New Jersey Devils At Fault for the Decline of the Pre-Lockout NHL

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New Jersey Devils At Fault for the Decline of the Pre-Lockout NHL

Like many people during the lockout, I searched for answers. How did we end up with 2-1 games and neither team eclipsing 22 shots? What happened to the high-scoring play of the 1980’s? It was the fault of the Devils of 1994 and 1995, led by Jacques Lemaire and Lou Lamoriello. I will not approach this dogmatically and rant about how the “Devils suck!”

This is not an outlandish claim. To begin with, Barry Melrose blames the Devils for the decline of offense in the NHL, and has said so on ESPN (the highlight was played several times when it was announced he was returning to coaching).

To answer those who equate the Devils’ original trap with others: traps are rarely the same, and each has its own quirks. The most important distinction is between “trapping” and “countering.” The words themselves explain the crucial distinction. “Trap” implies only a defensive act, whereas “countering’ implies an attack following the defense.

The first team to use countering with great success was the Toronto Maple Leafs of the mid 1990’s. They used a high-pressure style not unlike Detroit today. However, they did not “trap.” They were aggressive defensively, but when the famous line of Gilmour, Borchevsky and Andreychuk was on the ice (or the second line with Wendel Clark), defenses shook in their skates.

The same can be said for the Red Wings today, when they use Datsyuk and Zetterberg against the other team’s top line. This is the distinction used by Gary Bettman, though he does not fully explain. When Bettman says, “we want our best players to be our best players,” he means that late in a close game, the best players should be the ones entrusted with the outcome. This seems self-evident, but it was certainly not the case in the late nineties and early 2000’s.

Conversely, trapping is a purely defensive act. Besides, how can a team counter a neutral-zone breakdwon with a rush if the players doing high-pressure checking are usually unskilled? Therein lies the damage caused by Jacques Lemaire, Lou Lamoriello and the New Jersey Devils.

Ask yourself this: what are the 1994-95 Stanley Cup Champion Devils remembered for? I’d say that people most remember the goaltending of Martin Brodeur and the “Crash Line” (fitting for a trapping team). Disagree? Check the Wikipedia entry for “Mike Peluso.”

An upset is one thing, but it is hard to rationalize how a team with so little talent could sweep a team like Detroit. The Devils’ best offensive players were Scott Niedermayer (before he was fully developed), Stephane Richer, Neal Broten (who was aging fast) and Claude Lemieux (who scored only 19 points in 45 games during the season). On the other hand, they had a deep corps of defensive specialists led by Scott Stevens and Randy McKay. In net, they had Brodeur.

The Red Wings finished that season with a record of 33-11-4 and were coached by Scotty Bowman. They sported Paul Coffey, Sergei Federov, Steve Yzerman, Dino Ciccarelli, Keith Primeau, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Viacheslav Fetisov, and Vladimir Konstantinov, of whom six were hall-of-fame players at the peak of their careers. The goaltending tandem of Chris Osgood and Mike Vernon was one of the best in the league.

My explanation for the result is as follows: one team understood something about the game itself the other did not: that teaching untalented players to perform a simple task repeatedly could beat a team that did not employ a strategy tailored to respond in kind.

It should therefore not be surprising that people best remember the “Crash Line”: Mike Peluso, Bobby Holik and Randy McKay. Peluso recorded only 90 points in 9 NHL seasons. McKay had more offensive success than Peluso, but was far from a finesse player.

The same can be said for Holik. However one wants to disagree about their careers, the playoff stat lines are damning, to say the least. McKay led the group with a goal and two assists in twenty games. Holik came next with no goals and three assists in twenty games. Peluso had one goal and no assists.

There had been a drastic and disturbing mutation of the culture of the NHL. And, it was lauded as “good defensive hockey.” Nobody understood its magnitude at the time.

The major adjustment actually came in 1994. The Devils were without a doubt the first team to use a defense-first, second and third style despite having a talented team.

Technically, the 1994 Devils were better than the 1995 Devils. They had much more scoring power, but, in tie-game situations, coach Lemaire would send out Crash Line-caliber players rather than try to score. If he sent out Stephane Richer in a 4-on-4 situation late in a game, he would be paired with a defensive forward. Watch the Rangers-Devils series from 1994, and try to contradict me. You won’t have an easy time.

When the Devils discovered that they could employ this strategy and cut down on their pricey scoring forwards, keeping only three or four, they scored a mighty blow against the league, which had to deal with teams emulating the 1995 Devils for a decade. When teams noticed the Devils winning without much offensive finesse – and that it could only be fought with a similar strategy -- they copied what they saw. It was “countering” without the counter-attack. It saved money and yielded victory.

As you might have seen in a game this past season between the Canucks and Blue Jackets, skilled players often seemed secondary contributors, only truly making an impact if put on the power-play. In the years leading up to the lockout, teams even more devoid of offensive skill than anything we imagine today would experience success by coupling a good goaltender with a well-executed neutral zone trap and win, no matter how little talent they had.

The 1995-96 Panthers made it to the finals, and their best player was Scott Mellanby (hardly a sniper), with 70 points. Behind him, Florida’s best forwards were Rob Niedermayer, Ray Sheppard, Robert Svehla, Johan Garpenlov and Stu Barnes. What business had such a team in the Stanley Cup Finals?

Three years later, little had changed as the Buffalo Sabres lost in game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Their best scorer was Miroslav Satan (he missed nine playoff games, but it didn’t affect the Sabres’ ability to trap). Their second best scorers were pathetic: Michael Peca (56 points) followed by Michal Grosek (50 points) and Curtis Brown (47 points).

When the Devils met the Mighty Ducks in the 02-03 finals, a “final showdown” of sorts occurred. Consider a simple analogy: two kung fu masters face one another. (I understand that the general idea of kung fu is to use one’s opponent’s aggression against them.) In such a hypothetical situation, both fighters would simply wait for the other to make a move, and neither would do so. Perhaps that’s why I can’t remember the series at all.

In 03-04, the problem was getting worse as the Calgary Flames made the finals featuring what can only be described as Jarome Iginla, Miika Kiprusoff and a bunch of grinders. The second-leading scorer behind Iginla was Craig Conroy, with 47 points. He was followed by Shean Donovan, with 42 points.

Because of the emergence of teams that could win without much talent, brutish scoring tactics appeared. Again, the Devils provide us with a sterling example: In 1997-98, the Rangers were playing the Devils, who were on the power play and had their 2nd unit on the ice.

Because the Devils did not have as many skilled forwards as needed two full PP units, they had to act “creatively.” They stationed Polish coal miner (and you think I’m joking) turned NHL enforcer Krzysztof Oliwa in front of the net to cause a distraction.

After a few seconds, he was called for a blatant slashing penalty and the power play came to an end. Oliwa finished his NHL career with 45 points in over 400 games.

Fast-forward six seasons to game 5 of the 03-04 finals for an example of cause and effect. The aforementioned grinding Flames faced the Lightning. Calgary was having trouble scoring on Nikolai Khabibulin, so Ville Niemenen abandoned pretense and charged him for no apparent reason (the puck was nowhere near the goal, or to being shot). He was only suspended for one game.

People who try to defend the Devils’ tactics usually use one of two arguments. One: “The Devils were trend setters, they were just playing good defensive hockey” etc. This gets us nowhere because it implies that the future of the NHL lies in a sort of Dark Age of defensive hockey, impending financial doom and declining fan interest.

The other argument hinges on finance: “The Devils had no choice, they were being outspent, and had to find a way to compete.” First of all, they began the whole strategy when they had a talented team, and many of their successful teams of the 1990’s had enough scoring to compete on a normal basis.

Also, if the long-term goal of trapping was winning (without much spending) and financial success for the Devils, it was counter-productive because it drove the NHL to a point where hockey was so unpopular that only six teams could turn a profit (as explained in the Levitt Report).

You can credit the Devils for their success, but that avoids the crux of the matter: what they did was selfish.

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