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Large Issues in the Decade Ahead for the New Jersey Devils

A decade is defined as a period of 10 years. With a brand new digit in the tens for this year, now is a good as time as any to make any predictions for the future.  SB Nation's main hubs have been exploring what the next 10 years will hold for each sport.  The whole series can be found here. I think they are good, long-term thinking pieces, written by people who know the sport quite well.  Today, Brandon Worley of Defending Big D hypothesized what the NHL will need to do in the next decade.   While I agree with some of it and disagree with other parts, it is a thought-out  piece that's worth your time.

I'm not going to discuss with what I do and don't agree with in Brandon's piece, but I want to localize the concept.  Basically, what will the next 10 years hold for the team we all love, the New Jersey Devils

The last 10 years have been excellent for the Devils with two Stanley Cups, three trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, five Atlantic Division titles, playoffs in every season, a brand new arena (the Prudential Center), two new owners (first PuckHoldings, then the group led by Jeff Vanderbeek), and an what could be an actual effort at marketing (it's slow, but it's a start?).   In fact, the Devils have continued to be excellent by having the second-best cumulative record in the NHL over the last 15 years even prior to this currently sensational season.  Here at ILWT, we've discussed the past 10 years eagerly, be it in naming all-decade teams (first team, second team), FanPosts positing who were the worst Devils of the last 10 years, or Steve recounting memorable moments (honorable mentions, 6-10, 1-5) of the last 10 years.

What the Devils did in the last 10 years is hardly something to complain about unless you have ridiculously high standards.  However, big issues loom largely in the coming 10 years.  It could very well be a monumental decade of change for the Devils.  I've come up with 5 that I'd like to discuss in the comments; what follows is a bit of an explanation for each issue.  I don't expect anyone to have any definitive answers for each of them, some of these are just realities that we have to accept eventually.  But let's talk about them in the comments - how we feel about them, how important these truly are (I'm sure there are other long-term issues), and what could be a possible solution to these long-term issues.  (Clarifying Note: Don't use this discuss short-term issues.)

Issue #1:  Life after Martin Brodeur

In the last decade, Devils saw the end of legendary captain Scott Stevens' career, the last of life-long Devil defenseman Ken Daneyko, and witnessed Scott Niedermayer sign with another team.  Utility forward and cult hero Sergei Brylin eventually signed with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL as his career dies down.  Only one player remains who have won all three of New Jersey's Stanley Cups: Martin Brodeur. To say he's important is an understatement.  He's been the closest thing to a constant on the roster for those successful last 15 years and continues to be a huge reason for the team's success now and going forward.    After all, Martin Brodeur is arguably one of the best goaltenders in the history of hockey when you consider his performance, his consistency, and what he's achieved in terms of titles, awards, and records.

However, with Brodeur at age 37, it's likely he will end his careers at some point during the coming decade.  Granted, he could conceivably play longer given how well he stays in shape. I highly doubt it he goes for much longer past his current contract though.  Brodeur will be 40 during the 2012 playoffs, and he doesn't have anything left to prove.  I'm not sure what his M.O. outside of the desire to continue, but even at age 40, I doubt he'll want to play that much longer beyond then.

Currently, the Devils still have some time to develop a goaltender of the future (maybe it's Jeff Frazee?) and there's always free agency.  Getting a goaltender isn't the issue. But the Devils aren't always going to have a legend in net to bail out the team or to make big stops or to keep his confidence after a bad game. That's going to be sorely missed. Complain about how much you see him starting, but every Devil fan will miss him when he does go. No one will wear #30 after him.  That is certain. What isn't is how the Devils will fill in the gap.  In 2008, when Brodeur went down to injury we saw it could be done (with Scott Clemmensen), but the reality is that it will have to be done later on and with a better long-term answer.

Issue #2: Changing of the Guard, or Is Zach Parise Ready to be a Cornerstone?

Martin Brodeur isn't the only long-standing Devil that will likely retire in the next 10 years.  The franchise leading scorer and classy left-winger, Patrik Elias, will be 37 when his current deal ends in the summer of 2013 and he'll likely go shortly after that.  Current captain Jamie Langenbrunner and checking left winger Jay Pandolfo will both be 36 shortly after their contracts end in 2011.  Defensive defenseman Colin White will be 34 when his deal ends in 2011.  While we can argue how important each player was or will be, they are all Devils who have won Cups in New Jersey and have been around for much, if not, all of the previous decade. 

Basically, the next 10 years will be filled with plenty of change within the roster before 2015.   One of the reasons why the Devils have remained successful for over a decade and a half is that they don't necessarily rebuild as much as they reload.  Lou Lamoriello identifies who the team can be built around and tailors the squad that way.  Needless to say, Lou's been successful but with the current roster, the hard decision of who to build the team around will come soon.  

Zach Parise is clearly the team's top offensive player right now and he's being groomed for the role as captain, being an alternate on the current team as well as his country for the 2010 Olympics.  The last player I've seen that was this talented in a Devils uniform was Elias and Parise has the potential to be better.   But is he ready to be the Man in New Jersey?  Not just the leader, but the face of the franchise? Can the Devils build themselves around a forward after so many years of building it around Brodeur?  

We'll see this one answered very soon, as Parise becomes a RFA after next season.  If he gets a big extension, the answer is yes and brings about the other questions of who to keep around. Is Travis Zajac also vital; will he be by the end of 2013?  What about Paul Martin (answer pending this summer, actually) and Johnny Oduya (also a question for 2013)?  These are the hard decisions to make, but the most important one has to do with Parise.  The wrong choice could set back the franchise for years because players like Parise don't come along all that often.

Issue #3: Will the Team Finally Figure Out How to Sell Itself?

With the new ownership of Jeff Vanderbeek, there have been more ticket promotions, more promotions than I can remember, and even increased attempts at advertising games both online and offline.  This is a good start,. However, as many users commented in these two FanPosts (first by Devilssection21fan, second by Cherno77)  indicates, the Devils can do a lot more.  In fact, some users in that post even came up with solid, out-right suggestions for what the Devils could (and should?) do.

So this is quite simple: will the current ownership and management continue to improve in these areas?  In my personal opinion, it's far and away better than what PuckHoldings did.  Yet as the appeal of the Rock will fade in the next 10 years - it will cease being a "new" arena - the organization has to do a better job putting it's name out there to get more people interested the Devils.   I think it's fair to say that the fans are tired of being second place to a nearby organization who hasn't achieved nearly as much as New Jersey in terms of brand recognition and popularity.  If Vanderbeek, his group, and management can figure this out in the next 10 years, then that would be something to truly be proud about.  Especially if the Devils continue succeeding on the ice.

Issue #4: Ex-Devil Players becoming Current Devils Coaches?

What does John MacLean, Tommy Albelin, Chris Terreri, Kevin Dean, and Scott Stevens all have in common besides being former players for the New Jersey Devils?  If you said they are all coaches in the Devils' organization, then you're absolutely right.  Albelin has been an assistant in NJ; Stevens is an assistant coach; Terreri is a goaltending coach for both New Jersey and Lowell; and MacLean is the head coach of the Lowell Devils (the AHL affiliate) and is assisted by Dean. 

The question is whether these guys will continue to work out as coaches, and if so, should more former players stay with the organization to coach?  Albelin has worked out as an assistant and will likely continue at that role.  Terreri is likely to replace Jacques Caron when he decides to retire in New Jersey.  While I'm not sure what Dean will do, MacLean was an assistant in NJ before going down to Lowell as a head coach.  No disrespect intended to Jacques Lemaire, but I'd be shocked if he lasts as head coach in New Jersey for 10 years given his age (64) and the organization's history with head coaches (Seven different head coaches and two times Lou was the interim in the last 10 years).   Will MacLean prove his coaching acumen to eventually be the head coach for New Jersey later in the coming decade?  What will the organization do with Stevens as head coach; if the current path with MacLean works out, should he follow the same plan or stay as an assistant? If not, will the Devils just look outside only for coaching positions?

Moreover, do the Devils keep a coach for longer than two full seasons in the coming decade? Or will that only happen if the coach gets the desired results year after year?

Issue #5: Lou Lamoriello

Normally, I'd say the answers to Issues #1, #2, and #4 would be whatever Lou thinks is the right call.  Lou's been through these situations before.   He's been the GM, President, and CEO of the Devils since April 1987, none of these problems are really new to him.

I'd argue none has been better at the job than Lou. Above all his accomplishments and contributions to the game of hockey (much less the Devils), please notice that he was installed into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder of the game while still GM of the Devils.  The title of this blog isn't being cute or ironic, no, I honor the man.  Many Devils fans have learned to trust Lou Lamoriello over and over and over again.  If there's a difficult decision, Lou usually makes the right move.  And in the rare cases he doesn't, he knows full well how to make up for it.  When I noted the Devils success of the last 15 years, there were was one true constant for all 15 of those years: Lou Lamoriello.  He knows what the team needs to be successful and he's willing to do what it takes to make that happen.  He does not care about what's popular or  The team's success and his role are not a coincidence.

This is hard to type but it is a possibility that Lou may not be the GM by 2020. 

Now, I don't want him to leave.  I don't want him to retire.  If Lou says he wants to be GM until he dies, then I'll support him.  If anyone has the right to set his own terms on his job, it's Lou.   That said, he's been at this job for close to 23 years and he's 67.  He's done it all in hockey.  He's led Providence College hockey, founded a college hockey conference (Hockey East), took the New Jersey Devils to heights no one in 1987 could have thought of at the time, and built successful hockey teams year after year that have won 3 Stanley Cups so far.  Like Brodeur, what more does Lou have to prove?  Sure, success drives Lou; there's nothing like winning it all and to him (and by extension, the organization), that's the goal every season.  Not a slogan, but an actual, attainable goal.  If he thinks he can still successfully do the job to his high standards at age 77, then great.  I'm not going to start doubting Lou now.

Even so, he can't be the Devils GM, President, and CEO forever.  Surely someone as detail-oriented and hands-on as Lou has a contingency plan when he's no longer in those positions.  What that could be, I have no idea.  I only have baseless speculating questions such as the following: Would David Conte want the job if Lou goes sometime, assuming he's still around as Director of Scouting?  Is his son Chris Lamoriello someone to even consider given how AHL affiliate has done (though this season could be the start of a turnaround)? 

More to the point, is there anyone who could conceivably step in and handle the initial pressure of having to be the GM after the legendary Lou Lamoriello? Whoever the replacement is going to have a really difficult time because every fan will wonder whether the decision he or she makes would be the one Lou would have made. That's not a position many are willing to take. (Minor Aside: And what would I call this blog when Lou leaves the organization?)

Honestly, I don't like thinking about this issue, much less typing it up and publishing it on the Internet.  In my opinion, I doubt anyone can truly, really fit Lou's shoes. Getting the trust of the fanbase is incredibly difficult and Lou is one of the few who maintains it, season after season.  Unfortunately, the time may come in the next 10 years to do just that. And if not then, then shortly after then.   While I noted that Issue #2, whether Parise is the cornerstone is a major decision, this is truly the biggest one that may have to be made for the long-term future of the franchise.  Assuming it happens.

Like I said, it could very well be a decade of monumental change.