The New Jersey Devils have missed the playoffs three of the past four seasons and could very well make it four in five in 2014-15. Injuries could have something to do with that, but so is the lack of organizational depth the Devils used to enjoy.
On a night when Martin Brodeur was stopping pucks for someone other than the New Jersey Devils for the first time in his Hall of Fame career, the man who drafted him almost a quarter century ago was feeling equal measures of happiness and wistfulness.
“Certainly you have mixed feelings,” Lou Lamoriello told thn.com during the first intermission of his team’s 5-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday night. “But I understand. Marty and I have talked about it quite a bit. He’s been skating at our rink for the last month and this was something he wanted to do.”
There are still vestiges of the Devils dynasty on their roster in the form of the injured Patrik Elias and the repatriated Scott Gomez, but the Devils are learning to live without Martin Brodeur. But more importantly, they’re learning to live as one of the pack. The Devils, when all their players are healthy, are a 7-11 team, one capable of finishing anywhere between seventh and 11th in an inferior Eastern Conference. As an organization they’ve missed the playoffs three of the past four seasons and the only time in the past seven they’ve gone beyond the first round was three years ago when they marched to the Stanley Cup final.
They entered Thursday night’s game 12th in the east and to be sure, injuries to key players such as Elias, Jaromir Jagr, Martin Havlat, Ryane Clowe, Travis Zajac and Bryce Salvador have something to do with that. But there was a time during their salad days that the Devils had the depth to overcome a rash of injuries. They also had the depth in their organization to be able to absorb the departure of players via free agency and to constantly push their veterans. There’s no way the Devils of a decade ago sign injury prone wingers (Clowe and Havlat) or a washed up 34-year-old (Gomez) the way the Devils have done lately. The organization that once was able to puff out its chest when it came to judging the value of players and finding them where others were unable to has taken a serious hit in terms of organizational depth.
“I would say that’s fair,” Lamoriello said. “With the collective bargaining agreement, that’s happening to a lot of teams. But there’s no doubt we have to improve our depth, especially at forward.”
Last season, the Devils finished 24th in THN’s annual Future Watch edition with only one prospect, Stefan Matteau, ranked in the top 50. Matteau’s adjustment to pro hockey has been a long-term project – he has just one goal in 17 American League games this season – so the Devils have no choice but to keep him in the minors while he develops his game. But the Devils used to do that with almost every player they had, but this year they have a 19-year-old Damon Severson on their blueline who came directly out of junior hockey.
When the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 2000, they did so on the strength of their drafting and developing players. That year the players on their roster they had drafted included Scott Niedermayer, Sergei Brylin, Petr Sykora, Jay Pandolfo, Gomez, Elias, Krzysztof Oliwa, Ken Daneyko, Colin White, Brad Bombardir, Brodeur and Chris Terreri. John Madden and Brian Rafalski were unearthed as undrafted free agents. Three years later, they had nine such players in their lineup.
For their game last night against the Leafs, the Devils had homegrown players Andy Greene, Jon Merrill, Stephen Gionta, Adam Henrique, Jacob Josefson, Gomez, Eric Gelinas, Seth Helgeson, Severson and Mike Sislo in the lineup, with Elias and Zajac injured and Adam Larsson out with the flu.
So really, in terms of quantity, the Devils are pumping out NHL prospects with as much frequency as they did during their glory days. But it’s pretty clear the caliber of young players the Devils are bringing along is lacking compared to the good old days. For their game against the Pittsburgh Penguins Tuesday night, Gomez took the opening faceoff and he was the youngest player on that line – Jagr and Elias were his linemates. On their roster, the Devils have 15 players who are 30 or older.
Does this sound like the Devils you used to know? Some wonder whether Lamoriello has lost his touch. There was a day when there was no better player evaluation duo in the NHL than Lamoriello and Devils executive vice-president and director of scouting David Conte. They were hockey’s gold dust twins. They took risks on players that other teams couldn’t understand and they paid off. When talking about Madden in 2003, Lamoriello said the Devils unearthed him at the University of Michigan while watching the progress of another Michigan prospect Brendan Morrison.
The Devils were perfectly justified in their decision to move on from Brodeur. But it’s what Brodeur and his ill that represent the most gaping hole in the Devils organization these days. The Devils, once the toast of the league, have become just another team finding their way in the hockey universe.