What is happening with the New Jersey Devils this week is sad for any NHL fan with a sense of history.
Over the last 20 years, Lou Lamoriello has been one of the best general managers in the league. He never had the most money to spend but by drafting and trading well, Lamoriello built a winning team players wanted to play for, so much so that some like Martin Brodeur angered the NHL Players’ Association by continually signing for less than market value. Stanley Cups were won in 1995, 2000 and 2003.
But now, shortly after their first appearance in the Stanley Cup final in nine years, the Devils are in disarray.
Zach Parise, the prize of the NHL free-agent market, shortened his list of preferred teams several hours after the auction opened Sunday and is expected to choose his new employer Monday. The Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Minnesota Wild, Carolina Hurricanes, Los Angeles Kings and Dallas Stars made offers. The Hurricanes and Stars said they didn’t make his short list, while the Kings and even the Red Wings sounded doubtful of their chances. This leaves the Penguins and Flyers as the frontrunners with the Devils left as a Hail Mary candidate.
Brodeur, at 40 still one of the best goaltenders in the NHL and always considered a Devil for life, may also be playing elsewhere next season. So, too, will Bryce Salvador, their best defenceman in the playoffs, and backup goaltender Johan Hedberg, an important presence in the dressing room.
Alexei Ponikarovsky, a useful forward for the Devils during the playoffs, took his leave on Monday. He signed for one year at $1.8-million (all currency U.S.) to be join his good friend Nik Antropov on the Winnipeg Jets. Also gone is bit player Eric Boulton, who signed with the New York Islanders.
When this happened to the Chicago Blackhawks after they won the Stanley Cup in 2010, it was explained as a case of the salary-cap chickens finally coming home to roost five years after it was implemented. No team can expect to keep its stars together, especially its young stars, the rationale went.
However, the Blackhawks’ woes had as much to do with mistakes in managing contracts as they did with the difficulty in keeping the burgeoning salary demands of good young players under the cap.
The Devils’ woes are strictly financial. Co-owner Jeff Vanderbeek owes too much money, more than $200-million by many estimates, to keep this team together. There is simply no miracle Lamoriello can work to prevent this.
But this is supposed to be something that happens to the Phoenix Coyotes, not the Devils. The Coyotes’ financial mess has gone on for so long no one bats an eye when Shane Doan, their equivalent to Brodeur in terms of service, appears headed out of town.
There was a late report from TSN that the Devils made a two-year offer to Brodeur Sunday night but who would have thought things would get this far with their most faithful retainer? If both Parise and Brodeur sign with other teams, the shock will go beyond their mere departures.
Once Parise makes his decision, the chase for Columbus Blue Jackets winger will intensify, at least Columbus GM Scott Howson hopes it will, among the losers.
Brodeur’s decision will have an impact on the other big NHL trade-in-waiting – the Roberto Luongo sweepstakes. The Toronto Maple Leafs are not getting anywhere in their dealings with Luongo’s employer, the Vancouver Canucks. Vancouver GM Mike Gillis is still asking too much for his goaltender for the liking of either Leafs GM Brian Burke or Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon, really the only two suitors for Luongo.
With Brodeur in play – Burke is interested but thinks he’ll stay with the Devils – the price for Luongo should come down. Then again, if he does stay with the Devils or he signs with one of the other suitors, the Chicago Blackhawks or Tampa Bay Lightning, then Gillis is back to squeezing Burke and Tallon. That will make the Luongo drama will be a long-playing affair.
In the meantime, there is still no sign of the financial saviour Vanderbeek is supposed to have uncovered, the one who will cover a $77-million loan payment due Aug. 14 that will prevent either the team’s lenders or the NHL from seizing it.
If there really is such a person or group, don’t you think the exodus to the free-agent market wouldn’t be quite so large?