It's taken me a great deal of time to be able to collect and organize my thoughts enough to put this together, but now that I've had a few weeks to drown my frustrations with beverage, scream at my TV like I thought it could understand me, and seriously contemplate giving up and counting the days until the draft, I think I can finally get my thoughts across in a rational matter and just maybe get to the bottom of this mess.
Lou Lamoriello always says one thing: you worry about what you can control, not what you can't. Unfortunately, he's the only one with the ability to control anything in the way of helping our poor Devils get back on the right track. But just in case he happens to stumble upon this, here is my master plan for bringing the Devils back from the depths of...hell.
Okay, enough with the melodrama, it's time for some real talk.
First of all, John MacLean does not need to be fired. He can certainly be criticized for not driving home a few key points, like--I dunno, having a system, any system, in place right now, or for the love of God would someone PLEASE GET IN FRONT OF THE NET ON THE POWERPLAY?!?! But aside from that, there's not much more he can do with this group. Sooner or later, the burden has to fall on the players to get the job done. Firing the coach is too easy, and as we've seen over the past five years, it hasn't made an ounce of difference. No, the real problem lies with the players, and with one inparticular: Jamie Langenbrunner.
Sorry folks, it's not 2003 anymore. Langenbrunner has morphed from playoff fiend into Captain Crybaby. He hardly plays with any real fire, and I don't think even he can remember the last goal he scored. We don't know what goes on in the locker room, but while other Devils at least show that they're trying to work their way out of this funk, Jamie lazily skates along. He talks the talk in the post-game interview alright, but the thing about talking like that is you're supposed to back it up on the ice, Jamie. Or at least try to.
If you want to kill the snake, you need to cut off the head. And fortunately for us, teams do want Langenbrunner. Veteran, NHL captain, playoff experience, a pair of Stanley Cups...he can bring a lot to a locker room. Just not our locker room. A change of scenery did wonders for Brian Gionta, and I think the same could happen for Langenbrunner. This is supposed to be our captain, the image of everything our team represents, the model our young players look to follow. And this is what they're looking at?
Trading Langenbrunner allows us to open up the captaincy for someone who earns that responsibility with their play on the ice, and their attitude off it. Once the position is open, let the players know that ANYONE on the team not named Martin Brodeur or Johan Hedberg can step up now and snatch it. It's only symbolism, but symbolism is powerful stuff. Personally I believe Parise--if he stays and damnit he better--is the best possible choice for captain, but only if he wants it, and continues to earn it with his play and hard work. He's already a better leader, that's for sure.
Of course you'll need to package someone else with Langenbrunner in order to make this a deal worth making for another team. Clarkson and/or Salvador would work fine here. Rolston would be ideal but we all know that can't happen thanks to his elephantine contract and wholly unjustified no-trade clause. It would hurt to have to give up players of that caliber, but somebody has to go eventually, and the sooner we stabilize our roster, the better off that roster will be.
You have to think that this turmoil caused by the Kovalchuk signing is a big part of why so many players are off their game. It seems to have hit Clarkson pretty hard. All of the things that Clarkson did to earn his new contract are now absent from his game. Sure he fights every now and again, but where are the flashy attempts at offense? Where is the chirping at other players constantly, the instigator-like attitude he used to have? Somehow I think it's the tentativeness of his place on the Devils, and not the fact that he just got married, that's turned him into a shell of his former self.
It is true that unloading a few players cannot resurrect an entire hockey team, but what it does is change the culture in a big way. No longer will the leadership core of this hockey team suffer from Langenbrunner Lethargy. Zach Parise being held as THE standard instead could potentially inspire a complete culture change in the locker room, and it sends a strong message to the young players that THIS is the type of effort and attitude we expect night in and night out.
At least a few players have come back from the brink. Colin White's career was definitely circling the drain last season, but being paired with Matt Taormina has rejuvenated him, and he looks strikingly similar to the Colin White of old. Dainius Zubrus is FINALLY playing like what we we've been paying him to play like since 2007. He is easily a bright spot on this early season. Rod Pelley--yes the "future John Madden" Rod Pelley--is by far the hardest worker on this bunch. He's made insane amounts of progress recently. The suddenly astonishing play of Matt Taormina has also been one of the few bright spots of the season.
As much as the present is painful, the future looks pretty bright. Thanks to our friends at CapGeek, you can see that if we are somehow able to navigate through the next two years, we pretty much have a clean slate from there on out. As it stands right now, we currently have 9 players under contract for the 2012-2013 season, or at least until the world ends halfway through the season. (Lighten up.) Those players are Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, Dainius Zubrus, David Clarkson (possibly--see above), Jacob Josefson, Anton Volchenkov, Henrik Tallinder, and Alexander Urbom, clocking in at $32.8 mil. Not great at this salary cap ceiling, but if things continue to improve for the NHL the ceiling should be a few million higher by then. And let's not forget that list doesn't include top prospects Adam Henrique, Mattias Tedenby, and Eric Gelinas, who will all still be under contract. Add Parise and Greene to that list and we're looking like a pretty decent team if our prospects continue to develop and start reaching their potential. And of course Tallinder will only have 2 years left on his deal, so if he's still playing like he is now, he's much easier to trade. Plus, only Kovalchuk, Elias, and Volchenkov have no-trade clauses, and we know how awesomely helpful those are for us. Now of course you also need to assume Martin Brodeur will be back for a nice short cap-friendly deal, and that Jeff Frazee continues to develop and can start transitioning into an NHL regular. Am I starting to lose you? Doesn't matter, it's a few years away. Let's get through this first.