Friday, December 26, 2014

The Aftermath of Peter DeBoer's New Jersey Devils

Hello.  It's been a while.  Things are much different than they were when I did this blog thing regularly, and that isn't exactly a good thing.  Well anyway, that was then and this is now and right now, the New Jersey Devils are going through a coaching change...again.  By the time I finish typing this, they may have already named the successor to Peter DeBoer, but if not, perhaps this will be worth a few moments of your time.


You're still here.  The Devils haven't hired a new coach yet?  Okay then.

So the DeBoer era is over, much to the delight of I would estimate a fairly significant majority of Devils fans, yet I cannot help but feeling that this is an unfair reflection of DeBoer's time in New Jersey.  By Lou Lamoriello's standards, DeBoer stuck around for quite some time.  It is hard to imagine any coach surviving as long as DeBoer did after missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and on their way to a third straight season of golfing in April, but he has and there is something to be said for that.

Now you might be wondering why Lou waited as long as he did to put DeBoer out of his misery, but there are actually quite a few decent factors at play here.  First of all, the Devils just renewed DeBoer's contract entering the 2014-15 season.  Firing a coach in the first year of a new contract is never a priority on a General Manager's list.  Secondly, and this is what has been discussed at length among Devils fans, is that the demise of this hockey team is hardly DeBoer's fault.  Perhaps this rapid decline into oblivion has been inevitable for several years now.

That brings me to another point.  Many fans believe that with DeBoer being shown the door, Lamoriello should follow.  I would agree that since the 2005 lockout, the Devils have been a pretty lousy drafting team, and the development of the players they did draft has been underwhelming too (which admittedly is one of DeBoer's weakest links), and even in 2003, the Devils probably would have ended up with a decent player if they hadn't picked Zach Parise in the first round, but there is an explanation for such poor drafting: the Devils were always in the playoffs.  The Devils simply never rebuilt for such a considerable period of time that polishing the roster year after year finally caught up to them.

And then there's another factor that isn't really DeBoer or Lamoriello's fault (though you might at least partially blame unstable ownership): the departures of Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson.  The last season that those three played together was the 2011-12 campaign, which resulted in an Eastern Conference championship for the Devils.  The three tallied 98 times during the regular season and 19 more times in the ensuing playoff season.  Parise and Clarkson famously abandoned New Jersey as free agents and elected to play in their native cities, and the following summer, Kovalchuk did the same thing, except he "retired" to squeak his way out of an otherwise albatross of a contract and signed in Russia's KHL.  Within 14 months (and a lockout), 98 goals disappeared from the Devils' roster with absolutely zero compensation.  No players were traded back to New Jersey to replace the three.  No draft picks or prospects came, either.  The Devils lost three (well, two, really...) star players who could be relied on to produce with the NHL's best offensive snipers.

Ever since Parise, Clarkson and eventually Kovalchuk departed New Jersey, Lou Lamoriello has faced the daunting task of piecing together a respectable NHL roster that can at least not completely embarrass themselves on a nightly basis, and well, if not for a horrendous 0-13 shootout record last season, he might have put together a playoff-bound team.  Think about that, in a division as difficult as the Metropolitan, the Devils would probably have made the playoffs last season after losing 98 goals from their roster two seasons prior.

Entering this season, the Devils looked as if they might hang around the playoff bubble.  Why wouldn't they?  After all, with Martin Brodeur all-but a memory as a player in New Jersey, Cory Schneider was now the undisputed starting goaltender and adding players such as Mike Cammalleri and Martin Havlat could only help the offensive woes of last season, right?

Not much Nothing has gone to plan this season for the Devils.  There have been a ridiculous amount of injuries that have haunted the team, veterans are under-performing and the team is simply in disarray on the ice.  They don't score many goals and they allow too many.  They don't even do what they did so well last season: control the puck.  This season, they are getting outscored, outshot, out-chanced, outplayed and out-worked.  Oh, and they're still bad in shootouts.  No, Cory Schneider is not on his way to a Vezina Trophy this season, but the defense in front of him has not helped his cause at all.

Of course, fans are quick to point out DeBoer's shortcomings as head coach.  The ice time of Adam Larsson, Eric Gelinas and other young players is not at times fair.  His obsession with the fourth line and use of Marek Zidlicky, Bryce Salvador and company is often questionable.  His choice of shooters in various shootouts leaves you scratching your head on many nights, and those are all valid points.

The question I ask myself when critiquing DeBoer is this: would the Devils' record be any better this season if they were coached by Brent Sutter?  By Claude Julien?  By Larry Robinson?  Jacques Lemaire?  Perhaps they might have another two or three points, but when you look at the Devils' roster, it's hard to imagine the Devils being drastically better because of who is behind the bench.  The truth is - and Devils fans have a difficult time admitting to this - is that the Devils are simply a bad team.  They're not good on paper and they're worse on the ice.  They are a franchise that has endured success for many years and fans are not used to this, but that was then and this is now - this is the new reality.

I find it difficult at times to accept the "new reality."  For literally my entire lifetime, the Devils have been a perennial playoff team, but the team is simply abysmal right now.  This is an important time for the Devils organization and Lou Lamoriello's career.  Perhaps Lamoriello will bring in a defensively minded coach and try to get by for the remainder of this season or perhaps he will bring in someone who can develop the few high-end prospects the Devils do have and prepare for the future.  I won't start naming names as to who I think should replace DeBoer, because it is useless; in probably a few hours, we will all know who will coach the Devils moving forward.

If the Devils do decide to throw in the towel and prepare for the future, they should trade away players with significant value.  Yes, Devils fans, that includes Jaromir Jagr.  Even though Jagr is a shell of the player he was even nine months ago, he is one of few players that other teams might value.  There shouldn't be many "untradeables" (is Patrik Elias even "untradeable?").  The Devils should stockpile draft picks and any young talent they can acquire, and when they do, they should get ready and prepare for a crucial draft in franchise history.  The 2015 entry draft figures to be one with considerable talent, and the Devils cannot afford to waste the opportunity to bring in some rejuvenating players.  Poor drafting is somewhat understandable when you're busy winning Stanley Cups and making the playoffs every season, but after facing a fourth season in five years with no playoffs, the significance of quality drafting becomes a serious priority.

The next few days, weeks, months and even years may not be the most enjoyable part of Devils' history, but they figure to be interesting.  Or at least, maybe not the "status quo" we've been used to for so many years.