To be fair, the New Jersey Devils own nothing in the way of the postseason pantheon of torment against the Caps as do a couple of their Atlantic Division brethren. Really, you have to go back to the late ’80s to find a springtime torment they’ve authored against our guys. The teams first met in the postseason in 1988, with the Devils winning in seven games. They met next in 1990 — with the Caps prevailing in six games en route to an appearance in the Eastern conference finals. They haven’t met in the postseason since. So what’s to hate? Marty Brodeur? He’s got nothing on us in spring relative to say Johan Hedberg. Still, they’ve been exemplars of excellence in the East the past decade and a half — in wins, if not in aesthetics.
Did I just mention “aesthetics” and New Jersey Devils in the same sentence? Shame on me.
Over the last 20 years no team in hockey has done more to insulate the NHL from popular (i.e., ESPN) appeal than the Devils with their somnambulistic style of play. And amid all that gaudy winning they’ve had the turnstile numbers to prove it. For all that winning they carry a novel distinction: club most responsible for TV viewer tune-out, and club least likely ever to skate in a Winter Classic.
Here are things I’ve rather opened my wallet for the past 15 years than a ticket to a Devils’ visit to D.C.: painful dentistry; property taxes; parking at FedEx Field (admittedly hypothetical); boxed wine.
It is with this backdrop that I’d have you glance — and dance — upon the present misfortune of the forked ‘N.’ With a record of 2-6-1 they sit perched in 15th place in the Eastern conference this morning. Out of 15 teams. On Saturday night, with but one win at home on the ledger and hosting the thus-far underwhelming Buffalo Sabres, Devils’ rookie bench boss John MacLean . . . benched his $100-million-plus man, Ilya Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk had been a healthy scratch previously in his career, he just couldn’t recall when. The Devils, you’ll recall from the summer, initially attempted to sign Kovalchuk until he was 80, for a gazillion dollars. Instead, they settled for a 15-year pact worth $102 million. At present, about $100 million of it looks ill spent.
And we in Washington thought Michael Nylander’s contract was an albatross.
I was one who wondered exactly what Devils’ management saw in Kovalchuk after his acquisition from Atlanta last spring to bother pursuing him at all. He put up a point per game in 27 games with Jersey last spring (10 goals, 17 assists), but he was far from the game-breaking acquisition some believed he would be. Moreover, Kovy was conspicuously impact-less in another first-round flameout by the Devils last spring (three straight seasons of that). And then there’s this: Kovy is a floater, a dynamic offensive forward who’s seldom seen his own end. Square peg for a round hole, anyone? Kovalchuk could be a difference-maker for a number of competitive clubs, but in New Jersey’s system?
Really, he’s the antithesis of a Lou Lamoriello forward — he’s dynamic and exciting in the offensive end. But with respect to that monster contract: what if his best hockey is behind him?
That healthy scratch of Kovalchuk Saturday night helped deliver a 6-1 setback for the hosts. Thus rests the team’s record at home early on in 2010-11: 1-4-1. Last night the Devils lost in MSG to the beat-up Rangers, 3-1. Wait til the Flyers and Pens feast on them. The new coach apparently is on the proverbial “hot seat.” There is the very real possibility that Jersey could finish last in the Atlantic; they look that bad, and their manager, owning to what ESPN’s Scott Burnside has termed “chronic salary cap mismangement,” is now powerless to do anything about it.
The Devils of course have had Martin Brodeur as their bedrock the past decade and a half. He turned 38 this year. Early this season, he looks it. He’s got the whiff of very elder statesman to him now. He hasn’t looked especially reliable in recent postseasons, so what’s to think he’s likely to improve at this stage of his career?
The Caps have their problems, to be sure, but they pale in comparison to the tale of woe managed to this moment by Devil Lou. For some seasons now, it’s seemed as if New Jersey was at last going to receive its comeuppance in the standings. But Brodeur held the fort. No longer. So cash-strapped are the Devils that they’ve been forced to compete with as few as 15 skaters in a game earlier this season. Imagine.
The money numbers aren’t pretty. Kovalchuk the one dimensional becomes an unrestricted free agent in . . . drumroll . . . 2025. I love his cap hit beginning next year, in perpetuity: $6,666,666. Evil, indeed. Patrick Elias — beginning to look washed up himself (1 goal in nine games) — assaults the payroll for a cool $6 million. Dainius Zubrus — remember him? — devours $3.4 million through 2013. Ouch. Lou acquired Jason Arnott over the summer, too. He’s skating a tidy -8 (so is Elias). Brodeur’s $5.2 million comes off the books after 2012.
The Devils’ best skater has long been Zach Parise. He’s a restricted free agent next summer. Wonder if any teams will be interested in his services, knowing the balance sheet Lamoriello has to manage over the foreseeable future?
Confronting the increasingly pressing need to replace perhaps the greatest goalie in NHL history, Lamoriello went out and spent more than $100 million on an ill-fitting floater for his system this summer. That was a deadly dolt move on top of numerous other dud deals weighing down the roster. Now his squad is on a lottery-like pace.