While the decade isn't over for New Jersey as this season rolls on, the 2000s have been very good to the New Jersey Devils. To summarize (among other accomplishments): Two Stanley Cups, three trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, several Atlantic Division titles, two Devils inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, two retired numbers, and a new arena.
Steve Lepore, Thibaut "Tibbs" Deshayes, and myself decided it was a good and interesting idea to determine who were the best Devils in the 2000s. Steve initially came up with the topic, we agreed it was worth thinking about, and so we all named first and second teams. Eventually, we came up with two teams we could agree upon as who stood out the most in Devils' red. If you've been following the team for much of the last decade, then may not surprise you too much; but figuring out who is worthy and at what level is certainly worth discussing (as well as who didn't make it).
Yesterday, I announced the All-Decade Second Team. What follows is the First Team. The format is the same, all stats are from the decade and current where applicable, but we also decided on a Coach of the Decade. Not an easy task given the number of coaches that have came to the Devils and left New Jersey for various reasons. I'd like to thank Steve and Tibbs for their input on this effort. Feel free to discuss the selections or the players named to the First Team (and who you would have rather seen) in the comments.
Left Wing - Patrik Elias (1999 - Current)
|Season (1999-Current) - Patrik Elias
|Playoffs (2000-2009) - Patrik Elias
Elias showed off his talents just prior to the 2000s, but really broke out in the very beginning of the decade and became the team's leading offensive threat up until last season.
While I would admit to not seeing the Devils of the 1980s or the early 1990s; I think it's fair to say that Elias had to have been the most talented forward the team has ever had prior to Zach Parise. His monster 96-point 2000-01 season remains as the single best scoring season by a Devil in franchise history and the closest any Devil has come to the Art Ross trophy, Elias coming in third place. The scoring would continue for Elias, despite some down years, still leading the team in scoring. Despite losing an entire season due to a lockout, becoming seriously ill due to Hepatitis A, and leading the team in scoring on some Devils teams that struggled to score, Elias came roaring back half way through the 2005-06 season, and continued to score thereafter: 45 pts. In 38 games that season; at least 20 goals and 35 assists each season since then, 78 in 77 games last season. On March 17, 2009, Elias became the franchise's leading scorer with an assist against Chicago, his 702nd career point.
In a way, Elias is the prototypical Devils scoring forward. He has the talent to make passes others don't even see, to get into spaces defenders tend to miss, and a pretty solid shot as well. Yet, Elias rarely took a shift off, he has been consistent about backchecking, and he hasn't shied away from taking - or giving - a hit. He's even clutch, he has 58 game winning goals. If you don't find that amazing, consider that represents 22.4% of all the goals he's scored in this past decade. Elias has been solid in all situations and is living proof that to be a New Jersey Devil and to be blessed with offensive talent is not a contradiction. Since he has been the offensive leader through most of the decade, has an outside shot at becoming the first Devil to score 1,000 points all in New Jersey, and was essentially Parise before Parise, he makes the First Team.
Center - Scott Gomez (1999 - 2007)
|Season (1999-2007) - Scott Gomez
|Playoffs (2000-2007) - Scott Gomez
A controversial pick, sure. After all, when the Devils recently announced the names of the 2003 Stanley Cup team, Gomez was the only one booed when his face and name came up on the big screen. The reasoning behind that is simple: he signed a fat deal with Our Hated Rivals shortly after becoming a free agent. Even though he's on Montreal now, Devils fans won't forget.
They also won't forget how smooth of a skater he was in New Jersey. He came up in the 1999-2000 season as a second line center and enjoyed a fantastic rookie year, winning the Calder Trophy for the league's best rookie. From then, Gomez grew as a player and in importance, eventually becoming the team's top pivot by the 2002-03 season, when the Devils won their third Stanley Cup. Gomez' playmaking and skating abilities meshed well with the offense; and only Scott Niedermayer was better than him on breakouts. He enjoyed a monster season in 2005-06; centering Elias and Brian Gionta en route to his best offensive season ever with 33 goals, 51 assists.
After a solid 60 point 2006-07 season, Gomez then jumped across the Hudson for the cash. Sad, really, as Gomez could have remained the Devils' #1 center, become a legend, and enjoyed more success with New Jersey. Still, we can't really factor that to what he did in New Jersey. Ultimately, we concluded that there hasn't been any Devils center who has done more than Gomez in the past decade, so he's on the First Team.
Right Wing - Jamie Langenbrunner (2002 - Current)
|Season (2002-Current) - Jamie Langenbrunner
|Playoffs (2002-2009) - Jamie Langenbrunner
Langenbrunner, in many ways, is the prototypical Lou Lamoriello player. Since coming to the Devils, he has been known for his excellent defending, solid offensive traits, a hard worker, and usable in all situations. Langenbrunner has fit just as well on the penalty kill, the power play, and either one of the Devils' top three lines. He has been able to play on a checking third line with Jay Pandolfo and John Madden in one season, while keeping up and adding to the youthful vigor of Zach Parise and Travis Zajac on a top line later on. All while contributing a significant amount of points, even in this season so far.
While he's not a player that will win individual awards, he's the kind of player a hockey team needs to be successful. He hasn't just been a benefit on the ice, but also in the locker room, where he has been team captain through three seasons across two coaches. Admittedly, I didn't understand why Lou pulled the trigger in moving Jason Arnott and Randy McKay for Langenbrunner and Joe Nieuwendyk in 2002. By the next season, I not only understood why but was absolutely grateful as his 11 goals and 18 post season points were instrumental in earning the Devils their third Stanley Cup in 2003. The 34 year old right winger has done so much for New Jersey - fitting in on offense, defense, and in leadership - that we agree he has been the best right winger across the last decade.
Left Defense - Scott Niedermayer (1999 - 2004)
|Season (1999-2004) -Scott Niedermayer
|Playoffs (1999-2004) - Scott Nidermayer
What can I possibly say about Scott Niedermayer? He's the best two-way defenseman the Devils have ever seen and, in my opinion, only second to Scott Stevens across all time Devils defenders. Yet, the 2000s were really Niedermayer's best years in New Jersey. As Stevens' role diminished, Niedermayer flourished with his impressive awareness at both ends of the rink - making smart plays in his own end while contributing on offense. And he was clutch from the point, only in the 1999-2000 season did Niedermayer not score at least 3 game winning goals (he had none that season). Sure, not as prolific with the game winners as Elias; but again, this is from a Devils defenseman - a position that where players weren't really encouraged to jump up on offense unless absolutely sure until the past few seasons. That makes the stat all the more impressive.
Then there's his skating: so smooth, so effortless, yet so quick and almost always with a purpose. Supremely skilled and he was important to the Devils. I will say this to my dying days: if Tie Domi never elbowed Scott Niedermayer in the face in the 2001 playoffs, the Devils win that Stanley Cup. Niedermayer was that much of a difference maker, and he proved that in 2003 with 2 goals and 16 assists in the post season. He finally got the due he deserved after the 2003-04 season when his 14 goals and 40 assists plus his standard defensive excellence while leading the Devils' blueline earned him the Norris Trophy. A trophy never awarded to the Devils, with Scott Stevens coming close in 1994. Winning the Norris was deserved and established Niedermayer as a Despite all the great defense the Devils have shown over the years, only Niedermayer was individually respected for his excellence across the league.
After that, he became a free agent and the concerns became a reality. Niedermayer signed on with Anaheim for money/to play with his brother, much to the delight of Ducks fans. It wasn't the smoothest of departures, but unlike Gomez, Devils fans today don't begrudge Niedermayer. They didn't boo him when he came to the Rock earlier this month or at the mention of his name. I would think they would love to have Scott Niedermayer back. And why not? He was elite in this past decade for New Jersey. Being on the First Team was simply the proper course of action.
Right Defense - Brian Rafalski (1999 - 2007)
|Season (1999-2007) - Brian Rafalski
|Playoffs (2000-2007) - Brian Rafalski
Whereas Niedermayer was the best two-way defenseman the Devils have ever seen, Rafalski was one of the biggest finds coming into the 2000s. He represented that incoming group of Devils that were instrumental in this past decade: Rafalski, Madden (also a free agent signing), Gomez, and White.
Signed from HIFK Helsinki, Rafalski stepped right into the Devils' blueline in 1999-2000 with 5 goals and 27 assists. The smallish defender always found a way to set up a great play from the point or put a great, low shot on net lending itself to a great rebound opportunity. Rafalski racked up the assists season after season throughout New Jersey while providing steady coverage in his own zone. He was smart with his stick - both in checking with it and in not taking many calls because of it. He eventually was part of the best top 4 defensemen group the Devils ever seen: Niedermayer, Stevens, Rafalski, and Colin White, which was as good as you got in the early part of the decade. Rafalski had to take over the big hole Niedermayer left in the two seasons after the lockout, and truth be told, he held is own in terms of defending and production (49 and 55 points in 05-06 and 06-07, respectively).
Along with John Madden, Rafalski was evidence that an excellent player can come from anywhere - including an undrafted Wisconsin graduate playing in Scandanavia for four years who wasn't even 6 feet tall. Rafalski never made the noise Niedermayer did or had as big of an impact as Scott Stevens (of course, Stevens' impact was felt long before the 2000s). Nevertheless, he was steady and productive enough to stand out among the Devils defenders of the last decade. Again, because Rafalski contributed across a longer period of time with New Jersey, it behooved us to name him to the First Team.
Goaltender - Martin Brodeur (1999 - Current)
|Season (1999-Current) - Martin Brodeur
|Playoffs (1999-2009) - Martin Brodeur
Do I really need to explain his inclusion? Do I really need to summarize why he's on the First Team? Not if you're a Devils fan; but if you're new or you're curious, let's break it down:
He's not only been the Devils' best goaltender in team history; but one of the greatest goaltenders of all time. His conditioning is legendary, racking up 70+ seasons without skipping much of a beat. His positioning and reflexes are awe-inspiring, still quick at 37 as he was at 27. His puck handling skills are so superb, the NHL Board of Governors instituted a trapezoid behind the net to rein in the netminder's ability. His unflappable attitude is laudable, a bad game or a bad goal on one night won't bother him, nor will he dwell on it to the point of affecting his play.
In this decade alone, he's had 6 40+ win seasons, only one season where he hasn't won at least 38 games, won four Vezina trophies, named to the NHL First All-Star Team three times, won two Stanley Cups, and has broken the league's record for most wins in a season (48 in 06-07 - the best single season performance of this decade according to Puck Daddy), most career wins in the regular season (569 and counting) and he will most likely break the league's record for career shutouts before this decade is done with (currently: 102). He even was honored by the state government of New Jersey, having declared June 18, 2009 as Martin Brodeur Day. Has any hockey player ever been honored with a day? Has any athlete in New Jersey ever got something like this? Even if the answer to either question is yes, that Brodeur received such an honor is remarkable in of itself.
There are probably some big accomplishments I've missed in this blurb. Feel free to yell at me for not noting them all, but quite frankly, there is only one Martin Brodeur and we are simply blessed to have watched him all this time in New Jersey, much less within the past decade.
Coach - Pat Burns (2003 - 2004)
Originally, we thought about a coach for each team; but ultimately we decided that didn't make much sense with the flux of the team. Who was really the second best coach of the Devils in the past decade? Claude Julien, who didn't finish the season? Brent Sutter, who quit on the team? Larry Robinson, whose major accomplishment was the 2000 playoffs?
We did agree that there was one superior coach among the bunch and that was Pat Burns.
Hired prior to the 2002-03 season, the disciplinarian head coach was seemingly a perfect fit with the team. Realizing that the Devils weren't going to be offensive powerhouses that season (and they weren't, their power play was notably and notoriously miserable), Burns had the team playing near-perfect defensive hockey with a incredibly motivated workman-like attitude. Devils fans were wowed by the efficiency (and horrified at the power play) and opposing fans were miserable at how relentless the Devils were. The Devils fought hard constantly and when they were clicking on the ice, the opposition stood little chance of getting significant offensive pressure, much less a chance of beating the team. He never relented while managing the team throughout the season and the playoffs, earning the Devils their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.
While 2003-04 didn't lead to similar playoff success, one couldn't complain too loudly about a follow-up season record of 43-25-12-2 and finishing just a point behind Philadelphia. In 2002-03, the Devils gave up only 166 goals, followed by only 164 conceded the next season - a testament to Burns' and the team's defensive success.
Unfortunately, instead of enjoying a relatively long coaching stint with the Devils, Burns had to step down during the lockout after being diagnosed with liver cancer in 2005 - after surviving colon cancer in 2004. He has since remained within the organization as a specialty scout in Florida, allowing Burns to be comfortable as he now fights lung cancer. His combined record in New Jersey is 89-45-22-8 (208 pts.). More important than his record was that he was key in the Devils' effort to have won the team's third Stanley Cup in 2003. I don't think the 2002-03 Devils go anywhere in the playoffs with someone other than Burns behind the bench. He knew what he was doing and he was successful in doing so. This made him stand out among the various coaches of the 2000s and we agreed he was the best coach the team had in this decade.
And so there you have it: the In Lou We Trust-selected New Jersey Devils All-Decade First Team:
Patrik Elias - Scott Gomez - Jamie Langenbrunner
Scott Niedermayer - Brian Rafalski
Thank you for reading. Again, please feel free to discuss any of the players in the comments. Perhaps you would have liked to have seen someone else on the First or Second Teams. Maybe you want to add your own thoughts about any one of these players. Or, if you're feeling bold, suggest a Third Team of the Decade or some "honorable mentions" to the discussion. We hope you enjoyed this as much as we had thinking about it.