It’s really hard to figure out where to start and after the Devils were sent home in the first round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season in such disheartening and humiliating fashion, I forced myself to abide by my twenty-four hour rule before getting behind a keyboard to express my thoughts and opinions as to why and how this team sealed their fate. I can say in confidence I would have posted content that could have questioned my professionalism and sanity had I gotten something up the night the Devils lost Game Five to the Philadelphia Flyers in a 3-0 shutout in front of their “home fans”, a game where I may have seen any sports team, let alone any Devils team play such a brand of passionless and apathetic hockey, you might question the fact that those were actually professional athletes out there that did this for a living and number of years.
While I may be critical of this team at times, I consider myself a diehard Devils fan that will defend this team in avid and sometimes fanatical fashion…after this team’s recent playoff performance and arguably that of the last half of this season, it’s really hard to establish a solid defensive argument, let alone focus the finger of blame on one person or aspect in the team’s game, since it seemed their recent plummet out of contention may have been the biggest team effort we’ve seen from these Devils since the 2009 portion of the season. As of now, the Devils may as well be the laughing stalk of the hockey world. Nobody feels sorry for them, or is/should shed any pity on the players, coaches, management, and any moves this team made prior to closing on the doom that awaited them after the regular season concluded. The Devils become the first to initiate their post-season of the sixteen that reached the playoffs, and do so as a broken team, thriving with criticisms and question marks, which could hopefully make for an interesting off-season for the better.
I intended on questioning the hiring and coaching of Jacques Lemaire as I have all season, quite confident Thursday night would have been his last game as the Devil’s head coach. Whether I theorized he would be fired, resign, or reassigned within the organization, I was looking forward to the liberation of Lemaire’s strict defensive mind set he reintroduced onto the team (although he gave the offense a lot of freedom in the first half of the season, a policy that mysteriously disappeared as time passed), his constant and frustrating line juggling, and mishandling of special teams and the team’s youth crop. When Lou Lamoriello said Lemaire would be back next season, I became as disappointed as I did understanding when I considered the potential reasons why Lou didn’t have his team and Lemaire go his separate ways. First off, there’s always the possibility that owner Jeff Vanderbeek, along with Lou were against letting Lemaire go as they were reluctant to resume the coaching carousel that started when Lemaire stepped down in 1998. Next, it’s always possible Lou is grooming a long term successor (Johnny Mac? Tommy Albelien?) within the organization and figures he has a solid veteran hold the reins behind the bench until there’s a mutual realization of his readiness to inherit what may be the most difficult position to hold in any NHL organization. If this is the case, I know there’s virtually nothing we as Devils fans can do about the decision, but I think I can bite my lip and endure another season of Lemaire hockey…if you heard about Lamoriello’s jelly jar incident that supposedly transpired in the midst of a tirade at his coaches after Game Four, perhaps Lamoriello will haunt Lemaire into enforcing a more “normal” system going into next season.
As this season was the third consecutive trial the Devils started strong, struggled in the latter half, and were dismissed in the first round, I think it gave me enough time to compile a few common denominators to provide reason for this team’s inability to become a legitimate post-season force and why we may observe the same cycle from here on out unless the necessary changes are made. If you’ve read up to this point, I ask you continue to bare with me, skeptical, pessimistic, obsessive, and optimistic Devils fans and critics. Take off the pink glasses, put down the kool-aid, put your ignorances aside, and try to here me out on what I feel (although some of it may have been repetitive concerns over the past three seasons), where this team is being held back from excelling at this time of year and what should be done.
The stagnant defense…Ever since Brian Rafalski left, the Devil’s blue line lacked a puck moving anchorman, and have been unable to advance beyond the first round ever since. Right now, there should be enough proof Paul Martin is NOT the answer. While Andy Greene enjoyed a breakout season, he was streaky, inconsistent and his legitimacy remains on trial well into next year. I know Lou may choke on the words by admitting it, but since he likely lacks such a presence for his blue line in his prospect core, he needs to actually utilize the trade or yes…free agent market and provide some primary or long term stability if he thinks his team’s an asset or two from being a contender. Between Martin (if he stays), Greene, Salvador, and White, I think it’s a solid group that needs an identifiable No. 1 defenseman to spearhead the bunch. You’d be surprised how a team’s depth can increase by the addition of one player and if it hasn’t been realized this current group manning the Devil’s blue line is unable to get the job done by now, then maybe changes ought to be made in the front office before any needs on the ice are addressed.
The Brodeur factor…The fans that are convinced Marty can still do it all will shun this, and I know how repetitive of a concern it is, but if it’s taken this organization until now to realize Martin Brodeur can’t be playing 75+ games at his age, they’re either in denial their franchise face needs to turn it down a notch or two and slightly lessen his role in the regular season, or something else. People have to stop making excuses for his play in recent years, which I think signifies Brodeur may be no better than a regular season goalie at this point in his career…maybe not even that since he struggled since January (how many times did he get pulled during games?). Wearers of the pink glasses, hooked on Lou’s kool-aid will counteract this argument with his quantity of wins and shutouts and say his numbers still stellar…in the regular season, numbers that bare no meaning when the playoffs come around, and over the past three years, he’s 5-12 with a 2.86 GAA and .900 SV%. While you can say he played well against the Flyers and was hung to dry by his team, he did give up a few soft goals and you know what? If you want to maintain the reputation and title of such elite status, you have to make those big saves and take blame instead of hiding behind excuses your supporters make. I don’t care what anybody says as far as game day decisions go, but it’s all but an admitted fact Marty has more say in whether or not he starts than any recent coach, even in games he doesn’t necessarily have to play. You have to admire his passion and wanting to play every night, but his overlooking or obliviousness to its effects on the team, while he maintains the huge role he has continues to leave their solidity in net as a question mark going into the playoffs. With Lamoriello saying he’s happy with the goaltending situation, it’s uncertain how this will factor into the Devil’s chances of becoming a playoff force again with Marty remaining the No. 1 guy.
Trade deadline pickups…Does Kovalchuk count in this category? The fans that believe Lou is a perfectionist year in and out will say yes, but I’d say Kovy was more of a mid-season pickup rather than a deadline acquirement. Defensive quality has been a grave concern and factored greatly on every Devils team that went into the playoffs the past three seasons. I know you can’t get the big fish every year, but how acceptable have the additions of Bryce Salvador, Nicklas Havelid, and Martin Skoula truly been and how much did they improve the Devil’s mediocre defense corps? Why hasn’t Lou Lamoriello properly addressed strengthening his blue line at the most opportune times? Cap issues? Asking prices? Brodeur? Or was he deceived by the early Brodeur-generated regular season success that made the defense look like the core of the glory days? Lou’s recent deadline pick ups were solid depth additions, but were far from the remedy this team’s lacked, especially when you compare the defense of the past three Devils playoff teams with the defenses of the past three that sent them packing in the first round. At least for this team and last year’s I felt the Devils were fine up front, but needed a blue line addition that could make a difference. Like I already mentioned, I feel the past three seasons provided enough proof the team’s defensive core isn’t good enough to get the job done.
The veteran core…These concerns are similar to the issues on defense, but feature a broader spectrum of players. The older veterans that were involved in all three first round exits that were on the 2003 Stanley Cup team are Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner, Colin White, Jay Pandolfo, and Martin Brodeur. The older veterans that arrived subsequent to 2003 that were involved in the team’s recent playoff dysfunctions include Bryce Salvador, Paul Martin, Brian Rolston, and Danius Zubrus. I’ll just cut to the chase and ask if one of the potential issues with this team is whether or not this assembly of veteran players may be unable to reach the expectations their regular season success sets going into the playoffs. Have the glory years of Elias, White, Brodeur, Langenbrunner, and Pandolfo passed? Between the underachieving the team’s amounted and their combined salaries, you have to truly wonder if it’s time for these long time heroes of this organization to go their separate ways, but with the contracts they’re signed to, making changes is better said than done, along with deciding who should stay and go just as difficult. While I may sound repetitive, my main concern is most of these players have had big roles, whose departures could cause the team to take a step back, an unfavorable consequence of instilling potential changes of radical nature, especially if you’re one to believe the Devils are still able to contend. Between Elias, Zubrus, and Langenbrunner commonly considered in the team’s top six forwards, while Martin and White have logged big minutes on defense, their skill and energy might not have been enough to get this team where it needs to be, but the experience that could go, should we see any of these players get unloaded may play an unforeseen factor.
As you may already know, it’s been confirmed Devils head coach Jacques Lemaire has announced his retirement, opening up the Devil’s head coach slot for the second consecutive season and the third time in four years. I was informed of this as I was finishing this write up and I will post something in relation to Lemaire retiring, along with my season review of the Devils this week.