Long time New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello announced yesterday, December 26th, that Pete DeBoer was relieved of his coaching duties after 3+ years at the helm.  DeBoer’s first season was his most successful, leading the Devils to Game 6 of the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals but went 66-65-35 since that run with no playoff berths – and certainly not on track to make the playoffs this season.  Lamoriello has yet to name a replacement for DeBoer, announcing he will address the team upon their return from the holiday break before publicly releasing the information.

WHY IT HAPPENED:

Based on the reaction both on social media and the traditional outlets – there are two main consensuses. First, that this change was needed, if not long overdue based on the team’s performance this year; and second, that the team’s performance cannot be solely, maybe even the majority blamed on DeBoer.  The Devils organization has been a symbol of stability since arriving in New Jersey and the envy of many throughout the NHL (save for maybe Wayne Gretzky) with their ability to acquire and develop talent and remain competitive over such a long period of time.  The Devils are no longer that organization and the sooner they can admit that, the sooner they can regain that status.  And it starts at the top.

In many of the DeBoer retrospectives that have been drafted today, the 2012 Stanley Cup run has been labeled a fluke. Winning the Stanley Cup (or even making it to the Finals) is regarded as one of, if not the hardest championship to win in professional sports.  I’m hesistant to call such a tough run to the Finals – twice staving off elimination and beating two hated rivals – a fluke, citing luck or chance.  Instead it would seem to be a perfect coming together of circumstances before an epic collapse that would begin in the ensuing off season and continue through today.  2011-12 was the last season that the Devils featured a complete and talented roster and not coincidentally was the last time many were impressed with Pete DeBoer as a coach.  Lou Lamoriello has long been regarded for his ability to build a complete team through trades and drafted talent.  He hasn’t made many mistakes in the last 27 years, but the most recent ones have piled up and this team is paying for it.

Five plus years removed from the 2008 and 2009 NHL Entry Drafts should mean that those top prospects are coming into their own and ready to be, if not already are, the future of their team. Names like Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Josh Bailey, Erik Karlsson, John Tavares, Victor Hedman, Matt Duchene, Chris Kreider, and Ryan O’Reilly top that list.  The Devils top two picks those years were Mattias Tedenby and Jacob Josefson. And yes, there are plenty of busts to go around and many of those players weren’t around when New Jersey was drafting – but Tedenby and Josefson were not a great start for a draft class that should be the core of the franchise in 2014. Out of 16 draft picks, only Brandon Burlon, David Wohlberg, Adam Henrique, Josefson, Eric Gelinas, and Seth Helgeson are still with the organization – and only the latter four spending quality time outside of Albany.

Drafting hasn’t been the only mistake Lamoriello has made of late. While its known that Lamoriello wasn’t the main driver behind bringing in Ilya Kovalchuk, both the initial trade and subsequent contract went against many of Lou’s usual standards for player acquisition.  He not only overpaid for a player, but did it for a guy who wasn’t known for his sytem play.  He also did it in a way that later cost him a draft pick (subsequently re-awarded) and on top of that, many believe cost him the chance to resign Zach Parise.  Even if former Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek did push Lamoriello to do the deal, it seems Lamoriello should have been savvy enough to do it without hurting his team in the years to come.  No one predicted that Kovalchuk would bolt for Russia so early in his contract, but between his and Parise’s departure and the poor drafting and development, the Devils are left with a huge void of talent at the forward position – something that if it happened 10-15 years ago, would have gone unnoticed on a well rounded team.

Lamoriello tried to compensate for these holes with aging veteran role players – the likes of Steve Sullivan, Michael Ryder, Ryane Clowe, and Tuomo Rutuu are no longer top choices for rebuilding an offense.  Combining the poor free agent additions with aging talent like Patrik Elias, Marek Zidlicky and Jaromir Jagr and DeBoer’s hesitancy to include young players in his lineup and you have the situation the Devils are in now.  Players the team needs to turn to for the future have minimal or inconsistent experience at the NHL level – or have been flat out mismanaged.  The Devils have some work to do to get out of this mess and it all starts now.

WHAT COMES NEXT:

We know the Devils have new ownership who are committed to creating a successful franchise in Newark and are willing to pay for it.  With the assumption that Lamoriello will retain his GM position (whether that’s right or wrong is a separate debate) – the next step forward is a new coach.  Many candidates have begun to surface and yet no real favorites have emerged from the rumor mill.  Lamoriello may have some flaws in his game, but his reputation for the unlikely still stands tall and keeps the media guessing. Instead of trying to get inside Lou’s head, it’s probably a better opportunity to look at what the Devils need in a coach.

The Options:

Young Blood – These guys have either been part of the Devils system as a coach or player (or both) and are well versed in the system.  While they may not have a lot of NHL experience, they bring a Devil mindset which Lamoriello has always favored.  The question is whether they know how to bring this team together and help develop young talent.  High risk, high reward and likely an interim title that accompanies any of these possible selections.

Outside the Family – Seems unlikely for Lamoriello to go this route, but maybe some new ideas is what this team needs.  There are a lot of big names in coaching looking for work with resumes that feature proven success.  Bringing in a fresh voice and new perspective might be welcome for a New Jersey team that still plays a very old school style of hockey.  Lamoriello certainly won’t allow a new coach to completely abandon the Devil way but some tweaks may be welcome; especially from a coach with a record of successful young player development.

Lamoriello Guys – Probably the most likely option based on the last 13 coaching moves that Lamoriello has made.  Guys who have coached with or under Lamoriello at some point in their career.  They are known quantities and will allow Lamoriello to continue to shape this team as he sees fit.  While this could be considered the safe route, it certainly hasn’t proven any long term success and may instead epitomize the aging decline the rest of the organization is already dealing with.  That said, its also unknown whether any of these names would be eager to get back behind an NHL bench, let alone one with as many question marks as the Devils.

 

The Devils do have a lot of question marks, but there is some room for optimism.  They are seemingly set between the pipes for the next decade between Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid.  They also have a young and talented set of defensmen, that with the proper management will make up a formidable blue line as they mature.  As discussed, the offense is where they need help and whatever coach they bring in will help select the direction this team goes.  Either they are ready to admit this season and this roster is a wash and it’s time to start building for the future or they continue down the path of aging forwards.  It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Lamoriello finds a way to bring in a big and unexpected name – hopefully not just for the remainder of this season, but for many to come.  We’ll find out tomorrow which route Lamoriello decides to go and that is where the Devils rebuilding process begins.

Allison was born in New Jersey and proudly supports the only professional sports team in the Garden State. A casual hockey fan growing up took on new life after 4 years at the University of New Hampshire. Two years as a huge Wildcat hockey fan, and two years working for the team turned her into a diehard and her fandom continues to grow. She follows both the collegiate and professional ranks and is actively involved in the business of the sport.

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