Three Important Quotes from Rich Chere's Fascinating Article on the New Jersey Devils' Locker Room Issues

NEWARK, NJ - APRIL 22: Jamie Langenbrunner #15 and Patrik Elias #6 of the New Jersey Devils look on against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Prudential Center at on April 22, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey. The Flyers will advance to the next round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

In Lou We Trust user C.J.Richey121 posted earlier this morning, this fascinating Rich Chere article about Jamie Langenbrunner, Jacques Lemaire, and the issues in the New Jersey Devils locker room from the 2009-10 season.

It's well worth your time to read it.  In light of what in what some critics have said about Langenbrunner's and the team's playoff performance - myself included on both the captain and the team (players & coaches) - it paints a nuanced picture of what actually went on among the team behind closed doors.

Rather than go into every detail, I'd like to highlight three quotes that really stuck out when I read it and my additional thoughts based on those quotes with respect to this past regular season and playoffs. 

 

Here's the first quote that struck me:

"There were some differences of opinion when it came to dealing with a few issues," Langenbrunner said. "There were some things that were done that probably didn’t help the situation. For most of the season it was fine, up until Christmas."

So much for the canard that the arrival of Ilya Kovalchuk messed up the team's chemistry or anything like that.  

Though, this makes the issue even worse in my opinion. By Christmas, the team was incredibly successful amid several serious injuries to Devils players.   In retrospect, I think a slump was inevitable - teams tend to regress to their mean overtime and after being up so high early, there had to be some sort downfall.   Still, I can't help but think these issues that Langenbrunner talks about may have exacerbated the slump in some way. 

I will never know the full details of what happened in the locker room during 2009-10, so I freely admit that I don't necessarily know what I'm talking about.  That said, given how the season ended as well as the other issues brought up in the article continuing through the playoffs, it certainly doesn't seem that all of them were addressed in any constructive manner.  To me, that's on the players as well as Lemaire and his staff - and maybe even management.  Was there any sign of an out-reach to at least say, "OK, you're not happy about X; let's actually discuss your problem with X, can we at least come to some sort of agreement about X?"  Some kind of constructive discussion at all?

In any case, right after that quote comes quote-of-importance #2:

"There were a few things that happened, a few issues that were tough for me to let go. I probably didn’t handle them correctly. Not all personalities completely mesh, but they are able to work together. I had no problems with the way he treated me. It was more about team issues that we would never agree on."

Lemaire’s need to constantly juggle line combinations was questioned by some players and Ilya Kovalchuk’s freewheeling individual freedom and quarterbacking on the power play did not sit well with others.

Really, Jamie.  You probably didn't handle them correctly? 

I'll admit that while reading this, a part of me is sympathetic for the players.  I'd be pretty unhappy too if my role on the team wasn't clearly defined, that I may not find out until close to game-time that I'm not playing, and were I the captain, that someone else would have the 'C' if I'm not playing.

Another part of me is rolling their eyes heavily.  Maybe it's my unhappiness from the playoffs and Langenbrunner in particular   Let me echo Gabe Desjardens on intangibles for a moment.  Nearly every one of those players on the New Jersey Devils has played hockey for most of their lives, having dealt with all kinds of personalities at every level of the game, and enjoying success to varying degrees at the amateur or professional level.  These are not children, these are fully-grown adults who know way more about what it takes to play in the NHL than I ever will.  I don't know what's going on in their heads and unless you're one of those players, you don't know either.  Therefore,  I think it is foolhardy to believe or assume that they are so fragile emotionally and professionally that disagreement with a coach's decision - something I'm sure they felt at one point of their lives or another before even thinking about the NHL - is going to undercut their performance on the ice.

And yet, that's what I'm being sold here by this article.  They were bothered by it and therefore it may have carried over into their performance.  Maybe I have it wrong.  Maybe the team's collective psyche was that much bothered by Lemaire's decisions - even from the fourth liners/sixth-defenseman who learned about not playing in a postseason game during the day.  Maybe Langenbrunner's own quasi-admission of guilt led to further rifts that apparently not too many players looked to reach over which affected their performance in their own way.  Maybe the team needs to hire a new psychologist or therapist?

An Aside: I don't believe for a second that if the Devils/Langenbrunner had did not these apparent problems, then they would have beaten the Flyers in the first round.  Unless a happy locker room somehow correlates to shooting the puck more precisely and I'm just not aware of the connection, or something.  At most, this was a contributing cause, not the root cause.

That all said, here's the third quote:

Langenbrunner was unhappy about being a healthy scratch for the April 3 game in Raleigh, N.C., and remained silent on the matter for the next four days. He still will not discuss the incident in detail, but two other members of the organization suggested Lemaire disrespected Langenbrunner by trying to give the "C" to defenseman Colin White for that one game.

White wouldn’t wear it.

"I look up to Jamie. He is our leader," White said. "I’ve always looked up to him and I’ve told him that. I don’t think our (team’s) leadership can be challenged."

You may see this as a great thing.  That Colin White was (is?) fully behind Langenbrunner as captain so much so, that he didn't even want to wear the 'C' when he would sit for a game.  In a way, it was a great thing. A team's captain should have the support of his teammates.  This example validates Langenbrunner wearing the 'C.'

Yet, what was Lemaire supposed to do? He felt Langenbrunner needed to rest and in that case, he needed to name a replacement captain for just one game.  As one of the alternates, surely White would have fit the bill for just one game.  White wouldn't even do that - and apparently neither Zach Parise or Patrik Elias didn't or weren't asked - and so Lemaire went with just 3 alternates on April 3, 2010.  As it turned out, Langenbrunner returned after that game and wore the 'C' ever since.   It wasn't as if it was up for competition.

Perhaps I'm overthinking this, but if an alternate captain isn't willing to take the 'C' for a game, then what does that say?  That the team will follow the team captain so much so that they cannot step up when he isn't available or isn't inspiring the team?

The larger point is that with most of the team returning for 2010-11, Langenbrunner is likely to remain as captain unless the new head coach or Lou has some other ideas.  Right after Game 5, you might not have felt like he should be anywhere near a 'C' (I'll admit to this) and you may still feel that way.  That's fair.  Though, he apparently has the trust of most of his teammates, and that's really the most important factor.  Not one through four abysmal playoff performance or disappearing within the last few weeks of the season, but whether or not he commands the respect of his peers is the most important factor in determining a captain.   Besides, it's not like Langenbrunner stopped being a captain after Christmas 2009 - he was captain of the United States in the Olympics, after all. I don't doubt his capability.

However, after these three quotes and the article as a whole, I have to question whether or not he (and by extension, the other Devils) are willing to look themselves in the mirror and admit the root causes behind these issues.  It's easy to point the finger at Lemaire now that he's not the head coach now, but that's probably not going to solve much of anything.  He needs to ask himself what he could have handled better and more importantly, how he - and by extension, the team - will ensure it won't become a problem with the new head coach.

For all I know, maybe he has been, is currently doing that, and will continue to do so throughout the summer.  For all I know, he's come to grips that the head coach usually decides upon lineups and not the players.  If so, great.  If not, well, there's plenty of time for him to worry about it..

Ultimately, in the big picture, I see this as a two-sided problem with one side already out of the picture. Jacques Lemaire is gone now and there will be a new head coach. Maybe the new head coach will be more palatable for the Devils players.  Let us hope there will be improved relations in the back - especially from the captain.

That was my take on this excellent article by Rich Chere.  Please read it and let me know what you think about it in the comments.  Did you see things differently from what I read?  Do you come out of this with a better opinion of Langenbrunner and/or Lemaire?   Again, thanks to ILWT user C.J.Richey121 for finding it first where I noticed it.

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