Sitting here a day later after the Devils' disgraceful playoff performance in front of a sold out crowd I'm struck with one primary thought - that despite the high expectations and talent level on the Devils this kind of crash and burn was somehow inevitable. Through a second half of the season where the team was under .500 and played lifeless far too often, all I heard from fellow Devil fans was that the regular season doesn't matter, we'll turn it on in the playoffs. Well the regular season doesn't matter and it does...it matters when it shows there's a larger problem at work here. Struggling for as long as the Devils have can't be ignored no matter what part of the season it comes.
So now here we sit, with the Devils' fourth straight season ending on home ice, each loss seemingly worse than the last. Five of the last six years the Devils have lost playoff series 4-1, four of them in the first round including the last three, all ending at the Rock. Home-ice which we worked hard for much of the season to attain got crapped on once again. Ten playoff games at the Prudential Center, all sellouts - and the team is 3-7 in those games. Absolutely disgraceful. 2008 was bad enough with Ranger fans taking over the arena and celebrating the Sean Avery and Scott Gomez-led Rangers beating us in five games. Last year was an absolute nightmare with what happened in the last eighty seconds and a comatose train ride home.
This year however, was even worse in the respect that the Devils completely embarassed themselves as a team from top to bottom. At least last year the team didn't quit in the end (merely choked in spectacular fashion), and even in 2008 they managed a final, futile stand in Game 5 before John Madden's missed penalty shot in the third period sealed our fate against the Rangers. In this series and far too often down the stretch this team didn't come to play at all. On the Devils' 1995 Stanley Cup championship highlight video one segment I remember well was after our Game 3 blowout of Detroit that essentially sealed the cup, then-Wings coach Scotty Bowman famously took his team to task in the postgame:
'I was embarassed actually, and humilated. I told them we didn't compete and they wanted it a lot more, there's no question about it. I told them some of 'em don't even need a shower, that's the way I feel'.
Basically that encapsulates my feelings perfectly after the Devils' loss last night and about this whole series in general, really about this team's second half as a whole for the most part. It's just too bad there aren't any people in this locker room that will express that sentiment, maybe what happened could have been avoided if bad habits had been addressed from the beginning.
As a fan who watched at least 85-90% of the games this year and attended thirty-two games in person (one preseason, three playoffs and 28 regular season) I felt cheated by this team down the stretch. When you go to sporting events, you're certainly not guaranteed a winning product, even with an organization where the bar's been set high over the last fifteen years. However when fans in many cases pay good money for tickets, you should be entitled to at least an honest effort. We didn't get that from the Devils, certainly not in Game 5 where the team - with few exceptions - laid down and died from minute one to minute sixty.
This isn't just about the fans though, even though we sold out every playoff game and many games down the stretch only to watch an underachieving team time and again, we're not the only ones who were disrespected last night. You think GM Lou Lamoriello was happy with last night's so-called 'effort'? He had a surprisingly out-of-character locker room outburst after Game 4 and his team responded in the most dreadful fashion possible two nights later. How about owner Jeff Vanderbeek, who has been hands-on with marketing and fan interaction yet completely hands-off and supportive when it comes to the hockey operations? In other words, he's everything you would want an owner to be but these early exits are costing him millions and leading to an increasingly jaded fanbase.
These players also disgraced former alums like Ken Daneyko and Chico Resch who were in the house last night working for FSNY (not to mention Scott Stevens and Chris Terreri, part of the coaching staff), and really the uniform as a whole. Among the twenty players who dressed last night and twenty-two in the series I can honestly say I only saw a consistent effort out of three - Martin Brodeur, Danius Zubrus and Andy Greene. Maybe Zach Parise too but it was hard to tell since he was rendered invisible by Chris Pronger in the head-to-head matchup. Even Ilya Kovalchuk - who guaranteed victory last night and led the team in points this series - didn't show up at all in Game 5.
Everyone else can either run suicides from now till next training camp or take a hike. While we talk about losing not being acceptable and there being a higher standard in terms of winning, lack of effort shouldn't be acceptable in any NHL uniform. To think, last night I actually thought the team would make a stand. Even after all the nonsense of the last few months, I figured at least Lamoriello's tantrum might light a fire in them long enough to avoid getting shamed at home yet again (not to mention the Flyers missing key forwards Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne) but within the first five minutes everyone in the building knew this was an embarassment in the making...even the team themselves. Drooped heads, lack of emotion, mental mistakes - these are all the signs of a team that's packed it in and going through the motions.
I would even say they disrespected coach Jacques Lemaire except for one thing - I honestly don't know how much Lemaire cared either. Clearly we weren't going to get leadership or accountability from our so-called captain Jamie Langenbrunner or just about anyone else on this roster save Brodeur. We needed someone to step in and hold these players accountable and Lemaire never did this, always being an apologist whenever the team had another mail-in game, whether it was being tired or saying we played well when we didn't and that things would turn around without doing anything towards that end. Well, nothing other than changing the lines yet again after every five minutes and never letting anyone stay together long enough to get chemistry before another change for change's sake.
Even after he and the coaches got an earful from Lamoriello in the Game 4 aftermath, nothing changed. Lemaire's shocking move to experiment with Colin White in front on the power play for most of Game 5 seemed almost like a dare to the GM to fire him. I mean really, it's one thing to go the heck with it and put White or Andrew Peters in front for a day or two in January just to see what happens but come on now, use some common sense here. You'd have just as much chance getting a goal with a sumo wrestler standing in front. Putting Whitey in front of the net on the power play in a playoff game is just ridiculous.
Especially when there are far better candidates to stand in front of the net like Zubrus - who was in front both times when Brian Rolston suprisingly scored twice on the power play in Game 3. Or Parise, who the coach never ever ever sent to the front of the net despite the fact 98% of his goals come from there, he's got the best hands on the team and was utilized that way for Team USA in the Olympics with great effect. For a coach that had always been good with special teams in Minnesota, the team's shocking power play shutdown was a big reason for this team's el foldo from mid-January on, culminating in our 4-32 performance on the PP during the series to go along with a subpar PK as well.
Are there deficiencies on this team talentwise? Sure, I mean despite the fact we won the Jennings Trophy you're just not going anywhere in the playoffs when Greene and White are your best d-men and Paul Martin basically loses an entire season due to injury, unless you have good goaltending and lean on a talented core of forwards a la the Canes of '06 or Pens last year. And we never were able to produce a second-line center that could win faceoffs but we've lacked that for years. Trading for Kovalchuk basically drained our expendable assets to gain either and despite his point-per-game pace he had soft numbers in the playoffs. One empty-net goal, one five-on-three goal and some secondary assists don't convince me that this guy's worth the mega-contract he'll surely get from somewhere.
Still, every team in this cap era has holes. Talentwise this Devil team should still have been the best at least since the '00-01 team (exempting the '03 team which won a Stanley Cup on defense, goaltending and heart but certainly wouldn't be confused with the Red Army team talentwise) and all 'best on paper' got us was another ignominious first-round exit with opposition fans cheering. With Kovalchuk and Martin both UFA this offseason and players like Brodeur getting older, the window might already be slamming shut on this team being a true Stanley Cup contender.
Where to go from here? Well Lemaire out the door would have been my first move but apparently it isn't Lou's as he's already announced Lemaire will be back. Unless this is just a face-saving move to let Jacques retire on his own later in the spring...let's just say this is not a good start. And as far as holding the players accountable, as much as I want to see heads under the guillotine that might be difficult considering a couple of key offenders (Langenbrunner and Rolston) both have no-trade clauses and will be difficult to move, especially Rolston who's signed for another two years although you could at least punish Langs in one respect, by stripping the C. Even my boy Patrik Elias was completely invisible the last two postseasons but I don't see him going anywhere either, not with three years left on a big-money deal and a no-movement clause.
Really there should be few untouchables. Other than Parise and Brodeur, who should be allowed to retire a Devil if he wants, there better not be any sacred cows anymore and Lou can't let loyalty override his head - which he has in recent years. Granted, it would be difficult to move Travis Zajac considering he's our only legit center or let Martin walk since our D's already suspect but it's not like either distinguished himself in these last few postseasons and Martin will probably be overpaid, as most UFA d-men are.
Maybe you can stash Jay Pandolfo in the minors since he's on his last year and isn't playing anyway, that'll help a little with cap relief but deciding what to do with Kovalchuk and Martin will be key. I wouldn't keep Kovalchuk, he's not going to take a hometown discount at this point anyway. He might have, if he still believed this was a winning organization but I don't think he'll drink the Kool-Aid anymore after yet another Devil crash and burn. Martin I would keep, unless the price got too exhorbitant for too long. Then it might be time to move the page and insert both prospects Matt Corrente and Tyler Eckford into the lineup full-time next year.
Our most important RFA is David Clarkson, who looked out of sorts after coming back from injury but I do believe he'll have a bounceback next year so long as he doesn't let taking a late penalty in Game 3 (which was a tacky call anyway) get to him the way he did in this series. If you can convince Rolston or Langenbrunner to waive their no-trade and move them, that'll help more with cap space and maybe clear room for another kid from Lowell such as Nick Palmeiri. It would be too bad if it came to that for Jamie, who had been a good Devil for many years until just after the Olympics this year when something snapped and he became a me-first prima donna floater. You just can't have that from anyone, much less your captain.
Other possible departures include UFA's Rob Niedermayer and Dean McAmmond and defenseman Mike Mottau. If McAmmond's a thirteenth forward (like he should have been this year) he can stay maybe, but other than that I really don't want any of the above back. After a good couple years as a Devil, Mottau wore out his welcome this year although unlike the rest of the team he was actually bad before the Olympics and improved thereafter. Still, there shouldn't be any room on a true contender for a thirty plus year old defenseman who doesn't play physical or move the puck, and has no foot speed. And Rob inherited the family trait of expending half-effort but unfortunately doesn't have Scott's talent to get away with it.
It's way too early for me to speculate who we should sign in case we do have any cap space when all's said and done to chase after the UFA class of 2010, I'd rather not look at a FA list until just before July 1. However if Lemaire is replaced as coach it would behoove us to get the transition underway before that point so any prospective UFA's know who they're playing for. I would consider two names at this point - Mike Haviland, an assistant for Chicago who has experience coaching in the minors, including an ECHL team in Jersey. Haviland was supposedly a finalist for the job last year before Lemaire agreed to come and is more in line with the up-tempo philosophy you need in this new NHL. Lowell coach John MacLean would be the other candidate I'd consider, given the job he did for our minor league team this year getting them to the playoffs in spite of the big club taking their players due to the early-season injury spree. Not to mention the experience he already has as the psuedo-coach in '06 and '07 while Lamoriello was running the ship.
I'm still not of the mindset to even discuss replacing Lou as the GM (only one guy can do that and I doubt Vanderbeek - a fan of the team even before becoming an owner - would ever take that drastic step) although if he does keep Lemaire and almost all of the rotten core that shamed everyone associated with the team this year, I will be honestly convinced he's gone into Al Davis world, a caricature of his former self clinging to the belief that you can somehow get different results doing the exact same thing. Still, I'd imagine there isn't long left for Lou here either way and I do appreciate all he's done for the franchise over these two decades.
Hopefully he will be able to do enough to turn things around and give us one last push for the silver chalice with Marty here...but it's more likely this spring's dramatic fall from grace is a sign once and for all that our run as a top organization in the NHL is over.