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:
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
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
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.
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
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
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:
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
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
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.
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
is now on sale.