Scott Gomez is one of the best playmaking forwards in the history of the Devils franchise. He won a Calder Trophy, two Stanley Cups, and was an integral part of the most dominant stretch the team has ever had in the early 2000s. And yet, by the late 00s, Gomez was persona non grata at the Rock and received full-throated boos from the fans when he took the ice there. How does that happen? Well, Gomez got himself hated the quickest way that any Devil can, he left the Devils and signed across the river with the New York Rangers in the prime of his career.
Here in 2020, though, I would probably categorize Gomez as a beloved Devil once again. So how did we get from here to there and back? Well, part of it is that time does heal all wounds, but Gomez’s welcome back into the fold of “people we won’t boo on sight” by Devils fans was helped along immensely by Gomez’s brief redemption stint with the Devils in 2014-15. Before we get into that season, though, we’ll run it back to the beginning for context.
The Young Star Playmaker
Gomez was drafted in the late first round in 1998 and broke into the NHL shortly after in the 1999-2000 season. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Devils history knows that was kind of a big season in New Jersey, as the Devils would hoist their second Stanley Cup and one that Gomez would play no small part in. Gomez put up likely the best rookie season in the history of the franchise with 70 points and he took home the Calder Trophy for his trouble. With teams having to contend with the fearsome A-Line as a primary threat, Gomez’s dazzling playmaking as a second-line center made the team difficult, if not impossible to contain (not to mention the team also had one of the best checking lines in the league, centered by Bobby Holik, to boot).
Gomez would continue to play a starring role for the Devils beyond the 2000 Cup season, continuing to rack up assists like few other Devils before him, even leading the league in helpers in 2003-04. Gomez would be an even more central offensive figure in the team’s 2003 Stanley Cup season, when the team had more of a grind-it-out model and had a lot less depth up front. Gomez would have a career season in 2005-06 following the lockout and the rule changes made to open up the game. His only career 20-goal season (he’d finish with 33 that year) and an 84-point campaign would line him up to get paid big time. Gomez and the Devils could not agree to a long-term deal, though, settling on a one-year $5M contract. That would set the stage for what came next.
After the 2006-07 season, where Gomez took a significant step back from the highs of 2005-06 but was still among the top scorers, Gomez arrived at unrestricted free agency. As with most players in his position, Gomez was looking to cash in. Lou Lamoriello had gotten into a habit of seeing his biggest names walk (some for better and some for worse), and while negotiations were not as contentious or emotional as those with, say, Bobby Holik, Gomez became another that went out the door. Gomez didn’t leave for just anywhere, though; he (like Holik before him) went to the worst place a Devil can go: Midtown Manhattan. Gomez put on Ranger blue and, while the contract was a questionable one, he quickly rocketed to the top of the enemies list for Devils fans. Hockey is ultimately a business and Gomez was entitled to get paid, but fandom is emotional, and he surely knew the boos would be full-throated upon his return.
Gomez played fine (if unspectacular verus inflated expectations) in his two seasons for the Rangers. Naturally, he played a big part in the Rangers first round dispatching of the Devils in 2008, tallying 7 points in the 5-game gentleman’s sweep that served as a bitter twist of the knife at the time. His playoff success in New York would end there, though as the Rangers would be shown the door quickly in round two by Pittsburgh in 2008 and would lose to Washingtion in the opening round in 2009.
Ultimately, the expectations were just too high for Gomez based on the contract he was given. He really didn’t play terribly in New York, but he had a big cap hit and the Rangers and their fans were already aching to get out from under it in year two. Devils fans loathed him and, somehow, Rangers fans sort of did, too. The contract he had was bound become serious trouble at some point but, unfortunately for Devils fans, he’d be shipped out of New York for a substantial return before that happened. Even so, his transgression would not be easily forgotten in Newark and the boos would continue apace when he returned to New Jersey, even when it wasn’t in that gross blue sweater.
The Aging Albatross
Despite performing adequately in his first two seasons in New York, Gomez was traded to Montreal by the Rangers ahead of the 2009-10 season in a de facto salary dump. Unfortunately, this was a trade that the Canadiens would ultimately rue and that would help the Rangers stay competitive well into the 2010s, with journeyman Chris Higgins and prospect Ryan McDonagh heading the other way to New York (McDonagh, in a grim bit of comedy if you’re a Devils fan, isn’t even mentioned until the 10th paragraph of the above-linked Daily News article on the trade). The Rangers actually continue to benefit from this trade to this day, as one of their current top prospects (Nils Lundkvist) was drafted as a result of trading McDonagh in 2018. Meanwhile, Gomez would have some brief, marginal success in Montreal before the bottom fell out on his career.
Gomez’s decline was rapid for the Canadiens, going from 59 points in 78 games in his first season to 11 points in an injury-shortened 38-game season in 2011-12. It got bad enough that, in the midst of a goal drought that would run almost a calendar year and span 53 games in the end, someone started up “didgomezscore.com” to answer the question of “Did Scott Gomez score last night?” with a reliable “No.” The Canadiens would attempt to keep Gomez off the ice in the 2013 season for the purposes of buying him out in the summer before the NHL intervened to prevent teams from doing that and allowed teams to buy out players before the season (both of the contracts that necessitated that rule change — Gomez and Wade Redden — were, of course, signed by the Rangers). Gomez’s ending in Montreal was rough, to the point where he had friends and family feeling bad for him, no small feat when you’re making $7M a year.
Gomez would bounce around at a couple more (mostly unsuccessful) stops in San Jose and Florida over the next two seasons. In his return to New Jersey with the Panthers, cursory booing continued, but the venom really wasn’t there in the crowd anymore. There’s only so much kicking of a guy you can do when he’s down, and while Devils fans certainly weren’t shedding a tear for Gomez when things first went sour in Montreal, eventually there’s no sport in hating a guy trying to hang on in the league while basically playing for the league minimum.
When training camp opened in New Jersey in September 2014, the Devils would have a familiar face show up on a tryout. Like the prodigal son, Gomez, the wayward playmaker, returned to the place it began to try to revive his career. After years of Gomez being loathed in New Jersey and then almost crashing out of the league, I think many fans took a little bit of time to figure out how to react to his return. Given the way the past few years had played out, though (for both Gomez and New Jersey), people were willing to let the past be the past.
Gomez performed well enough in camp, but did not immediately get a contract out of it. The Devils’ roster was thoroughly unspectacular at the time, but it was also crowded in terms of contracts and capable NHL bodies, so the team opted not to sign Gomez for opening night. Rather than trying to latch on somewhere else, though, Gomez opted to travel and work out with them even without a contract. Perhaps it was out of a belief that New Jersey really was the place where he could get back on track, or maybe he just figured he didn’t have an opportunity anywhere else, but either way, he hung around until December without a contract, and a series of injuires led to him finally getting the call.
The Rejuvenated Veteran
When Gomez was released from contract limbo and signed to a 1-year deal in December, I don’t think many people expected things to go the way they did. Gomez had a grand total of 38 points since the start of the 2011-12 season and the 2014-15 Devils were a disappointing mess of a team on the cusp of their final collapse into a rebuild that continues to this day. Gomez predictably went scoreless over his opening three games in Devils red and black, but then something clicked.
Over the next couple months, Gomez entered a full-on revival. He put up 16 points over the following 20 games and looked, at times, like the playmaker people remembered. He wasn’t dynamic like the young Gomez was, but he was cagey and smart made a habit of finding his teammates in scoring positions just like the old days. Devils fans, who were still pretty lukewarm on the whole tryout affair, were won over and after years of boos, Gomez was showered with a whole lot of cheers over the next several months in New Jersey.
In what was probably among the more miserable seasons in Devils history, Gomez was perhaps the lone bright spot. The Devils were decrepit and in the final death rattle of the legendary Lamoriello Era, but Gomez was a real feel-good story that was something worth cheering about. He’d produce pretty consistently over the remainder of the season and finish up with a solid 34 points in 58 games. He’d finish second on the team in scoring rate (0.58 pts/game), behind only Mike Cammalleri (0.62) and he’d have a lot of people pulling for his return in the following season.
The Gomez revival was gone as fast as it arrived, though. The Devils organization was overhauled in the 2015 offseason, as the team set its sights on rebuilding a decaying roster and barren system. In this context, and without the GM he had all of that history with in the picture, Gomez ultimately did not fit in. He would catch on with St. Louis after another training camp tryout in 2015, but would not find the same success. He started strongly out of the gate with 8 points in 11 games, but would fall off a cliff thereafter and be waived and then released without another point by the New Year. He’d catch on with Hershey in the AHL and play well (24 points in 18 games) and get one more shot out of that, signing in Ottawa around the trade deadline. After a quiet 13-game stretch with one point (0g, 1a), that would be it for Gomez’s career. He’d retire over the summer, and that would be that.
Ultimately, Gomez’s return to New Jersey was inconsequential to the fortunes of the team. The Devils were blown up in the summer of 2015 and, as detailed above, Gomez quietly faded out the following season. It was less a turning point for anyone than it was a coda. But his redemption tour was a feel-good story in a season that needed one and a fitting callback to the team’s past glory as it hurled towards a reckoning.
Above all, Gomez’s return mended a relationship between the fans and one of the biggest stars of the team’s best years. Gomez signed with the enemy in 2007 and was thusly cast out of the good graces of the fanbase. In any returns to the Rock now, though, he will get largely unequivocal cheers from the fans. Without his return to the Devils in 2014-15, though, I don’t know how warm of a reception he’d be greeted with. People who thought he didn’t always put in the effort or were still bitter about the way he left the team were treated to a Gomez who proved he was as driven as anyone in 2014-15, even with the way his career had crumbled. It was only a footnote in both Devils history and Gomez’s career, but it was perhaps the most positive Devils reunion of the past couple decades. A fond memory and a buried hatchet. Sometimes, that’s the best you can do.