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A Roller Coaster with a Brick Wall Ending: Revisiting the Devils’ Bizarre 2005-06 Season

Earlier in the offseason, we took a look at the forgotten years of 1996-1999 in Devils history. This week, we look at perhaps the most peculiar season of all: 2005-06, where the team stumbled out of the lockout, weathered a series of calamities, turned into a powerhouse, and then was abruptly shown the door.

The summer of 2005 represented a strange time in hockey. Where under normal circumstances, the league would be reflecting on the past season and whoever had just been crowned Stanley Cup Champions, the league was instead recovering from one of the most destructive work stoppages in the history of North American sports. Coming off a lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season and prevented a league champion from being crowned for the first time since the inception of the NHL in 1917, teams were adjusting to the new paradigm of a hard salary cap and preparing for a season that would feature some major rule changes on the ice as well.

I’m sure there are arguments to be made that the lockout was a necessary evil for the league’s long-term health, but in the short term, the NHL had been laid low. A sport that was already comforably fourth among the “big four” American sports leagues was relegated further to the margins. A year out of the public eye and the sour taste of a monetary dispute wiping out a season in a similar fashion to the 1994 baseball strike damaged the sport’s standing for fans. The league’s national television broadcasts were relegated to the Outdoor Life Network, a cable channel few had even heard of and many did not have in their cable packages. Watching highlights from the season where the graphics show “OLN” is still a strange sight to this day. The NHL would have to work to win back fans.

Part of what they hoped would do that was the new rules they had put in place to make the game more exciting and fast-paced. The NHL eliminated ties, starting the era of the shootout and a league where someone was forced to go home as a winner/loser every night. The two line pass was axed to speed up the game in transition and a crackdown was promised for the hooking and holding that people felt had been marring the game through the previous decade. Add to these rule shakeups the strangeness of having no defending champ and the obscure network the league was now on, and things felt almost completely detached from what came before. This may be because of my age to some extent, but even to this day, the 2004-05 lockout feels like a barrier between the before times and the after times. And the league’s quasi-dark ages that followed the lockout as the NHL tried to regather itself and OLN/Versus tried to fight its way into households only deepen this rift between “then” and “now.”

Coming directly off this lockout with all of the rules changes, a new network, and a new way the entire league did business, 2005-06 was bound to be strange. The league had two first overall picks since the last time the league had played a game, both potential generational talents (and one the product of a draft whose lottery some of the tinfoil-hat-inclined still believe was rigged to this day). Big names had moved around all over the league as teams grappled with the new reality of the salary cap. It was a weird time to be a hockey fan.

In New Jersey, things may have been even stranger than they were anywhere else. A look back at the 2005-06 season reveals a campaign where everything just looks a little off. These were the Devils, and plenty of the familiar names were here doing their thing and wearing the familiar black and red, but a close look at that season reveals curiosity after curiosity that has faded from the memory banks with 14 years of distance between now and then. An accounting of all of them is difficult, but we’ll give it a try today.

Disappearing Legends

The NHL was facing a brave new world in 2005 as they emerged from the lockout, but for the Devils, the split between before and after would be even more stark. Scott Stevens, longtime captain and one of the most feared defensemen of the previous decade-plus, was now retired. His 2003-04 season was cut short by post-concussion syndrome and when the lockout erased the 2004-05 season, Stevens ended up deciding to hang up his skates before 2005-06.

The other half of the Devils legendary defensive duo, Scott Niedermayer, would not retire after the lockout, but he also would not be in a Devils uniform when the NHL returned. After a rocky contract negotiation in 2004 that led to a 1-year deal in arbitration, that contract was wiped out by the lockout. Niedermayer then was a UFA for the first time in summer 2005. He would spurn the team he played his whole career for and won three Cups with to join his brother Rob in Anaheim. This whole situation felt backwards, as Scott, the reigning Norris Trophy winner and lock future hall-of-famer would pick up and join his brother, the journeyman role-player winger instead of the other way around. Lou would spend the rest of his time with the Devils acquiring obscure family members of team mainstays.

With that, the 2005-06 team would enter the with neither of their legendary blue liners, after 12 seasons spent with them as cornerstones of their roster.

Salary Cap Woes

Every GM in the NHL had to adjust to the new reality of the salary cap, but Lou Lamoriello had a heck of a time throughout his post-lockout run with the team. This season was perhaps the worst on that front, though the post Summer of Kovalchuk fall when the team had to reduce their roster to fit under the cap was close.

One wonders what the Devils would have done if they had successfully signed Niedermayer, but even as it stood the team had big problems fitting everyone under the cap. To go along with Niedermayer’s departure Patrik Elias’ return to the team was in question due to health issues, so the team went out and signed a bunch of contracts they would come to quickly regret. The team would reunite with Alexander Mogilny on a two-year deal and sign Dan McGillis and Vladamir Malakhov to fill out the defense. Due to some combination of poor play and a salary cap crisis precipitated by Patrik Elias’ return, none of those three players, totaling almost $10M on a $44M cap, would make it past the New Year on the roster. The reunion with Mogilny ended with a whimper, though in retrospect, he was still scoring at a pretty strong pace before he was banished to the minors. But that issue paled in comparison to...

The Vladimir Malakhov Disaster

This signing, which came in the wake of the Niedermayer departure, is among the most infamous in the team’s history. Malakhov signed for two years and 7.2 million partially as a replacement for the void left in the blue line. Malakhov had a long and mostly-successful career up to that point, including winning a Cup with the Devils in 2000 as a deadline acquisition. This would not be a part of that success, though.

Malakhov played 29 games for the Devils in 2005, mostly poorly, and then in mid-December it was abruptly announced that he was retiring. Or at least that was Lou and the Devils’ position. There was some disagreement as his agent claimed it was a leave of absence. Either way, his contract remained on the Devils books as an albatross hung around Lamoriello’s neck. The Devils would have to pay a hefty ransom to the Sharks the following fall to get them to take him off their books for the 2006 cap. The first rounder the Devils would be forced to trade away would become David Perron, who will likely end up with more career points than any Devil drafted from 2005 until at least 2015.

Elias had Freaking Hepatitis

I glossed over this earlier, but in one of the more insane stories in a season full of them, Patrik Elias contracted hepatitis A, apparently from some tainted food, while he was playing in Russia. It was a problem for the Devils on the ice, as they didn’t know if their best forward would be able to return this season or ever, but it was far more serious than that as according to his career retrospective at The Players’ Tribune, Elias nearly died. Miraculously, he would return to the ice again for the Devils just halfway through the season. It was a story that was hard to believe at the time and still seems crazy to this day. I mean, hepatitis.

Elias Back with a Vengeance

In a feat perhaps as unbelievable as the fact that he got hepatitis in the first place, Patrik Elias returned from the life-threatening illness to play some of the best hockey of his life, lifting a sputtering Devils team all the way to a division crown. He put up 45 points in 38 games, which represents a higher scoring pace than his 96-point season that still stands as the Devils’ record. And again, he did this coming off an illness that nearly destroyed his body and killed him. He’d follow up the regular season with a playoff performance that was even better, including the utter demolition of the New York Rangers. Despite the Devils only playing nine total playoff games that season, Elias’ 16 points would finish 12th among all players in the postseason.

Gionta Goes Supernova

In a feat that he had not approached before and would not come close to sniffing again, Brian Gionta morphed into one of the leagues most fearsome goal-scorers. His 48 goals in 2005-06 were good for 6th in the league and stands as the Devils’ record for goals in a season. Gionta, like many players, was aided by the massive amount of penalties called as part of the crackdown on the old clutch-and-grab strategy of the Dead Puck Era as half of his goals were scored with the extra attacker. Still, this still doesn’t fully explain the explosion, as Gionta had not and would not cross the 30-goal plateau in any other season. Gionta had much more longevity, but he was basically a less-extreme Jonathan Cheechoo in 2005-06 (again, it was a weird season for everyone).

Tommy Albelin is Here?

Along with the short Mogilny reunion, this was something that I had completely memory-holed before digging back into this season. Yes, Tommy Albelin, mainstay on the Devils’ defense in 1995 and supporting cast member in 2003, was on the team and even played half the season. Albelin, 40 at the time, was actually brought back directly in response to the Malakhov situation. Apparently similar to the Scott Gomez situation in 2014-15, (again, I had fully jettisoned this from my memory) Albelin didn’t have a contract but had just sort of been hanging around at the Devils’ practice facility until he got the call. He played 37 games and was mostly a scratch in the playoffs. Sure!

Cam Janssen Played 47 Games and Scored Zero Points

Well, I guess some things were normal this season.

Larry Robinson Can’t Take it Anymore

In the midst of the Devils’ poor results and perpetual roster crisis in the fall of 2005, Larry Robinson apparently decided that he had had just about enough of it. He stepped down as head coach on December 20th, citing stress and sickness. Basically things sucked so bad in the fall of 2005 that Larry Robinson just said screw this, I’m outta here. His exact words were a bit more tactful:

“I don’t know if I have the patience anymore, or the wherewithal, to be a head coach,” Robinson said during a news conference Monday at the Devils’ practice facility. “I just know nothing is worth being sick.”

His replacement was... oh, right.

Coach Lou

In the first of three official rides behind the bench (one of those as part of a weird coaching triumvirate), Lou Lamoriello took a team that was flailing and, with the obvious help of the imminent return of Patrik Elias, turned it into a machine. The team was 14-13-5 (85-point pace) before Robinson stepped down and Lou installed himself as coach. After, the team went 32-14-4, a 112-point pace. Despite a number of missteps, failures, and straight-up bad decisions constructing the roster this season, Lou somehow ended up building on the mystique that surrounded him. He took a roster that was struggling, despite the presence of big names like Brian Rafalski, Scott Gomez, and Marty Brodeur, and (again with a big assist from Elias) turned it into a power house. The team hummed along like a buzzsaw in the leadup to the playoffs, winning their final 11 games to capture the division crown, and followed that up with a dismantling of the rival Rangers in a first-round four-game sweep. A rocky season had rounded into maybe one of the most impressive Devils teams in history and a team poised to return to the summit of hockey for the fourth time. Until...

The Broadway Beatdown and the Shocking End

Given how crazy this season was, I guess it’s only fitting that it ended in a fashion that feels somewhat inexplicable, even within the often random framework of NHL hockey. After delivering one of the most through playoff beatdowns in modern NHL history to the Rangers (aggregate score 17-4), the Devils headed into the second round on a 15-game winning streak and looked unbeatable heading into their second-round series against Carolina. Elias put up 11 points in four games in that series, including a 6-point destruction of them in Game 1. Everything looked like it was falling into place. They’d be packing up their lockers for the season just five games later.

After the layoff between rounds one and two, the Devils (who, again, came in on a 15-game win streak) would be trounced in Game 1 by Carolina, 6-0. Then, in game two, the Devils would suffer one of their more crushing defeats in playoff history (only to be outdone by a different Carolina game a few years later). After taking a 2-1 lead on a Scott Gomez goal with just 20 seconds to go in regulation, the Devils looked like they had turned the tide in their series with some late-game heroics. Somehow, some way, though, the team allowed now and future nemesis Eric Staal to even the game back up just 17 seconds later. The Devils would lose just a few minutes into overtime and they’d drop Game 3 by a 3-2 score as well, falling to 0-3 and making the rest of the series largely a formality. They’d take Game 4 but be dispatched in Raleigh the next game to end their season.

A Long, Strange Trip

I don’t know that you could point to a Devils season more bizarre than 2005-06. Between the general malaise surrounding the entire NHL, the big time departures, a superstar with a life-threatening illness, the parade of forgotten cameos, the constant cap issues, and a coach who pulled the chute 30 games in, the team somehow rounded into form and looked like a wrecking ball heading into the playoffs. Then, for exactly one round, that’s exactly what they were. The season ended with a harsh thud against Carolina, which almost feels appropriate, as a clean narrative in the playoffs would feel out of place in a season as uncanny as this one. It’s one of the strangest seasons in the franchise’s history and it came in an era where everything in the NHL felt just a little off. Somehow it was both a miracle the the team was competitive at all and a huge disappointment they couldn’t go farther. It was a constant roller-coaster, and just when the Devils gained their highest speed, they hit a brick wall, and in an instant, it was over. C’est la vie, I suppose.

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