It seems like only yesterday that the New Jersey Devils were a model organization. Between 1994 and 2003, the team went to five conference finals, four Stanley Cup finals and won three titles.
While the championships faded, the tremendous regular seasons did not; the Devils had seven seasons with at least 99 points between 2003-04 and 2011-12
But if you look closely, the current downtrodden state of this once great franchise has been in the works for years.
The 2012 Cup Final is looking more and more like a fluke, as the Devils appear to be on their way to a third straight season without a postseason berth. They didn't get out of the first round in 2008, 2009 or 2010 and missed altogether in 2011 before the out-of-nowhere run in 2012. What's followed is miss, miss and now a season in which the formerly homegrown Devils are a collection of store-bought veterans sitting at 11-15-6.
It seems like this happened overnight, but when you put this franchise under a microscope, this has been coming down the pike for at least a decade.
Before we begin, a tip of the hat to the person who asked about this when I was soliciting mailbag questions.
I liked this question so much that I had to move it to the top of the Bag Skate. The immediate answer was "They don't draft like they used to." There probably isn't a hockey fan who doesn't know that's the answer. But as I dug into the Devils' drafting under Lou Lamoriello, especially since 2001, the extent of the sub-standard drafting wasn't entirely evident.
Lamoriello became general manager before the 1987-88 season, which means he has been at the helm for the draft since 1988. In the five seasons prior to his arrival, the Devils selected useful players John MacLean, Chris Terreri, Alexei Kasatonov, Kirk Muller, Sean Burke, Jim Dowd and future Hall of Famers Slava Fetisov and Brendan Shanahan, who would be parlayed into Scott Stevens via free-agent compensation in 1991.
Once Lamoriello took over, he turned the Devils into a borderline dynasty with exceptional drafting.
Between 1989 and 2000, Lamoriello selected Bill Guerin, Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer (via the famous Tom Kurvers trade with Toronto), Brian Rolston, Sergei Brylin, Jay Pandolfo, Brendan Morrison (who was turned into Alexander Mogilny), Patrik Elias, Sheldon Souray (who was dealt for Vladimir Malakhov), Petr Sykora, Colin White, Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Mike Rupp.
That's an incredible mix of legends (Brodeur, Niedermayer) very good players (Elias, Gomez, Rolston) and unsung grunt guys (White, Rupp) who were key pieces in three Stanley Cup victories. There were other trades and moves over that time that proved to be huge (Brian Rafalski, Jeff Friesen, Randy McKay, Shawn Chambers), but the foundation of this team was forged through incredible drafting.
Over the last decade, Lamoriello hasn't hit the target as frequently.
As a matter of fact, he's barely hit it at all since the second lockout and a salary cap was instituted.
Here's a look at all the Devils' drafts since 2005:
|New Jersey Devils drafts since 2005|
A few notes about that chart:
• Four of those picks (Jeff Frazee, Maxime Clermont, Scott Wedgewood, Anthony Brodeur) are goaltenders who have combined to play one NHL game.
• The six most productive forwards selected since 2005: Adam Henrique (128 points), Niclas Bergfors (83 points), Matt Halischuk (64 points), Mattias Tedenby (30 points), Jacob Josefson (28 points) and Nick Palmieri (25 points).
• The Devils did OK with defensemen in recent years with Eric Gelinas, Jon Merrill, Mark Fayne, Adam Larsson and Damon Severson, but Larsson is hurtling toward being a fourth-overall bust and Fayne is no longer with the team.
That's a decade of downright poor drafting. Some of those picks are still baking in the minors and may be useful in the future once they're ready to come out of the oven, but it's still been a disastrous decade under Lamoriello's guidance.
How does 2005-14 compare to 1989-2000?
|New Jersey Devils drafts, 1989-2000|
Well, it doesn't.
A few notes about that chart:
• Back in the day, NHL drafts went as deep as 12 rounds, because apparently no one had anywhere else to be. So for the sake of a somewhat fair comparison, we're only looking at what the Devils did in the first seven rounds.
• But if you want to know some of the useful players the Devils selected after Round 7 in this era, they include: Jaroslav Modry, Valeri Zelepukin, Corey Schwab, Stephane Yelle, Steve Sullivan, Willie Mitchell and Scott Clemmensen. That may not seem like much, but that's some excellent post-seventh-round drafting.
• Four of those picks (Brodeur, Chris Mason, Ari Ahonen, J-F Damphousse) are goaltenders who have combined to play 1,579 NHL games, although all but 317 of them are Brodeur's.
Two things to consider when comparing those two charts:
• Don't assume that the Devils were amassing that talent from 1989-2000 with high picks; only Niedermayer (No. 3) and Guerin (No. 5) were top-10 picks, and Niedermayer was selected with Toronto's pick that year. The Devils actually traded down to take Brodeur at No. 20 in 1990.
• A good way to judge those two swaths is games played per draft pick, and it's no contest: It's 233.4 per pick for the older class and 33.0 per pick for the modern class, a gap that will be closed somewhat as the modern players continue their careers.
So what happened? How did one general manager who was so sharp, so astute for so long fall so far and so hard over the past decade?
Lamoriello partly was a victim of his own success. With the Devils finishing at the top of the standings for such a long period of time, the team simply didn't pick as high as often. Throw in the fact that a team in win-now mode will trade more of its picks to maintain that level of success, and drafting becomes even more difficult.
While all that was happening, the championship corps was aging and retiring. Instead of refreshing the team with picks developed within the system, which is of the utmost importance in a salary-cap era, those players who didn't pan out had to be replaced via free agency, which is almost always a recipe for disaster.
The team that was once known for letting the likes of Bobby Holik and Scott Gomez sign big contracts elsewhere is now the one that gives big money to Ryane Clowe, Michael Cammalleri, Bryce Salvador and Marek Zidlicky, not to mention Brodeur and Elias.
It's hard to blame Lamoriello for signing Ilya Kovalchuk to a 15-year, $100 million contract, as he had 89 goals in 222 games before deciding to "retire" and play in the KHL.
At some point, very slowly, very quietly, the Devils and Rangers switched the roles for which they were identified in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
It's also possible something that hasn't changed is part of the reason why things have changed so drastically in New Jersey.
David Conte is in his 22nd season as director of scouting for the Devils and has been an executive vice president since 2006.
Claude Carrier and Marcel Pronovost began scouting for the Devils in 1990, with Carrier joining the organization as a part-time scout in 1984. Carrier's "responsibilities include ECAC, Hockey East, Ontario East, Quebec and the Maritimes," while Pronovost is based in Windsor, Ontario, where he "covers that area and enhances Devils’ ability to scout prospects throughout North America and Europe."
Bob Hoffmeyer is in his 22nd season as a scout whose "responsibilities include coordinating schedule of team’s pro scouting department."
These are the four most senior members of the Devils scouting staff, and they have been there through the championship years and the past decade of objectively bad drafts, same as Lamoriello. This isn't to say age should be a disqualifying reason for any person to hold a job; it's just to say that there seems to be a lot of job security for four veteran scouts who haven't been apart of much, if any, drafting success for about 10 years.
Of the 15 other scouts listed on the Devils' website, 10 (Glen Dirk, Milt Fisher, Dan Labraaten, Jan Ludvig, Pierre Mondou, Gates Orlando, Lou Reycroft, Vaclav Slansky, Geoff Stevens, Ed Thomlinson) have been with the team for at least a decade and an 11th, Steve Smith, has been with the team since 2005-06, according to EliteProspects.com.
That's a whole lot of people who have been with the Devils over some lean years of drafting.
|New Jersey Devils first-round picks since 2001|
That missing window of draft years we haven't discussed (2001-04) is only missing because those classes didn't really have time to contribute to the championships or the Devils' current situation. But just so we're not hiding anything, 2001 was awful, 2002 was perhaps even worse, 2003 netted Zach Parise, who would later run from the organization as if his hair was on fire, and 2004 brought Travis Zajac.
So if you want to get technical, it's been about 14 years of bad drafting, depending on how you want to classify these two most recent years.
And Lamoriello has overseen all of it.
This is just something to keep in mind if and when head coach Peter DeBoer is fired during the season.
Quote of the Week: Jon Cooper vs. Darryl Sutter
Any time Darryl Sutter wants to take a shot at shootouts, I've got the time and space to share that here. As per usual, this is from Jon Rosen at L.A. Kings Insider:
"If they were so important than they’d have them in the playoffs. I don’t have the time of day for ‘em other than trying to score on ‘em."
While Sutter was dropping hot fire on the absurdity of shootouts, Jon Cooper was referencing Kid Rock at a pregame media availability:
“They have synergy where they just know where each other are going to be, they don’t even need to look sometimes to know where they are going to be,” Cooper said of a line with Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson. “Sometimes what comes with that confidence is an ability to do what you want a little bit. The other side is you get a little too confident, that’s the polite way to say it. I think Kid Rock sings a song, which is a pretty good song, to describe that."
The song is called "Cocky" and has three swears in the first nine seconds, so you can go find that on your own. While this is amusing, please don't refer to that line as the Kid Rock Line. Thank you.
KHL Thing of the Week
There is some quality hockey that is played overseas that we rarely hear about in North America. This section will highlight that or something else from our friends playing hockey in the KHL.
As someone who firmly believes cats are the worst pet anyone could own (that includes rocks and goldfish), I never like to dedicate my time or this valuable space to them. But this story stars Alexander Mogilny and a cat that ate $1,000 worth of food.
What more could you want?
The Daily Mail's Chris Kitching offers a version of the story in English. Here's what happened:
A cat ate some squid and flounder at a shop inside an airport in Vladivostok. The damage was estimated around £700, which is a little more than $1,000 American. Mogilny is the GM of the KHL's Admiral Vladivostok, who play at Fetisov Arena.
The team lacks a mascot, so, for some reason, Mogilny decided to take this potentially disease-laden animal and make it the team's new mascot. The cat is named Matroskin, which could be the Russian word for Evil Animal.
I'm not sure what the NHL equivalent of this would be. Team mascots here are almost always college interns inside costumes, so maybe someone at an airport in Detroit would find a 20-year-old guy sitting on the floor near his gate surrounded by hundreds of dollars worth of Little Caesars he stole.
With no memory of how he got there, Red Wings GM Ken Holland would adopt the young man and make him wear an octopus costume and live inside Joe Louis Arena.
I think that's safer and better than adopting a cat, but that's just me.
Fresh ice for power plays…does it matter?
For years, you've heard it: With a fresh sheet of ice to start a period, that's good news for a team with a power play.
But is it?
We all assume this because, logically, that will help the team with the power play move the puck in crisper fashion and create more goals. That sounds good, but in my many years of watching hockey, the eye test tells me that's not true. Besides, wouldn't fresh ice help the penalty-killers clear the zone that much easier? Doesn't fresh ice cut both ways?
I decided to investigate. I went through the box score of every NHL game this season through Sunday to see how often power-play goals were scored in the first two minutes of the second and third periods, when ice would theoretically be the freshest. I'm only including power plays that opened the second and third periods and excluding overtime because the Zamboni is not used. Here's what I found.
There is a power-play goal scored during an NHL game about every nine minutes of man-advantage time; during "fresh ice" situations, there is a power-play goal about every 15 minutes.
It's a small sample size (16 goals in about 245 minutes), but there are probably some obvious explanations, like the fact almost all of these power plays are less than two minutes. But there have been 120 instances in which the team had at least one minute of power-play time. Is it rust, a team out of sync after a long intermission? Does the clean sheet favor penalty-killers more?
It's hard to say, but I believe it's the fact the faceoff to begin the period is at center ice and not the attacking zone. Win or lose the center-ice draw, and the team with the power play has to engineer a successful zone entry. If it fails once, that's 30-40 seconds of power-play time wasted. That's enough to kill the power play in some cases.
So here's an idea for a new rule in 2015-16: If a team starts a period with a power play, it gets to do it with an attacking-zone faceoff. Or if that's too extreme, if a period ends with the puck inside the attacking zone, then that's where play starts at the beginning of the following period. That makes a power play with 30-40 seconds remaining that much more valuable.
The NHL is always looking for ways to increase goals. This would be one.
No matter how you feel about this idea or the numbers above, let's come to an agreement to stop mentioning fresh ice as an advantage for a power play.
Who Is Connor McDavid-ing This Week?
The tank battle for Connor McDavid will be quite the scene this season as teams stumble over each other to finish last in the standings, thus guaranteeing either McDavid or future American hero Jack Eichel.
30. Edmonton Oilers (7-19-5, 19 pts)
Fifteen games. Fourteen losses. Six points earned. That's what the Oilers have done since Nov. 11 to go from a team hovering near .500 to a team that must be close to giving up all hope after firing coach Dallas Eakins on Monday.
There's a great Louis CK bit about getting fatter (NSFW language there) and just ceasing to care about your physical appearance. I'm not saying the Oilers are looking forward to eating airport Cinnabon, but maybe I am.
29. Carolina Hurricanes (8-18-3, 19 pts)
If symmetry were a way to get points in the standings, the Hurricanes would be red hot over the past five games. As it stands, they've lost five straight but scored exactly one goal in all five games. That's sort of cool, right? I bet no team pulls that off besides them this season.
But this so good for them. They've gotten healthy after playing without Eric Staal and Alex Semin for a while and they are still losing. This is when you want to be bad. And the Hurricanes are that type of bad where a guy like McDavid or Eichel can make them a playoff team in the East next season. Let the losing wash over you, Carolina.
28. Arizona Coyotes (10-16-4, 24 pts)
Part of me secretly hopes the Coyotes land McDavid because, man, can something go right for this organization just once? Talk of moving, bankruptcy, shaky ownership and poor attendance is all you hear about, so why not let them have this one thing?
The Coyotes have two wins in 12 games and have a big game with the Oilers on Tuesday. If there are hockey gods, if things are actually going to turn around for the Coyotes in the near future, they will lose 11-0 to Edmonton at home.
Goal of the Week
It's too bad Team USA had so many skilled forwards at the Sochi Olympics that they didn't need Bobby Ryan.
Look at that. He blows past Canadian Olympian Drew Doughty* before undressing U.S. Olympic goaltender Jonathan Quick for the beauty of a goal. I bet Ryan can spell "goal of the week" if asked.
*So maybe Ryan went around Brayden McNabb, but Doughty was right there. As far as I'm concerned, USA-Canada is tied 1-1 in the Sochi semifinals and next goal wins. No, I'm not still bitter about that game. Why do you ask?
Questions and Answers
Got a question? Tweet me @davelozo or email me at email@example.com, but please don't call before 9 a.m. I will answer any of your questions about hockey or whatever if it's a good question.
Since I am the general manager, I assume this means Craig MacTavish has been relieved of his duties before I arrived, so that saves me a move for this list of three. What I would do is treat the Oilers like an expansion team and start as completely fresh as possible. An NHL franchise has been awarded to the city of Edmonton and I am its new GM.
My three moves are thus:
1. Fire everyone in the front office who has been there more than five years. How I go about firing Kevin Lowe, who is above me in the pecking order, is something of an issue, but I'm sure there's something in Canadian law about being president of a hockey team for six seasons and failing to reach the playoffs once and how it impacts job security.
2. Attempt to trade everyone on the NHL roster who isn't Ryan Nugent-Hopikins, Taylor Hall, Leon Draisaitl or Oscar Klefbom. I bet I could get quality future assets for Nail Yakupov, Jordan Eberle and David Perron. I am full-on tanking the rest of 2014-15 in an attempt to guarantee Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.
3. Beg Mike Babcock to take the coaching job for 2015-16. I try to appeal to his competitive side by showing him the Oilers would be the greatest challenge of his career and if he turned them into a playoff team, it would be the most magnificent accomplishment in coaching history. I'd also dump a truck full of money slathered in crude oil on his front lawn.
Like the old guy in Big Daddy, that's my five-year plan.
Jesse Spector does a baseball-type mailbag for The Sporting News as well, so Dr. Innes decided to hit us both with the same question. I tend to ignore "asked and answered"-type questions that have obvious answers, but the mailbag is light this week with a lot of people asking about mumps, which was covered Monday.
Hard shells are the only way to go with tacos.
I don't understand the point of soft tacos. Are they for people who enjoy burritos but don't want to commit to fully wrapping the contents? Soft tacos also get soaked and gross, be it from chicken/beef juice or salsa. Hard shells, which have the propensity to break upon biting, are an elite food-delivery device.
Incomplete. They've played so much of the season with so many key players out that I don't know what they are yet. They may be a 95-point team; they may be an 88-point team. Beating the Canucks and Oilers doesn't tell me much, either.
Best guess: Caps vs. Rangers in Game 82 decides a playoff spot.
Ross and Rachel. Nobody cared by the middle of Friends' fourth season. Monica and Chandler were tolerable. They became the show's couple, yet it continued to have Ross and Rachel will-they-won't-they nonsense. Once Ross and Rachel had a kid, I mean, did we really think Rachel was going to move with Emma to Europe? Come on.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.