It is often said that professional sports are, at times, a copycat endeavor. If there is a new way of doing something and it’s followed by success, other organizations try to copy it until eventually it is schemed to stop its success until something newer comes along, and so it goes. However, what the New Jersey Devils and the moribund Edmonton Oilers are doing is something I feel extremely comfortable in saying won’t be copied, any time soon.
The Devils decided to fire head coach Peter Deboer after coming out of the gate with a 12-17-7 record. This is the same Peter DeBoer who guided the Devils to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012 against the eventual-champion Los Angeles Kings, where they lost in six hotly contested games.
Apparently, New Jersey Devils President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Lou Lamoriello decided that the head coach was the issue rather than the continued failings of trying to “get the band back together” and “the future is now”, referring to continued attempts to try to win with an aged team and clinging to the 90s, literally and figuratively.
It’s true that the Devils’ performance and record were starting to trend, downwards under DeBoer; however, it’s possible yet not apparent to Lamoriello that DeBoer might not be responsible for the team’s failings. Rather, it’s the failings, over several seasons of a tired and outdated formula for success, that Lamoriello is solely responsible for. Lou’s annual rite of firing coaches in a revolving door fashion, similar to how George Steinbrenner did with Yankees managers, might not be the panacea as in days of old.
The Devils are the NHL’s oldest team, averaging nearly two years older than the 2nd oldest NHL squad, the Philadelphia Flyers, who are struggling with the repercussions of an aging blueline and over four years older, in average, to the National Hockey League’s youngest team, the Columbus Blue Jackets.
But, beyond the age issue, the Devils are a team whose downward spiral is merely the sign of things to come, so long as Lamoriello continues to stick to his archaic ways. The Devils rank 27th in goals scored per game and their leading point producer is soon-to-be 43 year old Jaromir Jagr who is scoring at a putrid 0.53 points per game pace.
Their goal differential (-30) is also 27th in the NHL, in spite of having one of the best young goaltenders in the NHL in Cory Schneider and a solid blueline. And while it’s surprising that Lamoriello actually has a young goalie in net, part of the problem was once again his in hanging on to legendary netminder Martin Brodeur for far too long.
According to Hockey’s Future, and note the running theme, here, their development system ranks 27th in the NHL so any pipeline of hope in the future is faint. A lot of the current impingements to their development system resulted in Lamoriello ‘rolling the dice’ in acquiring then attempting, before the NHL league offices rejected it via the Collective Bargaining Agreement, to sign former NHL sniper Ilya Kovalchuck to a long-term contract. That deal was an alleged attempt by Lamoriello to circumvent the CBA by designing the contract to pay a significantly smaller amount in years 16 and 17 of the 17-year agreement. Eventually, the issue was resolved but that was not without some trepidation as Kovalchuck was deemed to be a free agent until the contract was redesigned for a 15-year term and, until the NHL decision was reversed in 2014, the Devils had to surrender a 3rd round pick in 2011 and 1st round picks in the succeeding four consecutive NHL Entry drafts.
But both the residue of the signing along with the impingement of the trade for Kovalchuck came to a screeching halt when he shocked the Devils by announcing his retirement, at 29 years of age, then bolted two weeks later for the Kontinental Hockey League, leaving a significant void in goalscoring, particularly after Zach Parise opted to leave the Devils via free agency the previous season and sign with the Minnesota Wild.
You would think that this systematic bumbling by Lamoriello would put his job status at risk, particularly with mounting financial struggles; however Lamoriello has skirted free of any such ‘hot seat’, even after the team was sold to co-owners Josh Harris and David Blizter in 2013.
But now, Lamoriello has shown either absolute desperation or an inability to acknowledge any fault of his by firing DeBoer and deciding, once again, to appoint himself as head coach as he did from 2005-2007. Currently, he’s serving as one of three head coaches with Adam Oates and Scott Stevens splitting the coaching duties. The Devils are 1-3-0 since the change.
If this decision to return to the bench sounds familiar and somewhat ridiculous, the former President and GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Doug MacLean, attempted to do the same in 2002-2004 when he felt that the highly-respected Dave King wasn’t doing a credible job behind the expansion Blue Jackets bench with a squad that he also developed. The results then were disastrous as MacLean compiled a record of 24-43-8 and eventually stepped down.
Not to be outdone, the Edmonton Oilers, the NHL’s worst team, also decided that Dallas Eakins was the issue behind the bench and Craig MacTavish decided to serve in both roles behind the Oilers bench with similar awful results. The Oilers are 1-4-4 since the change.
With new ownership, perhaps Harris and Blitzer are giving Lamoriello the ‘benefit of the doubt’ or are allowing him some leeway to dig himself out of the mess that he alone created, but his desperate, foolhardy moves have sent the Devils into a spiral that will take several years to correct so hopefully, the clock is already ticking and Lamoriello’s reign of tired and archaic ways will soon come to an end.