New Jersey Devils, 1987-present
Atlantic Division Titles, 1996-1999, 2000-2001, 2002-2003, 2005-2007, 2008-2010
Playoff Appearances: 1988, 1990-1995, 1997-2004, 2006-2010, 2012
Stanley Cup Finals Appearance: 1995, 2000-2001, 2003, 2012
Stanley Cup Victories: 1995, 2000, 2003
Lou Lamoriello is the longest tenured general manager in the NHL today. No other NHL GM has served a team longer than Lamoriello has.
He is also (by my calculations) the greatest active NHL GM today in terms of career value. He leads Ken Holland by four points. However in terms of Average Season Rating (ASR) he only ranks eighth (between Boston’s Pete Chiarelli and St. Louis’ Doug Armstrong).
Lou Lamoriello was the second best GM of the 1990s (finishing 21 points behind Craig Patrick) and the 2000s (where he was 15 points behind Ken Holland). Today, though, in the 2010s, Lou Lamoriello is the 15th best GM of the 2010s and is in danger of sinking even lower in the rankings if the Devils do not get out of their present doldrums.
On the positive side though, Lamoriello was the greatest GM of the NHL’s third expansion era (1991-2001) and he is presently the second greatest GM of the 21st century (albeit he is 47 points behind Detroit’s Ken Holland in those stakes and he’s in danger of losing his second place spot to Pittsburgh’s Ray Shero who is fast closing in on him).
Lamoriello won the rare honor of earning induction into the HHOF in 2009 because he was responsible for lifting the New Jersey Devils from the bowels of hockey hell whence they had been cast into since they arrive in North Jersey in 1982; changing them from being the laughing stocks of the NHL into one of the toughest defensive-minded teams in NHL history; drafting, signing, nurturing, and developing some of the greatest players in NHL history during the past quarter century; and discovering and unleashing great coaching talent as well.
The term “builder” is supremely appropriate to describe Lamoriello as a general manager.
Lamoriello was exposed to hockey at a very young age. His father was a restaurateur in Providence and his eatery was a frequented heavily by members of the Providence Reds hockey team (Johnny Bower was a regular customer). Lou went to Providence College and graduated there in 1963.
He was a schoolteacher during the 1960s but returned to Providence College to coach the men’s hockey team—a job he held for 14 year before he was promoted to athletic director in 1982. He molded Providence College into a winner and guided them to the Frozen Four in 1983.
Lamoriello was instrumental in forming Hockey East along with other New England colleges and universities and became its first commissioner. (Today the championship trophy for Hockey East is named the Lamoriello Trophy).
Based on this alone, Lamoriello would have merited entry into the Hockey Hall of Fame but his real work was about to begin.
In 1987 he left the safe confines of Hockey East to try to make his name in the suburban asphalt jungle of North Jersey. He agreed to become the general manager of the New Jersey Devils.
Before his arrival, the Devils were the laughing stock of the NHL; a travesty of a franchise. They had existed for thirteen seasons and had relocated from Kansas City to Colorado and now to Rutherford, New Jersey. They had never had a winning season. (Their best winning percentage was in 1986/87 when they reached .400%) and the team had earned only one playoff appearance.
If anyone had suggested in 1987 that Lamoriello would mold the team into winners and conference finalists in his rookie season; that the team would win the 1995 Stanley Cup; and that the team would go on a streak of thirteen consecutive winning seasons and win two more cups in three tries from 1996 to 2010 they would have been laughed into silence.
And yet that’s exactly what Lou Lamoriello did.
The question is how?
Lamoriello made the Devils scouting department one of the best in the NHL. He husbanded the team’s financial resources carefully and was judicious and tough in the way he negotiated player contracts. If a player was recalcitrant in signing a contract there was always another bright, young phenom in the minors or a promising draft pick to replace the player in question. He would not sell the team’s birthright nor sacrifice the team’s future in quick free-agent signing fixes if he could help it. He was not xenophobic. He was quick to draft talent from the Soviet Union.
He was always striking gold in his drafts: Brendan Shanahan in 1987; Bill Guerin in 1989; then, in 1990, the greatest goaltender of all-time: Martin Brodeur; Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rolston in 1991; Patrik Elias in 1994; Petr Sykora in 1995; Scott Gomez in 1998; Zach Parise in 2003; Travis Zajac in 2004; and Adam Larsson in 2011.
Lamoriello imposed his ethics upon the team: if you were willing to play (and/or coach) within his guidelines and live up to his ideals (which became the team’s ideals) then you would always have a home in North Jersey. Those who did so began and ended their careers in New Jersey. Those who didn’t always left.
Pat Burns biographer Rosie DiManno writes, “As a franchise, the Devils had their own way of doing things, which wasn’t flashy or histrionic. Psychologically, they were outliers, marching to a monotonous drum beat, anonymous and controversy-free. Except for their devotion to a defensive doctrine, Jersey was…even-keeled, almost anal.”
It wasn’t just players who had to conform it was the head coaches too. Lamoriello went through five head coaches (including the late Herb Brooks) before he found Jacques Lemaire and gave him the platform where he could develop into one of the greatest head coaches in hockey history.
Lamoriello thought he had found a gem in Robbie Ftorek but Ftorek violated the prime directive with his needless confrontations with players and the press alike. Lamoriello didn’t hesitate. He fired Ftorek with eight games to go in the regular season and watched as the Devils won the 2000 Stanley Cup with interim coach Larry Robinson. (He did the same thing again in 2007 to Claude Julien).
When he hired the late Pat Burns in 2002 he only did so after he had gotten Burns’ solemn word that he would tone down his emotional pressure-cooker style. It is a sign of Lamoriello’s stature as a GM that Burns agreed to do this and came through wonderfully, leading the Devils to their final Stanley Cup win in 2003.
Today, Lou Lamoriello stands at a crossroads. Although he is presently ranked sixth according to my rating system, his stature has declined slightly. He had been ranked fifth but last season’s last place finish and failure to make the playoffs cost Lamoriello six points from his career value and he fell from fifth to sixth. He stands to drop even further if Detroit’s Ken Holland exceeds him this coming 2013/14 season (a likely possibility).
Also New Jersey (facing financial troubles) has acquired new ownership. The Devils are in rebuilding mode and it remains for Lou Lamoriello if he can end the Devils’ one season playoff drought and help the Devils regain their position in the Eastern Conference.
Still, the Devils’ troubles remain a far cry from what they faced in 1987 when Lamoriello took over. Lamoriello has proven that he can overcome the great crises—a trait reserved for the truly great general managers of the hockey world.
(Next week’s column will feature the fifth greatest general manager in NHL history.)