Monday, May 24, 2010

Devils Den

Often thought as a model franchise, (behind Detroit of course), the New Jersey Devils have made the postseason 14 times out of the past 15 seasons, travelled to 4 Stanley Cup Finals, and won the Cup 3 out of those 4 times. In that same time they've gone through 9 head coaches, including two separate stints with Larry Robinson and Jacques Lemaire, and 11 head coaches if you count General Manager Lou Lamoriello coming downstairs to get inside the glass. Four coaches in the last five seasons, once again, not including Lou stepping in for Robinson's health departure, and Claude Julien's firing before the '06-'07 postseason. And once again the Devils are looking to fill another vacancy at the head coaching position.

Pat Burns led the team from '02-'05 with a Cup in '03, before retiring from head coaching after suffering bouts of colon and liver cancer in '04 and '05 respectively. Larry Robinson then took over the reigns once again, having originally served as head coach from '00 to '02, however his second stint was short lived, citing stress and other health problems as his reasons for resigning halfway through the '05-'06 season. Insert your off-color "the Devils are killing their coach" joke here.

Friar Lou took over the team then, taking the team to the Conference Semifinals before losing to the Hurricanes who would go on to win the Cup that year. Lamoriello then hired Claude Julien to coach the following year, but canned him at the end of the regular season despite the fact the Julien had the Devils winning the Division and 2nd in the Conference. It was "the team's lack of readiness to challenge for the Stanley Cup," that led Lou to replacing Claude with none other than himself. Losing once again in the semifinals, LL hired Brent Sutter to take over as coach. Sutter kept New Jersey in the postseason, but not for long, suffering 1st round defeats in his two years as head coach. Shortly after the season was over, Sutter resigned, citing family reasons as the cause of his "homesickness." Two weeks later, it was family who hired him to take over coaching duties for the Flames.

So Jacques Lemaire once again returned to the Devils bench this past year, after resigning from his 10 year tenure with the Minnesota Wild, to guide them to yet another 1st round exit. Almost immediately following that disappointing season, Lemaire retired for what we can only assume is for good.

That's only eight years of head coaching history there folks. And the Devils are what we consider a "stable" franchise.

Lamoriello has run the Devils like a dictatorship since '87 with a firm grasp on all aspects of the franchise. His history with the club is impeccable, visiting the postseason 18 of the 20 seasons he's been in command since the team relocated to New Jersey, with three Stanley Cups to show for it. With a continuously competitive team, he's managed to draft, groom, and retain many high profile players through the system. But is it his style coupled with his selection of hard-nosed coaches that's resulted in player's (and maybe coaches too) being dissatisified with their work environment? I think the signs are starting to show now more than ever.

The first sign, if it wasn't the coaching carousel of years past, was captain Jamie Langenbrunner's silence and obvious displeasure. The media speculated that it was sparked by his assignment to the pressbox late in the season, and Jamie's quest for playing all 82 games of the season. It turned out that it wasn't just that, but it was Lemaire's attempt to try to hand Colin White the "C" that rubbed him the wrong way. White declined, but the damage had been done, as a difference of opinion between coach and captain had been brewing since Christmas. Langenbrunner was quoted after the season as saying,

“There were a few things that happened, a few issues that were tough for me to let go. I probably didn’t handle them correctly. Not all personalities completely mesh, but they are able to work together. I had no problems with the way he treated me. It was more about team issues that we would never agree on.”

Team members revealed some of those issues to be about the handling of lineup changes and more prominently the freedom given to Ilya Kovalchuk when he was brought over at the deadline from Atlanta.

Players would be told after the morning skate that they would be in the lineup that night, only to receive text messages informing them that there was a change of plans. This occurred not only in the regular season but in the postseason as well. Elliotte Friedman even mentioned it in his 30 thoughts this week,

"22) I was absolutely blown away by some of this story on the Devils by Rich Chere of the Newark Star-Ledger. Text messaging players after a game-day skate to tell them they weren't in that night? Just awful.

23) How much of a breach in protocol is that? I heard one player in this year's playoffs go crazy because he was told (last-second) he wasn't playing by the goaltending coach. I asked Garry Galley and Healy (combined 31 seasons) if this was acceptable and both said no way. An assistant coach should do it if the head man doesn't."

Text message or goaltending coach, if you don't have the balls to tell the man face-to-face than you shouldn't be taking him out of the lineup. Especially in the playoffs.

But the bigger issue seemed to be about Kovalchuk's role on the team. On a club that is all about "team" and "defense," this "individual" seemed to have precedence over the rest of the team that's had to buy-in to this system. In Rich Chere's follow up article to Lemaire's retiring, Jacques had the following to say, comparing Kovalchuk's talent with his experience with Marian Gaborik in Minnesota,

“I had the opportunity to coach Gaborik,” he explained. “I tried at the start to get Gabby to play a two-way game as good as he could play. You know what? It wasn’t working because Gaborik is an offensive player and he has to think offense pretty much 90 percent of the time he is on the ice. The 10 percent when he thinks defensively is when he is in his own zone.

“I heard people say when Kovalchuk came, ‘He’s going to make him a defensive player.’ No. These guys have to go offensive. They certainly have to be responsible at certain times, which I thought Kovy was and I thought Gaborik was. But you cannot try to change these guys’ games. That’s one thing I’ve learned in my career.

“He played different than the other guys because of his talent. I have no problem with that. He had 6-7 chances a game. You think I’m going to tell him to play defense? Come on. We’re looking to score goals here. Give me a break.

“I let him play as much as I could as long as it didn’t disturb the whole team: ‘Play the way you want, but be responsible when it’s time to come back and when it’s time to do the job in your zone.’ Which he was.”

Problem was, it did disturb the whole team. A different set of rules or standards were set aside for this dynamicaly offensive, yet defensively anemic acquisition, and the rest of the team wasn't having it, nor should they.

When word came over the wire that New Jersey was interested in Kovalchuk, I immediately shot it down thinking that 'he'll never work in that system.' I felt like an idiot after Lou landed him, but my thoughts were apparently right on. The front office wanted Kovy's goal-scoring and were willing to give him a pass for his defensive liability, which was clearly identified in Atlanta. Half of the Devils locker room was probably willing to allow it if he brought something to the offense, while the other half wasn't having any of it. Is that what Jacques meant by the 'whole' team wasn't disrupted?

In any case the Devils, or maybe just Lamoriello have a bunch of questions to answer. 'Who do we get in here to coach this team?' 'Do we continue with the present mold of coaches we have in the past and hire Ken Hitchcock?' 'Can we win it all with this type of situation in place in the post-lockout NHL, or are we asking for another implosion in the locker room?' 'Do we attempt to bring Ilya Kovalchuk back in the Fall?'

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