As the losses have continued to mount, there have been any number of different reasons put forth as the root cause for the struggles. The play of everyone on the ice has been discussed and dissected every which way, yet we still see the same mistakes, and the same lack of fundamentals on display game after game.
At this point it seems fair to question whether the poor play on the ice is merely a symptom of a deeper problem. I've seen comments starting to head in that direction, suggesting that the team has tuned out Lemaire, or that a coaching change might be necessary. Personally, I think that a coaching change would be a short-term fix at best, and that what we're seeing is the culmination of a problem in the Devils' locker room that's been building for quite a while now. I think what we're looking at is a team that has lost its presence, its identity, and its will to win.
Back in 2000 when they overcame the 3-1 deficit to Philadelphia, Larry Robinson's tirade after game 4 got a lot of the credit, but would it have meant anything without guys like Ken Daneyko, Bobby Holik, Claude Lemieux, and Scott Stevens to set the tone for the players in the lockerroom and on the ice? The Devils were a team that built its identity around defense and toughness, and any one of those three guys could deliver a physical play to put the other team back on its heels. Stevens and Daneyko were there again in 2003, along with Joe Nieuwendyk after giving up the 3-1 series lead to Ottawa, and seeing the Ducks claw their way back into it every time the Devils seemed to have them against the wall in the Finals. Unfortunately for the Devils, Daneyko retired after the 2003 Finals, and Stevens only played a small portion of the following season before exiting the lineup for good.
And when Stevens and Daneyko retired, they took a significant piece of the team's identity with them. Since then, the Devils have lacked a true tone-setter both on the ice and in the room. There hasn't been anyone since Stevens who has brought that kind of presence to the team, the type of leader who could look around the room, tell the team to get on his back, and then go out and deliver a game-changing hit.
Maybe Niedermayer could have been that type of leader. Sure, he'd certainly never hit anyone like Stevens did, but he definitely had the skill to put his stamp on the game with an offensive play or a key defensive stop. Unfortunately, he only had that one partial season as the Captain and focal point, before the Devils lost in the first round of the playoffs. And things have just gotten worse since the lockout. I don't want to knock Elias and Langenbrunner as players, but as Captains, it seems like they were picked mostly because there wasn't a better option at the time.
And since the lockout, the Devils have shown the inability to rise up in the face of adversity and fight their way back into a series (see 5-game second round losses to Carolina in '06 and Ottawa in '07, and the 5-game first round loss to the Rangers in '08). They've also wilted in the face of physical play (see the way Sean Avery was allowed to run wild in that '08 series, and the way Andrew Peters has mostly failed to be an effective enforcer this season). And they've shown an inability to stay focused and a tendency to crumble when things don't go well (see the end of game 7 against the Hurricanes last year, and the innumerable times opponents have scored goals in rapid succession this year).
Who on this year's team can be the one to step up and put the team on his shoulders? Who on this team is standing up in the dressing room, telling the others "We are NOT going to lose," and then going out on the ice and getting it done? You'd think if they had that sort of leader in the room, he'd have done it by now.
What I think this team needs, more than a shutdown defenseman, more than a new coach, and more than a new goalie, is a heart transplant.