The Toronto Maple Leafs arrived home battered and bruised Sunday from their Western Canada road trip but they do have something to look forward to – a five-day rest followed by a game Friday night against the hapless New Jersey Devils.
Hapless? The Devils? You would have to go back to Nov. 19, 1983 and one of Wayne Gretzky's rare moments of controversy when the word hapless was routinely used to describe the Devils, a model NHL franchise from the 1990s onward. After Gretzky ran up eight points in a 13-4 win by the Edmonton Oilers, he was angry because his friend and former teammate Ron Low was stuck playing goal for the Devils. Gretzky departed from his usual vanilla quotes to say "They had better stop running a Mickey Mouse organization and put somebody on ice."
It is hard to believe it was just 17 months ago the Devils were in the Stanley Cup final against the Los Angeles Kings, who won their first NHL championship in six games. Since then, the Devils' fortunes went straight down, in no small part because their now former owner Jeff Vanderbeek finally saw his financial house of cards crash and burn.
The Devils are now old, injured and snake-bitten, in no particular order. After back-to-back shutout losses on the weekend, the Devils are now 3-7-4 and are seventh in the NHL's weakest division, the Metropolitan. They have been shut out four times this season and have only scored 26 goals in 14 games. Only the equally hapless Philadelphia Flyers, eighth and last in the Metropolitan, have scored fewer goals.
The second of those shutout losses, 4-0 Sunday to the Minnesota Wild, was a bitter reminder of how good things used to be for this franchise. It was the first meeting between former Devils star Zach Parise and the team that drafted him.
There used to be a time when Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello hardly ever lost a free agent willingly. In fact, they used to take less money to stay with the Devils because they knew that was their best chance at winning a Stanley Cup.
But since they lost to the Kings in the 2012 Cup final, the Devils lost three of their top five scorers that season – Ilya Kovalchuk, Parise and David Clarkson. Parise and Clarkson left as free agents while Kovalchuk walked away from his $100-million (all currency U.S.) contract to return to Russia and the Kontinental Hockey League.
Under Vanderbeek, who was finally forced to sell top Joshua Harris and David Blitzer last summer, there was not enough money to keep everyone. While Kovalchuk, Parise and Clarkson all left for more reasons than the money, the Devils were never in position to make a serious attempt to keep them. In the place of the departed, Lamoriello was forced to sign the free agents not many others wanted. In came the cheaper likes of Jaromir Jagr, Ryane Clowe, Damien Brunner and Michael Ryder.
The top five forwards on the Devils' payroll are Travis Zajac, Elias, whose best years are behind him, Clowe, Adam Henrique and Ryder. They have collectively produced 22 points so far this season. Granted, Zajac (ankle), Elias (illness) and Clowe (head) are injured but none of them were lighting it up when they were healthy. And Zajac is now four seasons into a stretch of poor production after he had 67 points in 2009-10 at the age of 24. The Devils' top points-getter is the 41-year-old Jagr, who has 10 points in 14 games.
"This is seven periods without a goal," Devils head coach Pete DeBoer said to New Jersey's Star-Ledger about the team's scoreless stretch after Sunday's loss to Parise and the Wild. "You're not going to win. Again, we didn't give up a lot of shots.
"I thought we did some good things structurally, but you can't win in this league without scoring some goals. We have to keep at it. The power play [0-for-3] has to find a way to get a couple. It's gone cold and it's kind of mirrored our five-on-five play."
Defensively, the Devils are not bad, which should be the least you can say since they have a total of $8.5-million in salary invested in goaltenders Martin Brodeur and Cory Schneider.
But the injury story doesn't stop with the forwards. Also out are defencemen Anton Volchenkov, Bryce Salvador, Peter Harrold and now Jon Merrill. The latter is a 21-year-old prospect who was called up for Sunday's game because of the injuries to the other blueliners. Merrill's NHL debut lasted less than five minutes, as he fell into the boards and sustained severe facial lacerations and a possible concussion.
Yes, as the blues tunes go, if it wasn't for bad luck the Devils wouldn't have no luck at all.
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