Over the last fifteen seasons (going back to 1993-1994), the New Jersey Devils have been one of the elite franchises of the National Hockey League. With three Stanley Cups, five appearances in the Finals, and three other seasons during which the Devils posted the best record in the Eastern Conference, there's been a lengthy history of success. Outside the 1995-1996 season, where a loss on the final day kept the Devils out of the playoffs, the team has been a mainstay of postseason play.
Alas, it is starting to look like this season may not follow the same script. But is everything as bad as it seems? Is there an example out there of a team with a similar history of recent success that has gone through a rough season of their own, yet switfly bounced back to resume the play and results their fans had become accustomed to?
Ladies and Gentlemen, I respectfully submit to you the 2006-2007 Flyers.
Like the Devils, the Flyers have been mainstays in the Eastern Conference playoff picture for many seasons. Since 1995, the Flyers have missed the playoffs just once -- the aforementioned 2006-2007 season that will be analyzed in greater depth shortly. In those fourteen seasons, the Flyers have made six appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals (1995, 1997, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2010) and twice fell in the Stanley Cup Finals (1997 to Detroit, 2010 to Chicago).
For most of their history, Philadelphia has gained the moniker "Broad Street Bullies", based on how they built their team and how that team played. And prior to the lockout, the Flyers were very much bullies, both on the ice and in the off-season. One of a handful of teams blessed with vast resources through which to procure players, and without a salary cap to constrain them, it often seemed Philadelphia could simply go out and buy the talent they wished to stock their roster with. Many mistakes could simply be papered over with more cash, and/or foisted off on other teams.
Coming out of the lockout, the Flyers seemed destined to take a step back, at least at the start. The new salary cap handicapped their ability to put together a roster without regard to cost. The emphasis on calling obstruction-type fouls meant a physically intimidating but slow defense would be something of a liability. Still, the Flyers led the Atlantic Division for most of the 2005-2006 season, eventually coughing up said lead on the final day when the Devils' eleventh consecutive win allowed the Jersey boys to catch them (and win the tiebreak). The Flyers finished 4th in the Conference, but would get ousted by the Buffalo Sabres in six games in the first round of the playoffs.
With those shortcomings exposed, and the health of key players coming into question -- Peter Forsberg was starting to lose the battle with time and the accumulation of injuries, while Keith Primeau's last concussion ended his career after only nine games in the previous season, it was expected that the Flyers were going to take a step back. Going to ESPN's pundits' preseason predictions, Scott Burnside figured the Flyers would have to scratch and claw just to make it into the playoffs, and John Buccigross expected the Flyers to miss the playoffs altogether. Still, neither writer saw what was going to happen....
The Flyers fell flat on their faces coming out of the gate. By October 20th, a 3-2 loss to the Florida Panthers dropped them to 1-6-1, and only three of the seven losses were "close" (meaning one goal or shoot-out). Some changes had already been initiated: veteran forward Petr Nedved was waived and sent to the AHL after the fifth loss. With six days between games, however, the overhaul began in earnest. On October 22nd, GM Bobby Clarke resigned, and head coach Ken Hitchcock was fired.
A carousel of player moves between the Flyers and their AHL affiliate would begin, with players shuffling back and forth. Even though the Flyers started well under new head coach John Stevens, with wins in his first and third games, the bleeding wasn't really stopped... the Flyers were considered awful throughout the entire year. By December 27th, the Flyers sported a miserable record of 8-24-4. In January, the team dropped nine games in a row. Several more lengthy losing streaks would follow, with the season mercifully coming to an end with a 4-3 win against Buffalo that raised the final tally to 22-48-12.
How bad do the final standings look? Philadelphia finished with 56 points. The next worst team in the NHL (Phoenix) had 67.... and the next worst-team in the East (Washington) had 70. Simon Gagne was the team's most consistent scorer, netting 41 goals and tallying 68 points. Other than Mike Knuble (24-30-54), there wasn't a whole lot in the way of supporting numbers for a variety of reasons.
So what went wrong?
The first part of the answer involves the team itself. A lot of "smart hockey people" believed the Flyers were an ill-conceived team for the post-lockout era. The defense was slow and aging, and the offense was populated by a number of aging veterans and not enough youth. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, two of the current Flyers' mainstays, were in their second seasons back then. Looking at their individual skater statistics for the season, there are a large number of veterans who are no longer in the League five years later. In hindsight, the Flyers were a team built for another era, and the new rules and restrictions made it difficult for them to quickly evolve the club.
The second part of the answer also comes from a perusal of the individual skater statistics. A quick count reveals the team used forty-four skaters and five goalies during the season, and that only two players made it to 80 games played during the year. A perusal of the transaction pages (2006 here... 2007 here) shows there was an awful lot of roster shuffling between the Flyers and the Phantoms. When the cast of characters on the ice is constantly changing, it can be difficult to generate chemistry and desired results. Beyond that, there were a substantial number of injuries.... although some of that might be expected considering the age of the team and the fragility of some of their players -- e.g. Peter Forsberg.
Finally, there was a complete lack of offense. The Flyers managed a mere 214 goals in this wretched season, which left them tied for 26th in the NHL (and dead last in the East). In addition, they allowed a League-high 303 goals, and not surprisingly had a League-worst goal differential of minus-89. Seventeen different Flyers had a plus/minus below minus-ten, including Petr Nedved's astouding minus-20 (in 21 games!).
So what did the Flyers do to try and rectify this disaster?
At the start, they did change their coach and general manager (although both returned to the franchise in other roles later in the season). They kept a revolving door to their AHL affiliate hoping to find some combination that would work. Finally, they accepted that the cause was lost and started to move on.
The veteran pieces were moved where possible. Alexei Zhitnik, who had been acquired from the Islanders to attempt to shore up the blue line, was in turn dispatched to Atlanta for Braydon Coburn. Goaltender Martin Biron was dealt off for a future draft pick. The biggest move was the trade of Peter Forsberg to Nashville, netting the Flyers Scottie Upshall and Ryan Parent and a first-round pick. The first round pick would be returned to Nashville for Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen before the 2007 draft. With their own first-round pick, the Flyers selected forward James van Riemsdyk. Finally, the Flyers would sign Daniel Briere at the opening of free agency.
And where does that leave this season's New Jersey Devils?
As of this writing, the Devils are dead last in the NHL in goals scored for 2010-2011. Only four teams have allowed more goals than has New Jersey. The Devils are also last in goal differential. The Devils have been hammered by injuries and have had something of a revolving door with the Albany AHL club. There are questions regarding the coach and even the general manager. There are two possible conclusions to draw from the eighteen-game sample thus far. Either this is an aberration, that there is enough talent on this club to yet turn it around and surmount the problems that have been placed in the team's path. Or this is simply "one of those years", and the franchise would be best served sacrificing the immediate short-term to save the good of the years ahead.
If one believes the Devils will turn it around, that all they need to do is get healthy and revert to the form of seasons past, that the chemistry (or lack thereof) is not a team-killer, that the coach and the "system" can work.... then all one needs to do is give it time to happen. Or, at worst, make some changes around the edges without blowing everything up (including a coaching change).
If one believes this Devils team is the spiritual successor to the Flyers team described in detail above, then it is time to prepare a plan going forward, and to answer a few pertinent questions:
Is the current leadership team the right group going forward? By "leadership team", I mean the coach and general manager. Is it possible that "the game has passed Lou Lamorello by"? Is John MacLean the right coach for this team in the years ahead?
It is my opinion that Lou Lamorello has earned the right to steward this team for as long as he sees fit. If he wishes to remain General Manager and Grand Poobah of All He Surveys, that is good enough for me.
As for John MacLean, I think the jury is still out, although I'm starting to move into the "not the right coach" camp. However, if this is a "lost season", then there is no particular reason to rush his termination, unless the coach "for the long term" is available for an immediate hire. There is nothing in particular to gain by changing coaches now, and then changing again in June. Most of the top coaching "candidates" already have jobs, and teams are loathe to allow a coach to walk in the middle of the season, especially to a rival organization.
For the record, I do not think that Ken Hitchcock is the "right guy" for the long haul, if the season is given up as lost. While he is a disciplinarian, and a change in culture would certainly benefit the Devils, Hitchcock does not have the best record working with youth.... and the youth is the Devils' future.
What moves can the Devils make for the long term? When the Flyers shifted gears to "give up" on 2006-2007, they started trading off veteran parts that other teams would find attractive. Short of trading Travis Zajac or Zach Parise, the Devils likely do not have a player who can net the grand haul the Flyers received for Peter Forsberg (four players, three of whom are still significant pieces on the present-day club).
However, there are several players who might fetch something decent in return on the open market.... especially if they were to waive their No Trade Clauses. Jamie Langenbrunner might be attractive to some contenders, with his combination of veteran grit and leadership and a friendly contract ($2.8 million this season and then free agency). Jason Arnott could potentially be dealt at the deadline to a team needing a second-line center, as his contract also expires at the end of the year and he's a veteran leader with loads of playoff experience. If healthy, Bryce Salvador and/or Colin White could also help a contender needing depth on the blue line. And while Brian Rolston and Dainius Zubrus both have difficult contracts, perhaps one or both would be useful to a team needing extra scoring and depth.
Past that, a "lost season" would be an opportunity to give extended auditions to young players, and perhaps to pencil others into roles they would not otherwise get a chance to fill, all to discover what certain guys can provide. Perhaps David Clarkson would get an opportunity to skate on the top line with Zajac and Parise or Kovalchuk. When healthy, Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby could get an extended run and opportunities on special teams to see what they are capable of. The youth on the Devils' blue line could be allowed to grow into their game at the NHL level without the angst over every loss or goal allowed. Other players could be brought up from Albany and given the same opportunities.... if every last win is not the ultimate concern, perhaps Martin Brodeur could be rested down the stretch some, and someone like Jeff Frazee recalled to "get his feet wet" and see if he can cut it at the top level.
So which scenario is it for the Devils? And which scenario to the Powers That Be think it happens to be?