Neal Broten: The Devils' Greatest Veteran Midseason Acquisition

As a season begins or gets closer to playoffs, teams evaluate themselves and find room for improvement.    A team recognizes that they need help in some way or form at a position; so they need someone to provide stability to a seemingly shaky dimension of the team or to add some depth. They want some additional experience in the lineup, someone who's been through all sorts of situations and will have some idea of what to do in each of them.   They want someone who has some hunger left in their game; a desire to get to achieve a championship before time, injuries, or other matters force an end to a career.  They want someone who could be had at a reasonable cost; a contributor but without a long-term committment in terms or years or money.   As a result, the addition of a veteran player is a common transaction - both in the offseason and during the season, especially at the trade deadline.

The New Jersey Devils usually get a veteran at the trade deadline in most seasons for several of the above reasons.  Some are just for depth, and ultimately didn't make a big impact on the team either for the rest of the season or during the playoffs.  For example, the Devils picked up defenseman Richard Smehlik in 2003 to add some (really slow moving) cover to their blueline.  As a second example, the same mindset led to the Devils acquiring Niclas Havelid in 2009.   Others had more substantial impact.   My second favorite example was when the Devils got Alexander Mogilny in 2000, who really blossomed in the 2000-2001 season and was crucial to that team's run to the Stanley Cup Finals. 

Today, I want to talk about my favorite - and the franchise's best - example of the concept of "adding veteran presence" the New Jersey Devils ever accomplished.  On February 27, 1995 (not the trade deadline), the New Jersey Devils obtained Neal Broten from the Dallas Stars in exchange for Corey Millen.  This move was absolutely instrumental for Broten to get his game back and for the Devils to push on ahead to contend and win their first Stanley Cup.   Let's discuss the move and what Broten had done for the Devils after the jump.

The Center Situation

The Devils were coming off a successful and heartbreaking 1994 playoff run where they were eliminated by Our Hated Rivals.  I'm not going to discuss that.  What I will discuss is who was at center for the 1993-94 season.  According to Hockey-Reference, the Devils had an extremely good season with the following listed at the center position: Corey Millen (50), Bernie Nicholls (46), Bobby Carpenter (33), Bobby Holik (33), Alexander Semak (29), Jim Dowd (15), David Emma (15).  Surely, some of these players lined up at wing; as the Devils rolled four lines under Jacques Lemaire.  Still, it's not exactly a murderer's row of forwards on a team that scored 302 goals in the season.  In absence of further information, it wasn't a very strong group.  Nicholls and Carpenter were 30 or older, and Dowd and Holik were still relatively young and inexperienced.  Semak failed to follow up on a huge 92-93 campaign, partially due to injury; Millen managed to stay healthy for the season (but not the postseason); and Emma just had a cup of coffee.  It was a group that was effective, but not what I would call a strong group.

As it turned out in 1994, the main centers in the playoffs were Nicholls, Carpenter, Holik, and Dowd.  Semak and Millen were limited in terms of games played, again due to injury; and Emma never got a game in the playoffs.   While the four did well enough in terms of playing in their own end, all but Nicholls (4 goals, 9 assists) weren't exactly lighting it up.   The center position could stand for improvement.

Then the offseason came and Nicholls, the most experienced and one of the team's top centers, signed with Chicago as a free agent.  A not-so-great looking core of centers just got weaker with Nicholls leaving.  In terms of quantity, the Devils would turn out to be just fine in 1994-95.  Per Hockey-Reference, Sergei Brylin and Brian Rolston made their debut with the team as listed centers. They joined Carpenter, Holik, Semak, and Dowd.  It got to the point where Emma was moved to right wing and was held in the minors to help make room.   Still, Nicholls provided some quality despite getting older. With a young group beyond Carpenter (31) and Millen (29), the team would need the other centers to make an quick impact in a shortened season.

Unfortunately, that didn't turn out so well.   Millen struggled early; Brylin didn't make the team at first and earned a spot in mid-February; Dowd was relegated to being scratched on most nights; and Semak continued to struggle with injuries and his form.  Holik and Carpenter weren't doing too badly, but it was clear the Devils needed help at center. Lou Lamoriello decided to make a move to address this weakness. As with trading for Nicholls in 1993, Lou opted for someone with experience to help out in the center of ice.  Who he obtained turned out to do far better than anyone would have reasonably expected.

Neal Broten: Minnesota Legend

Neal Broten is arguably the greatest player to have come out of Minnesota.   He was dominant at the high school level, racking up ridiculous amounts of points for Roseau, his hometown.  He crushed it at the NCAA level with the University of Minnesota.  He scored (an amazing) game winning goal for Minnesota to win the National Championship in 1979, he scored 142 points in 76 games (2 seasons) with the university according to Hockey-Reference, and he won the first ever Hobey Baker Award - something he's proud to have won, but has admitted it should have gone to his brother Aaron in this article at College Hockey Fans.   His performances in college guided Herb Brooks to select Broten for the U.S. Olympic hockey team in 1979-1980, where upon he scored 2 goals and 1 assist in the Olympics where the United States won the gold medal at Lake Placid.

The 5'9", 180 pound pivot was drafted by the Minnesota North Stars in the second round of the 1979 draft.  He made his professional debut in 1981 and his full season debut in the 1981-82 season.  The hometown favorite was sensational right from the get-go with 38 goals and 60 assists in that first season. He would never score as many as 38 goals again, but he didn't need to as he was often the straw that stirred the drink for the North Stars. He became the first American to score over 100 points in a season after the 1985-86 campaign ended. Per Hockey-Reference, he piled up so many points, both with and without injury-shortened seasons (read about the various injuries at Hockey Draft Central). He became a massive legend for the franchise and the state. To this day, he's regarded as the best Minnesota-based player of the 1980s at the Wild's official website; and his status as an American hockey legend is cemented by being named to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001.

However, greatness was missing in the 1994-95 season for Dallas.  They struggled throughout the shortened season.  Broten's production started slowing down as he went deeper into his 30s, becoming more of a checker than a scorer.  Still, he really struggled to produce early on.  While captaining the Dallas Stars, he put up 4 assists in 17 games and no goals on 29 shots.   Being 35, it wouldn't be unreasonable to think that perhaps the end was nigh for Broten's career. While he did quite a lot for the Stars, Father Time doesn't care about past accomplishments - his time as a hockey player would be up.

Fortunately for Broten, the Stars agreed to trade him to New Jersey in exchange for Corey Millen - an experienced center by the end of February.   Millen produced at a better rate than Broten, the team turned it around just enough to make it to the playoffs, and lost to Detroit in the first round.  He wasn't bad.  However, Broten would overshadow him by having one of the best 50 game stretches in a long while.

30 Games, 28 Points

I'm not sure if anyone referred to Broten's 1995 season with the Devils as an "inferno," but I think the term fits. The 35-year old center just caught fire in February and stayed that way until the summer.  Just look at his game log from Hockey-Reference. In his first game as a Devil, he had no shots on net, but picked up an assist.  That would be the first of a 3-goal, 6-assist point streak that lasted 7 games.  He cooled off a little, then started another streak: a 1-goal, 7-assist streak over 6 games.  That would be followed by a shorter, 1-goal, 5-assist streak over 3 games.  I don't know who Lemaire put him with, but it certainly worked very well.   In 30 games as a Devil, he put up 8 goals and 20 assists.

That's simply amazing.  Broten has never played for another franchise in his entire NHL career; he has been a constant in that Minnesota/Dallas franchise such that he knows who he's playing with from year to year; and he's never been traded.   When a deadline deal happens, usually the acquired player needs some time to acclimate to his new surroundings, his new team, his new coach, and his new teammates among other things. Broten was taken completely out of his comfort zone and thrived.  He did more than just do well, he was fantastic.  I don't think anyone honestly expected this out of him.  I don't think it's unfair to state that not many Devils fans missed Corey Millen or regretted the trade after the first point streak.

The 1995 Playoffs

As great as Broten's regular season was, his playoff season was even better.  The line: 20 games, 7 goals, 12 assists, 19 points.  That alone is impressive.  Broten didn't lead the Devils in scoring in the 1995 playoffs - that would be Stephane Richer - but Broten had done something no other hockey player has done since.

Going through Hockey-Reference's search tools, only five Devils have had better playoff performances in terms of points in a single year: Patrik Elias in 2000 and in 2001; Jason Arnott in 2000; Petr Sykota in 2001; Richer in 1995; and Patrik Sundström in 1988.  All of them were much younger than Broten when he notched his 19 points. That makes Broten's 1995 playoff run stand out even more, very few Devils have surpassed him in history - and none of them were aging vets like Broten was in 1995.  Let's look at veterans  In terms of players 35 or older from all teams, only nine players in NHL history achieved more points than Broten in a single playoffs.  If you want to consider the cut off mark for a veteran player to be lower, say, 33 years old or older, Broten does slide down in the all-time single playoff rankings - 14th for those 33 and up.

Here's what makes Broten special: in the case of all NHL players 33 or older (which includes the 35 or older set), Broten had the most productive playoff run among all of them who were traded during that season.  None of the guys who put up more than Broten's 19 points were moved in the middle of their respective season. They either were mainstays on the team or they signed with a new team in the offseason. Broten's 1995 run was the best playoff performance out of all NHL players who have ever been traded at the deadline or during the season.  I don't know about you, but this makes Broten's performance that much more impressive.  He got traded and not only did he tally up assists like they were worth millions in the regular season; he became more productive in the playoffs.  The inferno continued!

What I'm still trying to figure out is who he played with in the postseason.  I think he was  There's some evidence he centered Richer and Claude Lemeiux; as evidenced by this video of Broten's first goal in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals.  Broten was seen with those two in other situations, like in parts of this summary video of the second round series against Pittsburgh.  Though, in that fateful Game 4 where Broten scored twice, he was with John MacLean and Brian Rolston.  I guess Lemaire was mixing and matching, to great success given that Broten kept scoring as did other forwards.  As a further bit of evidence supporting that, check out this video. It's the eventual Stanley Cup winning goal in Game 4.  Look at who the other forwards were on the ice with Broten (shown in full, because, hey, it won a Cup):

Yes! A young Brian Rolston (at wing) and a young Bill Guerin!  OK, so Lemaire used him in various situations which made sense. Broten was a defensive-minded center who got really hot on offense. Given the team's rolling of four lines and their use of the neutral zone trap, this allowed Lemaire to use Broten wherever he saw fit.  The points kept rolling, the wins kept coming, and the Cup was finally earned by the Devils with a big thanks to Neal Broten.  19 points in 20 playoff games; 28 points in 30 regular season games.  Wow.

The Aftermath

Broten won his first and only Stanley Cup in 1995, which made him the only player to have ever won a NCAA National Championship, an Olympic gold medal, and a Stanley Cup in their career.  Broten was crucial to the Devils' success in 1995 because he was hotter than hot for 50 games.  He just kept getting stops on defense, winning draws, making plays for his teammates, and even firing a few into the net (poor Mike Vernon - especially on this one).  

Unfortunately, hot streaks eventually ended and Broten's definitely stopped in the summer of 1995.   He stuck around for the 1995-96 season, but he only played 55 games. According to Hockey Draft Central, a bruised knee and a sprained ankle at different points of the season held him out.   Injuries aside, Broten's production returned to Earth at age 36. His near point-per-game production rates crashed; and so the defensive center was really just that with 7 goals and 16 assists.    Broten was a Devil to start the 1996-97 season, but after only 3 games and 1 assist, he was eventually traded for the ever popular "future considerations" to Los Angeles.  Broten was only a King for 19 games and 4 assists before being placed on waivers. He was picked up by the franchise he started and starred for in the past: the Stars.  In 20 games with in Dallas, he enjoyed a very good turnaround with 8 goals and 7 assists.  It wouldn't continue into the playoffs (2 games, 1 assist for Dallas) and that would be it for the American center's career in hockey.

The Devils kept getting younger at center.  In the 1995-96 season, they brought aboard a 19-year old named Petr Sykora and gave some time to Denis Pederson and Steve Sullivan.  Sullivan wouldn't last with the Devils, as the team went big and acquired Doug Gilmour in the 1996-97 season with the hopes he could be that productive, veteran center to bolster a position that was weak beyond Bobby Holik.   Gilmour largely accomplished that in 96-97 and again in 97-98, but unlike Broten, it didn't lead the team onward to a Stanley Cup.   That would have to wait a few more years.

The Greatest Veteran Pickup

The stars surely aligned for Neal Broten to be such a massive short-term success for the New Jersey Devils in 1995. While a captain with the Stars and a living legend at the franchise, they traded their famous #7 to another team, who made him #9.  Somehow, the move to the Devils combined with the style of hockey they were playing, who he (possibly) played with, his general mindset, and a lot of good luck all came together to yield a massive 50 game performance from the 35-year old center.  

In those 50 games, he scored 15 goals and 32 assists.  Just as importantly, he solidified a center position that was found wanting going into the the 1994-95 season and turned it into a strength with his performances.  Devils fans did not miss Corey Millen or Bernie Nicholls with the way Broten was playing.  And he played a lot. While I'm lacking ice time information, he played in all situations in 1995, he played big minutes along with Bobby Carpenter, and he was quite productive.   Looking back on it, he must have found a rejuvenation machine. This normally doesn't happen in hockey.  It really hasn't since.  In fact, no veteran (33 or older) NHL player that was traded mid-season has produced as much as Broten's 19 playoff points.

Broten didn't just meet the preferences that teams have to acquire a veteran, he didn't just provide depth or experience on/off the ice or a hunger to win a Cup.  He played out of his mind and helped take the Devils to a place they've never been before.  I don't know whether we'll see anything like that again. If it does, a lot of things have to go right: right player, right situation, and a great amount of luck.  Nevertheless, Neal Broten is the greatest veteran player midseason acquisition in team history.   It may have been short, but Stanley Cups are forever.

Were you a Devils fan and/or do you remember Neal Broten as a New Jersey Devil in 1995?  What did you think of him as he was racking up assists and getting the job done at both ends of the rink?  Were you surprised to learn that no other veteran traded during the season had ever done as well as Broten did in the 1995 playoffs? Did you feel you were seeing someone special when he was storming through the playoffs, particularly in the Stanley Cup Finals?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Neal Broten's time as a Devil in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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