At age 68, Lou Lamoriello is the oldest General Manager in the NHL. The only other GM that comes close is Ottawa’s Bryan Murray, but Lou has him by about two months.
If you consider the four teams that played in this past season’s conference finals and the relatively young age of their GMs—Vancouver’s Mike Gillis is 52, Tampa Bay’s Steve Yzerman, San Jose’s Doug Armstrong, and Boston’s Peter Chiarelli are all 46—Lamoriello doesn’t seem to be much of a spring chicken anymore.
Now I know that 68 isn’t all that old and I’m not saying that close friends need to start buying him rocking chairs for his 69th birthday.
But since the Devils last Stanley Cup in 2003, the Devils head man (really their de facto owner—essentially every decision that is to be made in the organization goes through him) has made a series of puzzling and perplexing decisions, leaving one to wonder if Lamoriello might be starting to show his age.
While the Devils were making their selections in this past week’s draft, they were doing so without a head coach. The spot behind the bench has been empty since Jacques Lemaire called it a career (again) after season’s end. Yes, there is time, but training camp is going to be here before you know it. Doesn’t it seem somewhat unusual that the team would be making draft picks before having a coach in place? Wouldn’t that prospective coach like to have some input in the selection process? Or at least involved in the process? Or just be at the table? How can the players mentally prepare for the upcoming season without knowing who the coach will be?
With that being said, who would want to actually coach the Devils anyway? The head coach’s office in the Prudential Center is slowly shrinking with every new coat of paint. Starting Lemaire’ s first tenure that ended in 1998, and with whomever takes the job for the coming 2011-2012 season, the Devils have had an astounding 10 different men as head coach for an unnerving 14 different tenures in 13 years(!). The term ‘coaching carousel’ was coined for this type of operation. Larry Robinson has been head coach on two occasions and defensive coach five different times. And it’s not just that the revolving door is so revolving--Lamoriello seems inclined to change coaches at the drop of a hat. In 2000, Robbie Ftorek was fired with eight games left in the regular season. When Claude Julien was fired there were just three games remaining. Ftorek, Robinson, Julien and John Maclean were all dismissed at random parts of the season. Lamoriello himself has taken the job twice despite not being a full time coach in more than 25 years.
It's not just the coaching changes that leave something to be desired. Right after the 2005 lockout, Lamoriello signed Alexander Mogilny, Dan McGillis, and Vladamir Malakov to deals. With a new hard salary cap in place, those three deals clogged the Devils roster flexibility like a bus station toilet. The players were past their primes and highly overpaid. To get some salary cap breathing room, the Devils had to send Mogilny and McGillis to their minor league affiliate in Albany. Their contract numbers came off the books in regard to the cap, but they were paid every dime to ride the bus in the AHL. Malakov ended up asking for a leave of absence from the team for a variety of odd reasons, but Lamoriello instead considered the absence a retirement and eventually had to bait the Sharks with a first round draft pick to take his contract. The poor contract signings continued with inking Dainius Zubrus, whose pay and performance are not indicative of each other, and Brian Rolston, whose $5 million dollar cap hit wouldn’t seem like a set of salary cap handcuffs if he could stay healthy or produce on the ice.
Players come and players go. You can’t keep everyone, but you can at least try. The Devils have lost a considerable amount of talent in the past seven years. Lamoriello has let A-list defenseman like Scott Neidermayer and Brian Rafalski walk away since the lockout. He also let Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta leave rather than give them pay increases. It's one thing to spend money tightly yet sensibly, but that doesn't really ring true when you see how close they are now to exceeding the salary cap.
Also of concern is the lack a solid plan for the future of the goaltending position. Martin Brodeur’s Hall of Fame career is coming to an end and he may not play beyond the coming season. The team does not seem to have a young netminder in the organization that is ready to step up after Brodeur moves on. For several years Lamoriello has brought in aged journeyman goalies instead of bringing up and giving a prospect the chance to back up and learn from Brodeur.
Trading for and then signing Ilya Kovalchuk might have added the offensive fire power that the Devils always seemed to have lacked, but it was such a departure from the normal identity of the team for the last 20 years. No one is ever going to confuse Kovalchuk with Frank Selke. His reputation of not playing at both ends of the ice clashed with the Devil’s reputation of two way defensive hockey. The Devils have never had a player like Kovalchuk, it seems, in all of Lamoriello’s tenure.
If the trade was a head scratcher, the contract situation was even more bizarre. The Devils surprised everyone by signing Kovalchuk to a blockbuster 17 year contract. It was by far the largest contract in Devil’s history. Lou thought it was worth it, but the NHL did not. They ruled that it circumvented the salary cap and voided the deal. More bizarre yet were the reports that Lamoriello went ahead with the signing and press conference despite knowing in advance the contract was going to rejected by the NHL. The Devils were eventually able to sign Kovalchuk to a league approved contract, but not before drawing a $3 million dollar fine and losing first and third round draft picks for their actions.
And finally, while Lamoriello is the face of the franchise, the face of the team is certainly Zach Parise. But Parise remains unsigned as a Restricted Free Agent. Sure, the RFA tag prevents him from just walking away and each have said publically that they are working towards a deal before arbitration. But shouldn’t getting Parise’s contract extended long term have been more of a priority than signing Kovalchuk to his bloated deal? If not, shouldn’t he have been signed as quickly as possible, i.e. right after the Stanley Cup Finals?
Not only is Parise the face of the Devils team, he is also more or less the face of the Men’s USA hockey. He absolutely shined at the Vancouver Olympics and he could be the driving force of a marketing campaign, which if ever constructed properly, could help to make hockey more popular in the USA, and in Newark, and maybe get more than 14, 000 fans to show up at a given home game.
With the roster turnover and coaching instability, it's no wonder the Devils haven't advanced past the second round of the playoffs since 2003 and actually missed the postseason altogether this past year, for the first time in 15 years.
Again, I’m not saying that Lamoriello has to up and retire. But the NHL, and the GM office, seems like it is getting younger these days. Maybe you don’t need to look back at the draft and wonder why the Devils and Senators were drafting several spots ahead of the Sharks, Lightning, and Bruins.