In all honesty, I have attempted to write this blog more than a handful of times, but I either got frustrated just thinking about it and Xed out, or I could not organize my thoughts properly. Rather start with a tacky intro, I'll get to the point.
Since the lockout, the best way I can describe a typical New Jersey Devil's regular season is like drinking a red bull. It takes a bit to get going, it becomes lively, energetic, and exciting, then it suddenly crashes.
These "Red Bull" seasons the Devils have gone through have opened my eyes, which ultimately turn towards Lou Lamoriello as the source of the problem, and make me question his authority and recent success.
The first thing I want to look at is the massive loss of talent endured over the past four summers and the alleged "replacements" that were made. After losing Scott Niedermayer in 2005, Lamoriello barely re-signed Brian Rafalski, only for him to leave two years later, and signed aging Vladimir Malakhov and Dan McGillis, both of whom did not even last half of the 2005-2006 season, and only gave the Devils cap problems. In 2007, the Devils lost Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski, and signed Danius Zubrus for six years, Karel Rachunek and Vitaly Vishnevski, both of whom are not on the team or in the league. It's not like Lou did not have an opportunity to fill in these roster holes, which remain with players of equal or better talent, and it's not like he did not have the cap room either. That same summer, the likes of Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Sheldon Souray, and Michael Nylander were all free agents, just to mention a few. Niedermayer, Gomez, and Rafalski left the Devils, and received more money and success. Given the Devils had strong regular seasons in recent years, every salary cap era team of the New Jersey Devils had potential to go deeper in the playoffs and make a stronger cup run.
This brings me to my next point as to why Lamoriello never makes any type of huge splash. Replacing Gomez with a third line wing, and Rafalski with two third pair defensemen? How do you justify that? What's worse is how Lamoriello handled the past two trade deadlines, trading for Byrce Salvador in 2008, and Niclas Havelid. Both were decent acquisitions, but enough for a cup run? Certainly not. Fans, analysts, and bloggers all said the Devils needed the likes of a sniper, No. 1 center, and a top two defenseman. Although the offense hummed this year, and was a major reason behind the team's regular season success, it came primarily from one line (Parise-Zajac-Langenbrunner), and from Patrik Elias, who was held back by playing with the likes of Danius Zubrus and Brian Gionta, who needs a playmaking center to compliment his offensive potential. Zubrus is anything but. In the past two trade deadlines, the Devils had the cap room and the necessities to make a splash and address their significant needs. Why is Lou not doing now what he did in years past? In 1995, he acquired Neil Brotein, and in 2000, he acquired Claude Lemieux, Vladimir Malakhov, and Alexander Mogilny, all players that played a huge a part in those Stanley Cup championships.
If the Devils did more than mere roster tweaks these past two trade deadlines, I bet they would have made a much deeper playoff push, rather than suffer a pair of first round exits. Now in 2008, Lou Lamoriello went out and signed Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik. He signed two aging players that could still play, but are not what they used to be, and weren't what Lou thought they would be. Both players ended up suffering injuries early in the season, and in the end, the roster holes they were intended to fill remain open. As they were in the summer of 2007, the Devils lack a solid top two defenseman (which showed in the Devils six game losing streak and recent playoffs), and a number one center for Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta. Lou is back at the drawing board, and as he said after last year's first round exit to the New York Rangers after this year's first round ouster by Carolina "I don't see the need for many changes", and "I still have a lot of faith in this group of guys".
Are you kidding me?
Now, let's examine the "group of guys" this Lou still has "a lot of faith" in.
John Madden and Jay Pandolfo are the first two that come to mind. Both are in their mid-thirties, and spent the better part of the season with a negative plus/minus, and put up production numbers that halved their totals of last year. Colin White is 31, with three years and $9 million left on a gross contract he received back in 2006. Although he had his best season since his sophomore season in 2000-2001, people seem to notice his mistakes and defensive flaws more than his numbers. Martin "Mr. Regular Season" Brodeur recently turned 37, and gave us yet another choking display that resulted in another early playoff elimination. Apparently, we all know that as long as the sky is blue, and Lou remains in the Devils front office, Martin Brodeur will never split goaltending duties in the regular season or especially the playoffs. The thought of Lamoriello trading his pride and joy can be put up there in the thought of myth and legend. My point is, this is Lou's way of showing his stubbornness and reluctance to necessary change, and how he has too much pride to change the philosophy he has abided by, which clearly does not work in the salary cap era he helped create...oh the irony.
Lou has been known to build success through the draft, one of his excuses for his refusal to go out and trade for or sign a legitimate star player. In the past two seasons, it seems that Lou takes part in a proneness to not giving the alleged prospect pool that Lou himself said has a "surplus of young defensemen in it" a chance to play and develop with the big team, rather he gives such spots to aging players or players that would be healthy scratches on other teams such as Bobby Holik, Mike Rupp, and Mike Mottau. Last season, Niklas Bergfors got the opportunity to play on a line with Patrik Elias, and looked good. He only lasted one game after he got hurt, and returned to the minors, where he was never seen again, until he was called up this year for a couple of games in which he played a minimal fourth line role. Last year at this time, the Devils signed Annsi Salmella, who made the team, but did not even play enough games to qualify this year as a rookie season with the Devils. In the end, Lou ended up trading him for...you guessed it, an aging Niclas Havelid, who opted to play in Sweden next year. Anyone see a hypocritical theme developing here?
This summer, we have Johnny Odyua and Brian Gionta becoming unrestricted free agents. While I am indifferent about Gionta leaving, if Lou wants and tries to re-sign both players, who end up jetting on July 1st for better financial and success opportunities, I would not blame them, and would wish them all the luck in the world. Now, I don't blame college star Matt Gilroy for signing with the Rangers instead of the Devils, who offered him more money, or Blake Wheeler for not signing with the Devils, and see where they are coming from in a way.
Overall, I think Lou has or is losing his touch as the great GM he once was. How and why he has put this team in the state they are in is beyond me. He had countless opportunities to re-sign the key players he has lost in recent summers, and definitely had the opportunities to immediately replace them with players of equal or better talent. He had several opportunities to obtain players at trade deadline's past to give the Devils a stronger playoff push, especially when you look at what little some teams gave up to obtain players that became vital to their playoff pushes. In 2008 and this year, the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins gave up draft picks for Brad Stuart and Bill Guerin, respectively. That's just one example. As I have mentioned before, when you look at the Stanley Cup champions since the lockout, the Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Ducks, and Detroit Red Wings, while they developed a core of solid homegrown talent, went out and obtained the necessary players they needed to immediately strengthen any weaknesses their team had. The Detroit Red Wings acquired the likes of Brad Stuart, Brian Rafalski, and Marian Hossa. The Anaheim Ducks signed Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. The Carolina Hurricanes obtained Doug Weight and Mark Recchi in 2006, and acquired Eric Cole from Edmonton, putting them back in the Eastern Conference Finals this year.
My questions are does Lou deserve ANOTHER chance this summer to attempt to "reload" this team as he likes to say? Does he still have the skills and brilliance he has been reputed, admired, and respected for, or is he on the verge of an oblivious decline, maybe reluctant to admit any mistakes he has made in season and summer's past, convinced they are or will work out? Is it time for Lou Lamoriello to quit while he is ahead, retire, and hand over the reins, or is it time that the Devils come to their senses and follow the path the Minnesota Wild took? As it stands, I predict we will be in for another typical Devils summer of roster tweaks or signing aging players to bad contracts that leads to another "Red Bull" season in 2009-2010, and another early playoff exit. I am still an avid New Jersey Devils fan, who wants nothing but the best for this team and for its scarce fan base. If the best means relieving certain people of their duties or long time players of their roles, so be it. I guess all what we can do now is sit back, enjoy these exciting playoffs, and see what the future summer will bring us.