Lou Lamoriello is something of a beloved figure in New Jersey, and for good reason. The man is responsible for much of what the franchise has managed since he took over as president and general manager in 1987, and he's had no shortage of personal achievements.
Last year, Lamoriello was inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame. Three years prior, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder. He put together a team that won three Stanley Cups and had two additional finals appearances.
He's the man who drafted Scott Niedermayer, Martin Brodeur, Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora, Brian Gionta and Zach Parise. He found undrafted gems like John Madden, David Clarkson and Brian Rafalski. For the 2000 Cup, he acquired Claude Lemieux and Alex Mogilny. For 2003, he acquired Jeff Friesen, Jamie Langenbrunner and Joe Nieuwendyk. His name is attached to everything great the team has ever achieved.
Now, though? Now it seems he is starting to lose his touch.
Always a "big picture" planner, Lamoriello has spent the last 20 seasons trying to maintain a roster that could compete for a Stanley Cup, and the results speak for themselves: He missed the playoff just three times between 1988 and 2012.
Unfortunately, leading up to and during the 2013 season, Lou's decisions made less sense and held up less to scrutiny. In the end, it resulted in the reigning Eastern Conference champions missing the playoffs entirely.
After a season that's seen plenty of questionable calls by the man in charge, Lou's instincts need to be questioned.
When the Devils signed Ilya Kovalchuk to his long-term contract back in 2010, the team was punished for attempting to circumnavigate the salary cap.
The Devils offered a contract that did not break any rules or violate any standards, using what was then a common practice to lower the annual cap hit of the contract. An arbitrator was brought in, and it was eventually decided that the Devils deserved a variety of punishments––punishments one Devils fan might call outlandish, biased and absurdly over the top.
Anyway, the harshest punishment was a forfeited first-round draft pick to come over the next four seasons. After the first season, the Devils earned the fourth-overall pick, which they of course kept and used to draft Adam Larsson.
The next season, the team decided to keep its first-round pick despite that pick being 29th overall.
This season, the Devils earned the ninth-overall pick, which they of course opted to keep. This means that the team will automatically forfeit its 2014 pick.
So what's the problem, you might ask? Why in the world did the Devils keep their 2012 draft pick when they had the second-worst position possible? Lou could've said, "I'll forfeit this year's pick and if we win a Stanley Cup in the next two years, oh well. We kept a 30 instead of a 29."
Instead, Lamoriello essentially said that the future doesn't matter, and the team is going to draft a skater this year, regardless of where in the draft they fall. It's a decent strategy for a team you feel is going to be steadily improving and could keep making Cup finals, but that's not where the Devils are at. The careers of Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias are slowly winding down, and that means the Stanley Cup window is closing.
It would appear that Lamoriello recognized this, but rather than acting rationally he decided to double-down and add a skater now. How did it work? Well, ignoring the fact that they drafted this guy, they missed the playoffs too.
Hindsight is 20/20, but this was a questionable move when it happened.
Coming out of last season's playoffs, the Devils were facing both of their goalies hitting free agency. There was never really a question of whether Martin Brodeur was going to leave the Devils, but what to do with the backup goalie spot was an interesting choice.
The backup needed to be able to carry some of the load but also recognize that Marty is clearly the starting goalie, at least for one season. The problem is, rather than finding a younger goalie to possibly groom for the position, Lou brought back Johan Hedberg.
Signing a 40-year-old Hall of Fame goaltender to a two-year contract makes sense for the team. Signing his 39-year-old backup to a two-year contract is just foolish.
Now look where the team is: Johan Hedberg is coming off of a terrible season where he went 6-10-3 with a .883 save-percentage and a 2.76 goals-against average. When asked to take over for an injured Marty, he did not answer the call and helped the Devils into an ugly slump.
So not only have the Devils missed the playoffs, not only are they prepared to have a 41-year-old starter, but now they also have a goalie who turns 40 on May 5, showed that he likely doesn't have anything left in the tank this season, and is already planning for next season.
The question of what happens when Martin Brodeur retires has long haunted the Devils organization, but creating a situation where there's no one to step in once he's gone is just downright foolish.
Zach Parise was a huge part of who the Devils were.
He was homegrown talent and had the perfect Devils temperament. He was the team's offensive leader, the hardest working guy on the ice, a shut-down defensive player, the leader on penalty kills, a stud in shoot outs and just the humblest, most charming guy. He was always in the right place in front of the net. Last season, he was also their captain.
When he and Ilya Kovalchuk were able to cooperate and actually develop some chemistry, they were one of the most dangerous pairings in the league. Parise also played a large role in last season's playoff run.
Needless to say, when Zach announced that he would be signing a contract with the Minnesota Wild, it was a pretty big blow to the team. And it was a hard decision for him. If you believe him (I do), it came down to a decision between the Devils and the Wild, and he couldn't pass up the opportunity to return home to Minnesota.
I don't blame Lamoriello for losing Parise. I believe he did everything in his power to keep him. I also believe that he genuinely thought there was a good shot that Parise would stay. The problem isn't that Plan A fell through, it's that there evidently wasn't a Plan B.
The whole idea Lamoriello is working with is that the Devils are still competing for a Cup. However, there was no contingency plan for losing the best player. There were no major signings (barely even minor signings) and the team just sort of proceeded as if it was the same team.
If Lou wanted another playoff run, he needed to do something drastic. His lack of action doomed the team as much as poor play.
Stefan Matteau was drafted 29th overall in the 2012 draft. The 18-year-old debuted for the Devils on January 19 and played the next four games as well, all without registering a point.
The Devils had five games to let Matteau try out for the team. Once he played his sixth game, the first year of his entry-level contract activated.
Now it's one thing if he showed that he was up to playing at that level, but he didn't. After his five starts, he was scratched for four games while his fate was pondered. Eventually, he was dressed and played his sixth game, starting his contract.
So what's the problem? The problem is that in his first five games, nothing indicated that Matteau should keep playing in the pros. He had no goals and no assists, a plus-one rating, eight shots and two penalty minutes.
It's one thing to bring up a young stud to rejuvenate a roster, but Matteau wasn't getting anything done. By keeping him up, Lou sacrificed an entire season of play in the future in hopes that a few points could be squeezed out now.
And how did it work out? Not great. Matteau had a goal and an assist in a two-day home and home series against the Penguins. After that, he had two stretches of four games without a point, separated by a lone assist.
For the first year of his contract, Matteau contributed a goal and two assists in 17 games while going minus-one.
Petr Sykora was a first-round draft pick for the Devils way back in 1995. He debuted for the Devils in 1995 and, starting with the 1998-99 season, scored at least 21 goals every season.
He had four seasons with the Devils during which he had 110 goals. He was traded to the Mighty Ducks, where he spent two full seasons (57 goals), and then he moved around quite a bit, going to the Rangers, Oilers and then Penguins. Those four seasons meant another 98 goals.
His streak of 20-goal seasons ended after 10 years when he played just 14 games before a concussion knocked him out for the season. He spent the next season playing in Europe.
And then he returned, and Devils fans rejoiced. He reunited with former line-mate Patrik Elias and actually put up a pretty impressive season for the Devils, scoring 21 goals and adding 23 assists playing in all 82 games. The point is, given the opportunity, Petr Sykora will get you goals.
And that's why it's so frustrating that Lou Lamoriello was content to let him walk away prior to this season.
Petr Sykora wanted to come back, and the Devils opted to go with younger players instead. Those younger players ended up fizzling out. One was Stefan Matteau. Another was Bobby Butler, who played 14 games and put up a goal and an assist. After that, he was waived and claimed by the Predators. Jacob Josefson had a goal and two assists in 22 games, and Mattias Tedenby had just an assist in four games.
Given how quickly and conclusively the Devils' offensive prospects crumbled, one has to wonder what exactly Lou thought he was going to be getting, and why Sykora wouldn't have been a better option.