With the New Jersey Devils poised to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons, it’s time for changes in the front office, beginning with long-time GM Lou Lamoriello.
His supporters will of course vehemently oppose such a drastic move. Lamoriello’s been GM and president of the Devils since 1987, building the club from what Wayne Gretzky once called a “Mickey Mouse organization” into a league powerhouse which advanced to the Stanley Cup Final five times between 1995 and 2012, winning three championships.
Over the years, Lamoriello earned a reputation as a savvy general manager, building his team largely through trades and the draft. Among his notable trade acquisitions were Claude Lemieux, Bobby Holik, Alex Mogilny, Jason Arnott, Joe Nieuwendyk, Jamie Langenbrunner, Ilya Kovalchuk and Cory Schneider, while Brendan Shanahan, Bill Guerin, Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rolston, Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora, Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Zach Parise were among his most memorable draft picks.
Even in free agency and arbitration, the man Devils fans affectionately called “Lou Lam” could find gems. Slava Fetisov, Scott Stevens and Brian Rafalski were among those who contributed to the Devils’ championship seasons.
Lamoriello also earned a reputation as a tough negotiator with his players, resulting in many of them departing via free agency. He frequently changed coaches; 19 times since 1988, with the most recent being Pete DeBoer. Lamoriello established what The Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek in 2012 called a “unique corporate culture” which “heavily prizes loyalty.” But as the New York Times’ Charle McGrath noted in the same year, the Devils GM is also considered “a cheapskate and a dictatorial control freak”. His team were both praised and vilified for its adherence to defensive hockey, particularly the system known as the neutral-zone trap, which was subsequently emulated throughout the league in the 1990s.
None of that mattered, however, when Lamorello’s teams were winning. And from 1995 through 2003, only the Detroit Red Wings could match the Devils’ record of dominance. Such was Lamoriello’s influence that he was also part of the NHL’s negotiating committee during the 2004-05 season-killing lockout. Lamoriello’s work with the Devils led to his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009 in the Builders’ category.
A popular New Jersey Devils blog calls itself “In Lou We Trust”, and for a long time that trust was justified. Not anymore. The Devils need a rebuild, starting in the front office. Despite the plaudits and respect Lamoriello rightfully earned, it’s become painfully apparent in recent years that his Midas touch has pretty much deserted him.
Among Lamoriello’s failings, NJ.com’s Rich Chere cites the inability to re-sign Parise, several questionable free-agent signings, a poor trade record, a weak performance at the draft table, a revolving door of coaches and the steady departure of talent via free agency.
While Lamoriello’s supporters will point to the Devils’ run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final as proof he can still build a Cup contender, it’s now apparent that roster wasn’t built to last. Lamoriello couldn’t be faulted for Kovalchuk’s departure, and his supporters will insist he couldn’t afford to re-sign Parise, but the Devils lacked the depth to offset losing those key players, and Lamoriello failed to find suitable replacements.
Yes, Lamoriello shocked the hockey world with his acquisition of Schnedier during the 2013 NHL Draft, finally finding the heir apparent for an aging Brodeur, but that move was his only truly notable deal since his acquisitions of Nieuwendyk and Langenbrunner over a decade before. The Kovalchuk trade in 2010, and his subsequent re-signing, would also rank with the Schneider trade if not for the winger’s defection to the KHL in 2013.
The results are there on the ice for all to see. The Devils currently ice one of the league’s oldest rosters. On most nights, it shows. Instead of jockeying for a playoff berth, they’re near the bottom of the conference standings. It’s not even the midpoint of the season but already their playoff hopes hang by a thread.
Lamoriello isn’t the first general manager in NHL history to lose his championship touch in later years. Punch Imlach, Bill Torrey and Pierre Lacroix are just several notable examples.
Whether it’s because of age, loyalty to aging veterans, difficulty adjusting to a salary-cap system he helped to implement or all of these factors, Lamoriello is no longer able to build the Devils into a championship team.
Lou Lamoriello has had a great run as their general manager and president. He’s earned his accolades, but it’s time for a fresh vision and new ideas. For the Devils to truly begin a new era, the Lamoriello era must end.