As with most sports (and perhaps most businesses), there's always going to be people who are on the fringe of staying where they are. Perhaps they had to work real hard to get to the next level only to learn that they may not good enough just yet to stick around. Perhaps they're caught in the numbers game, where there's several other people who can serve that role without much change in quality. Perhaps they serve a specific role that's limited in scope. On a hockey team, these are usually guys on the fourth line or the third defensive pairing. They're on the roster, but it's not like there's a dearth of players available who could do a decent job in that role and they're not expensive to replace.
As much as I preach that a NHL team should have talented players in all spots, the reality is that a lot of tweeners, almost-developed, journeymen, "enforcers," and/or not-ready-for-primetime players come and go in those spots. Over the years, be it with the New Jersey Devils or on other teams, the names are start running together. Players like Tim Sestito will just float on in history likely as a footnote among the fanbase. For a player in those roles to be at least be better remembered, they have to stand out. One way is for the player to rise from that spot to become a significant player, like Sergei Brylin. Another is for the player to excel at a certain time for some success, like Bobby Holik leading the Crash Line in 1995 or seeing Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta, and Steve Bernier score some goals in the 2012 playoffs. A third way is to do something infamous. The best example in Devils history that I can think of for that would be Mike Danton, the player formerly known as Mike Jefferson.
You've likely heard of Mike Danton from his association with agent David Frost and his 2005 conviction of hiring a hitman to kill somebody. The charge was that it was against Frost, but apparently Mike has since claimed it was for his dad. It's a serious crime either way. The Fifth Estate at the CBC did a feature on the whole ordeal. Since Danton's conviction, Frost was charged but ultimately acquitted of twelve counts of sexual exploitation and more and more stories has since been released that belie his deplorable reputation well after that. Danton has served his sentence and has returned to professional hockey in Europe. I distinctly remember Danton first with his brief time as a New Jersey Devil.
Let's take a step back to when Danton was still named Mike Jefferson and he was in junior. He was never a big guy at 5'9", but he certainly played with a chip on his shoulder. His basic stats in the Ontario Hockey League shows he was no stranger to the penalty box, according to his Elite Prospects profile. More surprisingly was that he was productive and even influential on his team. He was the captain of the St. Michael's Majors in 1998-99 and after being traded to the Barrie Colts, he was their assistant captain as an overager. That Barrie team was strong and won the OHL championship. The 19-year old caught the eyes of the Devils scouts, who drafted him in the fifth round of the 2000 NHL Entry Draft with a compensatory pick.
Jefferson had a particularly good training camp if my memory serves. He was quick and he showed that he had some offensive skills. He seemed to have a decent shot and could pass the puck pretty well. Jefferson was more than just a penalty machine. He certainly couldn't be a goon given his relatively small frame. He was more or less a pest. He was assigned to the Albany River Rats to begin in 2000-01 and raged his way to 34 points and 195 penalty minutes. Jefferson would get a chance in the NHL sooner rather than later for two games in February 2001. Based on his gamelog at NHL.com, he didn't do a whole lot. Jefferson got 3 shots, played about seven to eight minutes, and racked up six PIM. It was a taste of the highest level. So far, nothing out of the ordinary like plenty of other young players.
Then came training camp in 2001. Jefferson was putting in work as you'd expect from a young prospect. Unfortunately, he got hurt in a preseason game. He suffered an injury; a torn oblique muscle. Not great news, but it happens. Jefferson would be assigned to Albany upon recovery. The twist here is that Jefferson didn't report to Albany. According to this New York Times article by Viv Bernstein about his eventual end, Jefferson sought out a second opinion about a torn oblique muscle. Jefferson and his agent Frost knew about the assignment but outright ignored it. Yes, even if Jefferson couldn't play, he'd be able to do so with Albany when active - not an uncommon practice. Yet, he didn't report. With no other choice, Lou Lamoriello suspended Jefferson for all of 2001-02.
This was (and still is in a little bit) a shock to me because a player had openly defied Lou Lamoriello. Yes, the Lou Lamoriello. The man who built up this organization his way. It's Lou's way or no way. Who does Jefferson think he is? Yes, he may have had a future but it would be as a pest - not exactly a dire need for the Devils. Back then, I thought he was done. I definitely thought he was done when he gave this immortal line to the media (the Star-Ledger in this link): "I'm not drinking any more of Lou's Kool-Aid." Dissing Lou with your actions is bad enough. Doing so publicly with a man notorious for keeping things on the down low is simply stunning. No way he returns.
I was wrong then. Jefferson got a second chance. Yes, the man refused to go down and get minutes returned to the Devils in the 2002 training camp. Lou and the player sorted it out. He changed notably his name to Mike Danton and despite not playing at all in 2001-02, he actually made the team out of camp. Based on his game log at NHL.com, he did what you would expect. Danton was a part of the fourth line, he scored his first NHL goal in his second game of the season, and he racked up some penalties in the process. He was there for bothering the opposition and being quick out there. An "energy" player, for lack of a better word.
But as I said at the beginning, those sorts of players are on the fringe. They may not last and in Danton's case, he didn't. Going back to Bernstein's column in the New York Times, head coach Pat Burns didn't think Danton was doing all that well, Lou agreed, and so the decision was made to send him down. I can't say it was an unreasonable decision. He didn't play much to begin with and he only put in two goals, 18 shots, and 35 PIM. While we can only expect so much from fourth liners, he didn't do anything so well that he had to stay in the NHL. Again, not an uncommon situation for a young player. Of course, Danton and Frost didn't take this very well and refused. This time, Lou sought out a trade and found one with St. Louis. The Blues got Danton and a third rounder in exchange for their third rounder.
As a player with New Jersey, while his time was brief, there was reason to believe he could stick around at this level. He just needed more experience and a cooler head, from what I can remember. But don't take my word for it. Look at his 2003-04 season with St. Louis. He played in 68 games in a similar role, scoring seven goals and five assists to go with 141 PIM. He even played in five playoff games, so the Blues felt he was good enough to play a little in those important games on top of most of that season. He may not have been anything more than a pest, but it could be seen as a good first full season on the road to sticking in the league. Then the charges came and that would be it for him at the NHL level. Apparently, Danton could play in a specific role at the highest level. That's the only explanation I can come up with as to why Lou even brought him back short of Lou being a lot more forgiving than his reputation implies. Simply: if he can play, he can play. We'll never know of his full potential because of his conviction and subsequent sentence.
Mike Jefferson/Danton only played 19 games with the Devils but managed to become a rather memorable in the process. Part of is certainly due to my own memory; I remember him in camp and in those few games. Of course, a big part of his infamous nature would be his conviction for hiring a hitman to murder someone. It's hard to forget about a player who's been involved in something that serious. The quote about Lou's Kool-Aid has persisted among the fans for years long after Danton left the organization. I hear it's best served with three cups. Lastly, he was a pest. The Devils have had plenty of goons and big, beefy guys wrecking havok, but not so many pests in recent years. I don't know whether I would want to see someone of that ilk play for New Jersey but he would stand out for his role alone. Already this is a lot more than plenty of players. As far as flashes in the pan go, his was intense - even thought it was often negative.