Sunday, June 20, 2010

The more things change...

...the more they stay the same. That saying's been so true for the Devils the last few years for an organization that will not change an outdated system, keeps bringing back former players and coaches who just don't work out the second time around (from Alexander Mogilny and Vlad Malakhov to the disaster that was the Jacques Lemaire reunion tour last year) and would rather bring in flagging vets like Rob Niedermayer and Bobby Holik instead of giving kids like Nicklas Bergfors and Matthew Corrente a real shot.

Keeping with the tradition, during my four-day vacation the Devils have - after a quiet spring so far - simaltaneously named ex-player and current AHL coach Johnny MacLean to take over the head gig here, brought back Larry Robinson as the one assistant hire so far and traded for another ex-player in Jason Arnott. Somewhat remarkably Johnny Mac and Arnott scored what were the two biggest goals in Devils history - Mac putting us in the playoffs for the first time and Arnott winning our second Stanley Cup in double OT. So you would figure that I'd be screaming and hollering with a pitchfork descending on the Prudential Center.

Not so...surprisingly I like all of these moves - to a varying degree and for different reasons. One of my favorites in Robinson is by far the easiest of the three moves to defend as he's always been an excellent assistant and was one of the few ex-coaches who actually ran a system conducive to winning in the post-lockout NHL when he was the head guy, but thankfully he won't be asked to fill that role now since he stressed out (to put it mildly) the last time he was coach in 2006 and admittedly would rather be the good cop that the assistant job provides.

As far as Arnott goes, the funny part is it's a trade that - at the risk of self-promoting the site - I only found out about when I read Derek's article on Johnny Mac since I was just getting back from my trip and didn't feel like perusing the message boards just yet. While I wasn't thrilled with Arnott by the time he got traded in 2002 (ironically enough a main cause of that was his role in Larry getting fired as head coach the first time around) and he's clearly on the downside of his career now in his mid-thirties, at least he finally gives us an actual center to slot in the second-center role as opposed to a converted wing, like say ex-linemate Patrik Elias or Danius Zubrus, to name a couple.

And if he is Rob Niedermayer part deux like I fear he could be (a guy just going through the motions on a one-year deal) then so be it since Arnott's also here for one year only, as a placeholder till either one of our prospects are ready or there are some more UFA centers on the market. As far as the price goes, while Matt Halischuk was a valued prospect a couple years ago, last year he seemed to fall down in the pecking order some but surely he'll get a chance to shine in Nashville now that they're selling off pieces once again...and you have to give up something to get something. Even if we gave up a lot already for a few months of Ilya Kovalchuk.

Leaving the most important one for last - the Johnny Mac decision. While it's true I wanted Mike Haviland (ex-Jersey native, won championships at every level and believes in an up-tempo system) I also deathly feared someone like a Ken Hitchcock or a Michel Therrien - heavily rumored by one Pittsburgh site as having been offered the Devil job. In a battle between the total new-school forechecking approach of a Haviland or total old-school approach of a Therrien, Johnny Mac seems to me at least some form of a middle ground. Mac has some detractors, among them former Devil Holik who said in an interview a few weeks ago that his ex-teammate would be a good coach in the NHL - just not for the Devils, because we needed to change our philosophy and play off the strength of our team which was our forwards.

Believe me, I don't entirely disagree with that sentiment, but by the same token there are reasons to hope Mac won't be more of the same despite being a Devil lifer. For one, the Devils didn't play a totally negative system during both his quasi-stints as the coach (where Lou Lamoriello was in charge but Mac did the x's and o's) in 2006 and 2007, or while he was actually the head boss in Lowell last year. Not to mention Lemaire's system was at the basis of Mac's falling out with the Devils in the late '90's before he came back into the fold like so many others have before him - and after him as well.

Aside from all that, there are positives to giving him the job as opposed to an outsider like a Haviland. Namely the fact that between his stints on the Devils' bench and coaching the kids in Lowell last year he's by far more knowledgeable about everyone in the organization than any other coaching candidate could possibly be. Not to mention there are a total dearth of established candidates out there anyway, certainly no Dave Tippett or (gak!) Peter Laviolette was sitting on the market this year so if you were going to give it to a new guy - might as well be Johnny Mac, who's by now paid his dues.

While I would have liked this transition to have occured a year later (perhaps not-so-coincidentally Lemaire was on a two-year deal and expected to be a transition figure to what hopefully is a long-term coaching solution at last), at least the farm team in Lowell did well to make the playoffs last year considering all of the call-ups that got shuttled in and out of their lineup and the fact that supposed number one goalie Jeff Frazee got supplanted by UFA signee Mike McKenna. And before that, Mac certainly put in his time behind an NHL bench.

Perhaps most encouragingly though from what I've read so far the best quote of this offseason came from Lou after the Arnott trade where he said:

“We didn’t win. We’re going to have to make some changes. There are going to be some changes that might surprise some people.“We definitely will do everything we can. The priority right now is to get David Clarkson signed and Paul Martin signed. And we’ll see what Ilya Kovalchuk’s thought process is."

Of course you can seldom take anything Lou says at face value, but I want to believe that changes are in order and that the only major change isn't going to be losing Martin as a UFA (to go along with Kovalchuk who if he's going for the money will sign in Russia and if he's going for winning will probably sign elsewhere). After all, he traded Arnott and fellow linemate Petr Sykora for far less than what el capitahn Jamie Langenbrunner pulled this past season. With the draft looming next weekend and UFA the weekend after that odds are at least in one way or another changes will be made. Whether they're good or bad, it's too early to say.

Fortunately I don't have any other vacations coming up soon so I probably won't miss three earth-shattering moves again.

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