Something is not right in New Jersey. The model of consistency in the league for so many years appears to be reeling. The Devils have made the playoffs 13 straight seasons and 19 of the last 20. During that time period the Devils have collected 9 division championships, 4 conference championships, and 3 Stanley Cups. Obviously Martin Brodeur has much to do with all this success, but Lou Lamoriello deserves plenty of credit. Just having a great goaltender does not guarantee success at the level the Devils have enjoyed. One needs to look no farther than Buffalo to come to this conclusion. When the Devils acquired Ilya Kovalchuk many (including myself) believed the Devils had catapulted their selves as the primary contenders in the East. The opposite occurred, as the Devils went into a tailspin the remaining of the regular season before being eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round. A 2-6 start this season has landed the Devils in the basement of the Eastern Conference. How could something so promising go so wrong so fast?
Why hasn’t the marriage between Kovalchuk and the Devils worked thus far? Many automatically assume that Kovalchuk has not produced in any manner. This is simply not the case; through 35 games the flashy Russian has produced 33 points. While he has not scored goals at the pace many are accustomed to, he has produced points. In my opinion, Kovalchuk played the best series of any Devils against the Flyers. Despite this, the Devils have not produced wins with their newly acquired superstar.
Kovalchuk is a sharp contrast to the style of play the Devils have enjoyed for many years. The Devils have won with defense and a trap system for years. They have relied on two-way players who are not afraid to back check and sacrifice personal statistics for the better of the team. They have not been loaded with the most skill guys, but always fill their roster with guys who fit their system. Ilya Kovalchuk, on the other hand, is one of the most purely gifted hockey players in the league. His offensive skills leave many in amazement. He has a knack for producing the spectacular, but also for playing lazy and often leaves a lot to be desired in the defensive zone.
So why did Lamoriello venture from his normal and very successful strategy? Clearly Kovalchuk does not remind anyone of Scott Stevens, Scott Neidermayer, Patrik Elias, or Jamie Langenbrunner. Some say he became too star struck with Kovalchuk’s potential and made a leap of faith. Others claim that Lamoriello was pressured by ownership to make a move for an exciting player due to the lack of interest of the Devils in New Jersey. Despite their great success, the Devils have won championships in empty arenas. Fist pumping is more popular than hockey in New Jersey. The trap has been a recipe for wins, but also for boring hockey. Many accuse the Devils of ruining the sport with their clutch and grab style. With New Jersey not being a natural hot bed for hockey, it is hard to attract new fans while sitting on a 1-0 lead. Some had hoped that Kovalchuk could spread the popularity of hockey with his play. One thing for sure is losing will not accomplish this mission.
The Devils appeared to put all their chips into building around Kovalchuk as their new franchise player. The only problem is that Kovalchuk has never proven to be able to carry the load. It is possible that he is similar to his former Thrasher teammates, Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa, in that he is the perfect wingman for a team. The pure goal scorer appears to be the perfect Robin for a true franchise player’s Batman. Heatley and Hossa could not carry their teams in Ottawa and Atlanta, but have found great success riding shotgun in other NHL cities. I believe that Kovalchuk would be better suited in this role.
No one can blame Kovalchuk for all of the Devil’s struggles. Brodeur has not been the same goaltender as of late. There is also the prospect that Lamoriello simply gave up too much for the goal-scoring winger. The debacle that occurred when the NHL rejected the clearly bogus contract cost the Devils. When all was said and done, Kovalchuk cost New Jersey Oduya, Bergfors, Cormier, two first round picks, a third round pick, and three million dollars. This has raised speculation that the long-tenured general manager has finally lost his golden touch. The Devils have also been forced to play with less men since they are not able to afford calling up any players. There is also the more technical answer that Kovalchuk has sometimes been forced to play right wing. This does not allow him to unleash his sniper shot as effectively and quickly as if he played his more accustomed position of left wing.
So what is the solution to the troubles of New Jersey? The Kovalchuk situation seemed to reach a new low when John MacLean placed a healthy Kovalchuk into the press box against Buffalo. Apparently due to Kovalchuck being ten minutes late for a team meeting. One has to believe that there is more to this story. Not many coaches would scratch a player for such a petty individual occurrence. It is more likely that this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. With the locker room in shambles it appears that MacLean’s job may already be in jeopardy. While this would not be particularly just, coaching changes are often used to spark a struggling team. This strategy has been particularly effective in recent years. The last two representatives of the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup finals were coached by coaches who took over mid-season. Lamoriello is never afraid to pull the trigger on a coaching change. Since Lamoriello became general manager in 1988, he has gone through 16 different coaches (including twice when he placed his self on the bench). This may be an overreaction and perhaps the Devils are just off to a slow start. Hopefully for fans of New Jersey their talent alone will be enough to reverse their fortunes. One thing that is certain is the Devils have to start playing better now if they want to continue their amazing run of success.
Other News Around the League:
Flames on Fire
The Calgary Flames have rebounded from a slow start by winning 5 of their last 6. Rene Bourque has led the way as he has already notched 6 goals. The Flames have the potential to do better than most predicted. They also need to avoid their trend of under-achieving in recent years.
Leafs Falling in Autumn
Toronto fans have always been one to over react. Their quick start had many talking about the playoffs and how well the Leafs would fare in late May. Three straight losses had many Toronto fans heading to the ledge. A 3-1 victory over Florida hopefully saved fans of the Leafs. Toronto appears to be a team that will show flashes of future potential, but will also frustrate their loyal fans.
Hartnell Finally gets a Hair Cut
The hair that has become so popular in Philadelphia that it led to a wig-give away at Wells Fargo Center is finally gone. Hartnell joked that it took hedge clippers, a few weed whackers, and a shovel to complete his first hair cut in years. He donated his infamous hair to Locks for Love. Despite being a villain on the ice, Hartnell is known for his dedication to charity off the ice. By all accounts from the media and fans he is also surprisingly a pleasant and polite guy who does not mind taking a joke at his own expense. On behalf of The Sports Jury, a big thumbs up for Hartnell.