Year after year it seems like the New Jersey Devils are in the thick of things come playoff time.
Not forgetting the failed John MacLean experiment of two years ago (which featured a 22-3-2 stretch in the second half), The Devils have qualified for the playoffs 18 times in the last 20 years. They have captured three Stanley Cup Championships and appeared in two more. Only the Red Wings have been more successful over that span.
And while Detroit is Hockeytown, USA, the Devils are a franchise sometimes mentioned in relocation discussions.
Despite a brand solidified with championships and arguably the greatest goaltender to play the game the franchise has failed to garner national appeal. New Jersey is not marketable like the cross river Rangers. New York has Broadway and Newark has Broad Street.
In other words, don’t expect to see the Devils in a Winter Classic any time soon.
Behind this quiet success is mainstay Lou Lamoriello. A 2009 inductee of the Hockey Hall of Fame, the President/CEO/General Manager has been at the helm of the franchise since 1987. When Lou took over New Jersey was a mockery made famous when Wayne Gretzky jested it was a “Mickey Mouse” organization.
Now it is a model for success, big market or small.
Lou’s tactics feature the classic “gift and curse” dichotomy. His system preaches defense and is team oriented. Star players from Scott Neidermayer to Bobby Holik to Brian Rafalski have walked out the door and the Devils don’t seem to miss a beat.
Little moves slide under the radar and pay big dividends—look no further than last year’s trade deadline acquisition of Marek Zidlicky, a big piece of their playoff run.
But Lamoriello’s conservative philosophy has resulted in the team being stigmatized as boring and even bad for the sport. Play the word association game with any hockey fan and “neutral zone trap” will follow with “New Jersey Devils” every time.
Even though most casual fans probably can’t even describe the trap, people are eager to perpetuate these stereotypes and bash New Jersey.
But last spring it was an aggressive forecheck that the drove the team. These Devils were hardly a bore on their way to the fifth Stanley Cup appearance in franchise history, employing depth and aggression influenced by Pete DeBoer’s coaching style.
And yet, there remains little belief that such success will continue.
Bleacher Report’s own Andrew Gross sees them finishing last in the Atlantic Division, here. In its 2013 fantasy hockey projections, ESPN sees Martin Brodeur registering a sub-.500 record despite coming off a strong playoff and a .550 career winning percentage.
The loss of Zach Parise is undeniable. But who is to say the Devils can’t adapt the same way they have after losing past stars to more appealing suitors? This veteran laden team still features a winning pedigree. A fully healthy and fully paid Travis Zajac is entering his prime. Ilya Kovalchuk’s on-ice leadership has matured. And of course, there is still Lamoriello, whose consistent work ethic trickles down throughout the organization.
If the Flyers or Rangers could boast the same resume of the past 20 years, there would be books and documentaries lauding such success. The most recent Prince of Wales trophy will probably be swept under the national rug, with critics proclaiming once again that Marty is done and the offense is impotent.
All the while, Lamoriello and the New Jersey Devils will quietly go by their own expectations and plan on another trip to the playoffs.
Whatever keeps working.