishful thinking? Perhaps, but there's no denying that tickets for this fall are moving faster than Zack Parise with open ice in front of him.

Parise will be back for the Devils next season, slowly blossoming into the team's brightest offensive star. Travis Zajac, his rookie linemate, has the potential to be the greatest two-way center in the franchise history. Their captain, Patrik Elias, is signed through 2013; fellow top-line winger Brian Gionta through 2009.

But as the Devils lick their wounds from a five-game defeat at the hands of the Ottawa Senators, they're not talking about who'll be back. They're talking about who won't be.

 

New Jersey has 13 unrestricted free agents on its roster, ranging from eminently expendable (and thus ends the Dan McGillis error) to two cornerstones of the team's foundation: center Scott Gomez and defenseman Brian Rafalski.

The assumption throughout the season has been that Gomez is gone. I'm not entirely convinced. Lamoriello was ready to spend more to keep Scott Niedermayer two years ago than the Ducks were offering him as a free agent; I don't expect financial defeatism will set in during this off-season either — Lou will do everything he can to keep Gomez; it will be Gomez's decision whether the Devils are offering whatever it is he desires at this point in his career.

If the kid from Alaska desires to play on the West Coast, there are limited options. The Sharks can't afford him. The Ducks can't afford him. The Canucks can't afford him. That leaves the Kings and the Coyotes, which means Gomez should be one hell of a golfer by the end of his contract.

The options are better on the East Coast. As Gomez said of the Devils after Game 5 against the Senators, "one thing about this organization is that you know you're going to have a chance to win the Stanley Cup every year."

The Philadelphia Flyers could offer him something huge if they don't land Daniel Briere. The Capitals could do the same; Gomez would have the chance to play with Alex Ovechkin, but it would be a gamble on his part that the team will make the 2-3 other moves it needs in order to vault into contention. And then there are the Rangers, who already are about $2 million under the cap and could clear nearly $7 million in cap space by letting Brendan Shanahan and Sandis Ozolinsh walk.

Scott Gomez in a Rangers' uniform...that sound you hear are the testicles of every male Devils fan shrinking to the size of Theo Fleury.

Depending on Gomez's fate, Rafalski should be re-signed. Sure, he shoots more pucks directly into the shins of defending players than any powerplay point-man in the league. But as a mobile defenseman with total commitment to the Devils' system, he's not easily replaced by any of the other free-agent options – unless Lamoriello slips Sheldon Souray some Kool-Aid and finds a way to bring the Devils draft pick back home.

Those two question marks — and the identity of the next lamb to the slaughter…er, Devils head coach — aside, the first year at the Prudential Center in Newark will hardly be the dramatic sea-change for the franchise that some assume it will be.

The NY Post, for example, did everything but stage a mock funeral for the Devils after Game 5.

"Maybe one playoff series can be won that old-fashioned way, but not two, and not in this NHL," wrote Larry Brooks, in his typical mash-up of Chicken Little hysteria and holier-than-thou sermonizing. "Since winning their last Stanley Cup in 2003, the Devils have won a total of 11 playoff games. That number wouldn't be good enough to qualify as a success in one tournament, let alone over the course of three, for this great but now fraying franchise."

"For this great, but now fraying franchise." Say it again, and let the words roll around your mouth like a rotten olive.

The Devils have been to consecutive elite eights, losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions and an Ottawa club that finally figured out that whole "just play as a team" thing for the first time since the Senators were reincorporated as an NHL franchise. The Devils were victorious in a franchise-record 49 games during a division-title winning season, and don't exactly return an expansion-level amount of talent for their first season in Newark. In other words, Larry, over three quarters of the league would kill to join that fray.

As transitions go, this off-season isn't even a significant one for New Jersey. It lacks the ego-bruising punch of that late-90s collapse that cost Jacques Lemaire his job and Doug Gilmour his last best chance at another Stanley Cup. Gomez leaving would have the least impact of the three Scotts who have left the franchise over the last three years. The demise of the New Jersey Devils is now as it was after 1998, after 2000, after 2004, after the lockout and after the loss to Carolina last post-season: premature.

Three things that need to happen to ensure that:

  1. Get thee a scoring power forward. If/when Gomez leaves, the Devils are left with two options: Move either Parise or Zajac to the top line or attempt to replace him. Since Lamoriello isn't going to break the bank for either of Buffalo's two free-agent centers, the Devils' best option is to play the young stars up the middle and surround them with the best talent available. And there's a deeper talent pool on the wing as free agents — and I'd include Dainius Zubrus on that list — than at center. Paul Kariya? Brendan Shanahan? Todd Bertuzzi? There are plenty of veteran options for the Devils.

  2. Marty Brodeur plays a maximum of 70 games. Only Brodeur knows how Brodeur is feeling. But just for laughs, the Devils should see if a few extra days off eliminates the parade of amateur-hour goals that Brodeur seems to give up in every postseason series.

  3. Revamp the reinforcements. It's time to turn the veteran supporting cast into a collection of starving youngsters. Colin White, Richard Matvichuk and Brad Lukowich on the same defense? As Larry Brooks might say, "Not in this NHL." Teams like Buffalo have set the mold, and the Devils should follow it: physical yet mobile defensemen that can play several different roles. The fourth line, meanwhile, used to be a viable unit for past Devils teams; this season, it was a place to slide Sergei Brylin down in the batting order and an excuse to play Cam Janssen. The team still needs to spot start Janssen, but the rest of the time the fourth line should be less Erik Rasmussen and Mike Rupp and more Rod Pelley and David Clarkson. Get some young grunts.

That last bullet point is vital, because if there is one fraying flaw to this Devils franchise it's that some of its veteran players need a reminder of that insatiable hunger those who have not won before bring the party.

This quote by Brodeur after Game 5 was telling: "When you start being successful it makes it hard because you start knowing too much what you need to be successful."

In other words, they're over-thinking this. It's that same mindset that got Claude Julien fired, put the Devils in salary cap hell and has their coaches matching lines in the playoffs like someone with O.C.D. matches socks. They lack the singular emotional focus of a Scott Stevens, the primal fury of a Claude Lemieux. They're like inventors with intelligence to spare, but who've lost their intellectual curiosity years ago.

The banners that hang from the rafters of the Meadowlands will be relocated to the Prudential Center. They will dangle over the ice on a sold-out opening night. They will hang in the air when the Devils clinch their next playoff berth, and when they win their next first-round series. But whether or not another conference or Stanley Cup championship banner joins them will depend on some shrewd changes in personnel and some significant changes in attitude.
 


Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com, and the Senior Editor and Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.
 

 

 

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