As we wait just a few more days for camp to get underway, I figured I’d take today to dip back into an era in Devils history that was marked by a team still at the top of its form (at least in the regular season) and an unceasing avalanche of drama on and off the ice. This era of the Devils wore the ‘boring’ label as much as any other era of the Devils, but any objective look at what went down in New Jersey in the post-lockout years reveals a team somehow constantly in turmoil but simultaneously always atop their division. Despite on-ice success, coaches went out the door as fast as they showed up, top players departed with almost stomach-turning frequency, and the best forward in the history of the franchise nearly died.
It was a strange era, featuring a team that was great but disappointing. A team that was frequently counted out as its stars marched out the door but just kept on winning. Above all, though, this stretch in Devils history was just weird. A malleable whirlwind of a team that was determined to keep on succeeding no matter how silly the surrounding circumstances got. This was a highly successful franchise that was locked in turmoil for major swaths of a five-year stretch. Perhaps they were boring in the sense that they were a mediocre goal-scoring outfit, but they were compelling as hell if you step back and look what was going on. Let’s run through just what those late-2000s through 2010 were like with an abridged list of all the upheaval that era included.
In the immediate aftermath of the lockout, every team was trying to figure out how to navigate a new salary-capped world in the NHL. The Devils, winners of 2 of the 5 Stanley Cups and 3 of the 5 Prince of Wales trophies in the leadup to the lockout, remained one of the top teams in the league. They were a team in transition, with legend Scott Stevens future in doubt and the team having seen a lot of turnover the previous several seasons (even across the 2003 season that saw them take the Cup). Scott Niedermayer had been made captain when Stevens went down in 2004 in a somewhat hasty implementation of what felt like the natural progression for the team.
Niedermayer was a transcendent defenseman and the Devils knew how critical he was to the sucess of the team. As with a lot of players during the lockout, though, Niedermayer had some time to perhaps explore what he wanted from his life and career. He decided what he wanted was to play hockey with his brother, Rob. The Devils, per reports, gave Niedermayer the biggest offer on the market, but Niedermayer opted to go to Anaheim to play with Rob. Rob was a decent player in his own right, but it certainly felt backwards that the first-ballot hall-of-fame defenseman was leaving the team with which he won three Cups to play with his journeyman forward brother across the country and not the other way around.
Oh, and Scott Stevens announced his retirement about a month after Niedermayer departed.
Rare Illness Ensnares Patrik Elias'
Patrik Elias led one of the more understated careers for an elite player that I can think of but it’s especially crazy that the best forward on one of the best teams in the league very nearly died of a rare illness and it felt like it didn’t really make a lot of waves leaguewide. Elias contracted Hepatitis A in 2005, likely from some tainted food while he was playing in Russia over the lockout. He was hospitalized over a month and had serious questions about whether he’d ever be able to suit up again in the NHL. Elias revealed in his 2018 career retrospective at the Players Tribune that his liver was close to failing and he very nearly died during the episode.
Perhaps it was just a strange time to be following hockey, with the league banished to the Outdoor Life Network in the US and everyone trying to navigate all of the crazyness of the league returning from a full year hiatus, but it still felt like a strangely understated story in the league landscape when hockey returned. Here was a player who was the leading scorer each of the past five seasons for a team that made the Cup final three times and won it twice, and it felt like it wasn’t moving the needle nationally.
The Devils, in general, were in absolute shambles coming out of the lockout. Niedermayer left, Stevens had retired, and people were still trying to figure out if/when Elias might ever return and if he’d ever be the same. I don’t think people really appreciated what a truly bonkers sequence of events this was for a franchise to entire essentially all at once, especially one of the top teams in the league.
The Vlad Malakhov Saga
There’s a choice quote from Lou Lamoriello an above-linked news piece from Stevens’ retirement:
Lol. That’s an all-timer. Vladamir Malakhov was signed for his second go-around with the Devils the very same day Niedermayer announced he was heading to Anaheim. It worked out great for everyone involved. [touches earpiece] Ah, actually I’m told Malakhov played 29 mostly bad games for the Devils, decided to retire on the flight back from a mid-December game rather than get demoted to the minors, tried to come back at some point after, and was subsequently suspended by the Devils, never to play for them again. He actually never played another game of professional hockey and the Devils had to burn a first-round pick to get him off the books to get under the cap the following fall. Other than that, it was a great success.
It is difficult to conceive a much bigger free agency disaster than this and the Devils still won the damn division and a playoff round in 2005-06. These were very different times in New Jersey.
The aforementioned episode where Patrik Elias was almost killed by some tainted Russian cuisine has a second part; the part where he came back to the Devils and absolutely ran roughshod over the league, powering a flagging New Jersey hockey team to the playoffs. He then utterly obliterated the New York Rangers in a four-game sweep that exorcised a major franchise demon, dispatching their hated rival from the postseason for the first time on the back of 11(!) points in four games from Elias. The 2005-06 Devils season alone could be a damn movie, even with the disappointing second round exit serving as the coda.
The Coaching Carousel
From the close of the 2004-05 NHL lockout to New Years Day 2011, here is the unabridged list of coaches for the Devils:
- Larry Robinson
- Lou Lamoriello
- Claude Julien
- Lou Lamoriello (again)
- Brent Sutter
- Jacques Lemaire
- John MacLean
- Jacques Lemaire (again)
For those keeping score at home, that is seven (7) coaching changes in 5.5 seasons. This stretch included four division titles in the five full seasons that time period covers. In one sense, Lou Lamoriello ran/runs the tightest ship of any GM in the league; on the other, perhaps equally-valid hand, he was running one of the NHL’s foremost drama-factories for much of the 2000s. Dude is lowkey messy as hell.
The Devils had two captains depart effectively simultaneously in the leadup to the 2005-06 season. That would not be the last drama related to the captaincy we saw in the coming years. From 1994-2004, the Devils were a relatively stable organization. Stevens was the captain, coaches typically started multiple seasons behind the bench. Certainly, there was some drama involved and, oh right, those three Stanley Cups, but things got especially volatile post-lockout.
After Stevens and Niedermayer headed out the door, there wasn’t a readily apparent successor around for the Devils. At least not one who wasn’t recovering from a life-threatening illness. Certainly, there were some big names remaining in New Jersey including Brian Rafalski, Scott Gomez, Jamie Langenbrunner, and John Madden, not to mention a certain legendary goaltender named Martin Brodeur. The team opted to go captain by committee in 2005-06 with all the flux.
When Elias returned and carried the team to the playoffs, it seemed obvious that he was the guy to take it. Of course, Elias very nearly left in free agency that summer, which we’ll get to, but he got the “C” to start the 2006-07 season, and deservedly so. That state of affairs did not last long, though. After a somewhat tumultuous 2006-07 that saw the firing of Claude Julien in his first season amid locker room turmoil while the team was in first place, Brent Sutter unceremoniously stripped the captaincy from Elias, not even calling Patrik before announcing it to the media. That forever soured Elias on the position, and he’d never again wear the “C” despite having his name land in the rafters in Newark.
The captaincy then went to one Jamie Langenbrunner, a big part of the ‘03 Cup team and a steady producer at wing for the Devils thereafter. Langenbrunner would never see a playoff series victory in his three-plus years as captain, though, and he ended that run with a sulking performance in the leadup to the 2010 playoffs, a likely hand in the departure of Jacques Lemaire in the aftermath of a first-round trouncing from the 7th seed Flyers, and a teamwide implosion in the fall of 2010 that led to the return of Lemaire and the showing of the door to Langenbrunner.
The captaincy was a bona fide hot potato at this point as the next wearer of the “C” would spurn the Devils in free agency just a year after being bestowed the honor. Maybe the stripping of the captaincy from Elias doesn’t change much in the end, but it is interesting to wonder if things might have gone a bit different for the Devils with more stability in that department.
Free Agency Departures
Amidst all the chaos of the late-2000s, a steady stream of Devils was also heading out the door seemingly every year. Niedermayer of course left in 2005, but there were plenty of other major names that made for the exit as the Devils kept on chugging in those years. After a somewhat stable transition in 2006, the 2007 offseason saw both Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski go out the door. The Devils again had to deal with the loss of two major components of their former cup teams leaving simultaneously (they’d still gather 99 points and finish second in the Atlantic). In 2008, things would calm again before Brian Gionta and John Madden then left in 2009. Paul Martin, who despite a major injury had taken the mantle of de facto top defenseman for the Devils, would depart in 2010.
It was a bit of a mixed bag for all the big names that departed New Jersey. Niedermayer, Rafalski, and Madden would each go on to win Stanley Cups almost immediately. Gomez (like Bobby Holik before him) was a famous disappointment in New York and Brian Gionta went on to some respectable years in Montreal but never really made major waves. The Devils kept on performing, at least up until the playoffs rolled around, after most of these departures though. The 2005-06 and 2007-08 being the most impressive of these, with huge names going out the door with little in the way of outside replacements coming in.
I’m not going to dwell on this one because I hate it so, but the Devils were a part of one of the truly insane series of the last couple of decades in 2009 and came out on the short end of it. Perhaps it’s good to live in relative anonymity as the boring team from New Jersey because if, say, the Toronto Maple Leafs had done what the Devils did in 2009, we’d probably still be seeing documentaries made about it. Sometimes being out of the national eye is beneficial.
The Kovalchuk Trade/Summer of Kovy
The Devils responded to five years of guys walking out the door in 2010 with one of the biggest deadline splashes of all time, bringing over a superstar in Ilya Kovalchuk from Atlanta in the stretch run of the 2010 season. After the heartbreak of 2009, this felt like the team trying to make a statement, and it was one of the more exciting times I can remember as a fan. The disastrous 2010 series against the Flyers of course arrived with the playoffs, but Kovalchuk was the team’s leading scorer in that series and brought an element perhaps never experienced in New Jersey prior to his arrival as an all-world offensive player.
The Devils would then pull out all the stops to retain Kovalchuk that summer, first signing him to an absurd 17-year, $100M deal. That, of course, is the deal that would eventually burn the phrase “spirit of the CBA” into every Devils’ fans brain as the league would regect it and later administer a severe punishment to the Devils for attempting it, charging them a first-round pick, a third-rounder, and millions of dollars in fines. The deal the Devils eventually go everyone to settle on was a slightly-less-ridiculous 15-year deal. That deal would go on to end in a totally normal way at its eventual conclusion in 2025, as far as I know.
Brodeur Breaks Records
Amidst everything else going on through this era, there was also Martin Brodeur. The years from 2005-2008 were arguably Brodeur at the height of his powers, putting up some of his best raw save percentages despite the major departures on the Devils defense, playing basically every night, and piling up shutouts, including 12(!) in 2006-07 alone. Brodeur would end up breaking the all-time wins record in 2009 (and eventually likely putting it out of reach for good in the years to follow) and the all-time shutouts record later that same calendar year.
If you are looking for a reason the Devils were able to remain so dangerous in those years from 2005-2010, despite the upheaval and departures, Brodeur is probably as good a place to begin as any. He was truly great in these years, even in a league that was fast-changing and even implementing rules almost specifically to limit his effectiveness. These years are the rebuttal to the contention that Brodeur was a beneficiary of the Stevens-Niedermayer defensive hegemony in New Jersey’s end of the ice. Brodeur adapted and stayed every bit as good if not better than he ever was in those post-lockout years. The mess that persists in goal for the Devils here in the 2020s has only served to increase the appreciation for Brodeur all these years later.
It is honestly kind of wild to look back on this era of Devils hockey with clear eyes. Particularly in the aftermath of the lockout, this was a team that seemingly should have come absolutely unglued. They managed to stay one of the best teams in the league in the late-aughts and into the 2010s in spite of all of it, though, eventually culminating in the last hurrah that was the 2012 run to the Cup Final, is impressive in retrospect. It certainly wasn’t all sunshine and roses for the Devils in those days with the turmoil and the playoff disappointments, but I think just about everyone would take some of that madness over the past near-decade of doldrums. We were a bit spoiled by success in those days and man, what I wouldn’t give to be that again.