by Steve Politi/The Star-Ledger
Wednesday March 04, 2009, 8:18 PM
The franchise goaltender had a wet noodle for an arm. The biggest free-agent signing had a serious ankle sprain, one of several injuries. The competition, younger and more explosive, seemed to skate right past them.
This was the year when it should have all fallen apart for the Devils, an opportunity for the rest of the NHL to bury them at center ice once and for all. And still, here they are, enjoying the type of streak where it seems inconceivable that they will ever lose another game.
Here they are, where they almost always are, on top of the Atlantic Division -- and, maybe soon, all of hockey. The one man who saw this coming, of course, is the one who put it all together.
"It really just is a testament to the players in that room and the coaches," general manager Lou Lamoriello said Wednesday from his office, a few hours before the trading deadline came and went without the Devils making any dramatic moves. It was a response that should have been every bit as predictable as another winning season.
Lamoriello is not about to take a bow with a quarter of the season left to play -- truth be told, he won't even do that if the Devils are parading the Stanley Cup down Broad Street this June.
Other GMs hope to win. Lamoriello expects it, counts on it and, without fail, delivers it. This will be a 17th straight winning season for Lamoriello and the Devils, for anyone counting at home. No team in professional sports has strung together more. (The Red Wings, one of their rivals for supremacy, have as many.)
So no, a hot streak in February and March is not about to make Lamoriello pat himself on the back, even if the ice sure looked choppy this past fall. He insists there is nothing more satisfying about this season than any other. Besides, did he mention it was March?
"To me," Lamoriello said, "the only thing that's fulfilling and satisfying is when you win the Stanley Cup."
Whether or not the Devils win their fourth championship -- and, the way they are playing right now, it would be unwise to bet against that -- Lamoriello has had one of his best seasons. And, since he is consistently the best general manager in sports, that's saying something.
Team owner Jeff Vanderbeek is right when he said, "I don't think Lou ever needs validation." Still, whether he needs it or not, this season is confirmation that the "Devils Way," that emphasis of the system over stars, will always be a winning formula in professional hockey.
Long gone are the star defensemen of the three Cup-winning teams. This year, for the first time, the Devils lost future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur for an extended time to a biceps injury. Instead of slipping back to the pack, they somehow got even better.
It is quite a contrast from 10 months ago. The Rangers had won 11 of 13 games against them, including a first-round playoff romp. The Penguins had reached their first Cup Finals with superstar Sidney Crosby, which figured to be the first of many for a dynasty in the making.
Other teams would reach for the panic button. "Never a discussion," Lamoriello said, when asked if the team considered changing its approach in the offseason. "That's when you can get yourself in trouble, when you might do things for a short-term fix. That's when you really need to stay the course."
So instead of making the sexy -- or desperate -- move, Lamoriello brought in two players from the franchise's past, Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik, and waited for his young players to develop. He added 40-year-old Brendan Shanahan at midseason, uniting so many graybeards on the same roster that the Devils should have their own "Just For Men" commercial.
It worked. The mix of veterans and youth, along with a hungry and healthy Brodeur, has this team in its best position in years for a long postseason run. Lamoriello will stop short of predicting postseason success, but he acknowledges that these Devils have more quality depth up front than they've had in several seasons. "This team has gotten better and better as the year has gone on," he said.
This is also one of the most exciting Devils teams to watch. They are eighth in the league in scoring after finishing 27th each of the past two seasons, with head coach Brent Sutter loosening the reins -- with his boss's blessing.
"You never waver from what you believe," said Lamoriello, in his 22nd year, by far the most tenured GM in his sport. "You might tweak or adapt your system, but you have to stick with your philosophy. We really believe that here."
And, just in case anyone forgot that philosophy, Lamoriello repeats it. "Great players win games," the best GM in pro sports said again. "Great teams win championships."
The Devils, despite the adversity they have faced this season, look like one of those great teams again. The one man who believed that would happen is, as always, the one who put it together.
Last edited by JETS_for_life; 03-06-2009 at 09:58 PM.