When New Jersey rang in the new year on Jan 1, 2010, the Devils found themselves a top the Eastern Conference and tied for 2nd overall in the NHL with 57 points. Yes, they were dealing with injuries as Zubrus, Clarkson and Martin were out but as a whole the team was responding well to the game plan that Jaques Lemaire was laying out for them.
On January 17th, Patrice Cormier, a highly regarded prospect of the New Jersey Devils viciously elbowed Mikael Tam in a QMJHL game and found himself suspended for the remainder of the season. He was a player that was getting a repuatation for being physical and often times a little dirty but had a great hockey sense. The Devils never really weighed in with their thoughts until a few weeks later.
By the time February had rolled around, the Devils had fallen a bit in the Eastern Conference and were trailing the Washington Capitals by 8 points but were still leading the Atlantic Division and everything seemed to be going in the right direction. Pittsburgh was pressuring NJ for the Division lead but the Penguins couldn’t find a way to beat NJ all season. As a fan, you couldn’t complain at the product that was on the ice but had to be a little concerned that NJ was starting to not score goals.
On Feb 4th, the Devils did something very uncharacteristic for the hockey club. They sent forward Niclas Bergfors, defenseman Johnny Oduya, prospect Patrice Cormier (no doubt because of the ruckus he caused on Jan 17th) and a first-round pick in the 2010 draft to Atlanta in exchange for forward Ilya Kovalchuk. It marked the first time the Devils ever had a sniper like Kovalchuk.
Paul Martin had missed 59 games since he suffered a fractured left forearm when struck by a Bill Guerin shot Oct. 24, 2009 in Pittsburgh and returned to the Devils lineup on March 17th when the Devils hosted that same Penguins team. Decked out in the old vintage “Christmas Tree” jerseys, Paul Martin helped NJ beat the Penguins by scoring a goal during a 5-2 pounding.
Late in the season, the Devils traveled to Carolina to play a game. Jamie Langenbrunner, who had made the trip to Carolina with the team but was shocked and angered to find that Jaques Lemaire had made him a healthy scratch. This was the point at which the media picked up on a Langenbrunner/Lemaire issue off the ice. We never found out what was happening but Jamie would certainly disappear on the ice after the incident.
When the season came to an end, the Devils found themselves winners of the Atlantic Division and 2nd overall with a 48-27-7 record. They were to play host to the Philadelphia Flyers in Round 1 of the playoffs. The Flyers snuck into the playoffs by knocking off the Rangers in a shootout in the 82nd game of the season. All season long the Flyers had the Devils number and that didn’t change in the playoffs. The Flyers beat the Devils in 5 games including a very poor showing by the Devils at The Rock to close out the first round matchup. The Devils would have a long summer ahead to think about yet another failure in the playoffs.
On April 26th, as the Devils were cleaning out their locker room for the off-season, Jaques Lemaire announced that he was retiring from the NHL. This was certainly a shock to the system. A disappointed organization (except for maybe Langenbrunner) would have to search for a coach for the second straight summer. On June 17th the Devils announced that John MacLean would be the next head coach. Larry Robinson, who assisted Lemaire, would be retained to assist MacLean along with another assistant to be named later, which would eventually be Adam Oates.
The July 1st Free Agency Frenzy came and NJ saw Paul Martin leave the Devils to go and join the Pittsburgh Penguins. In an effort to boost their blue line, the Devils signed Henrik Tallinder for four years at $3.375 million per and Anton Volchenkov for six year years at $25.5 million total, with a no-trade. Johan Hedburg was also signed to back up Marty Broduer.
After a lot of back and forth, the Devils announced a 17 year, $102 million contract for Ilya Kovalchuk on July 19th but a day later, the NHL announced that the were rejecting the deal because it circumvents the league’s salary cap. After a arbitration ruling in favor of the NHL, the Devils had to go back to the drawing board. On Sept 3rd, the NHL approved a 15 year, $100 million dollar contract between Kovalchuk and the NJ Devils.
However, Kovalchuk would cost the Devils a little more. On September 13th, the NHL fined the New Jersey Devils $3 million and is taking away two draft picks because the team’s original 17-year, $102 million contract with Ilya Kovalchuk was ruled to be a circumvention of the collective-bargaining agreement. The Devils will give up a third-round pick in 2011 and one first-rounder — the club’s choice — over the next four years.
When training camp opened, there were high hopes for this team. On paper, it seemed to be a team built to score lots of goals. With the addition of Tallinder and Volchenkov, it appeared that their D might be better than it had been in years. However, the Kovalchuk signing had put the Devils over the cap and with the NTC’s and high paying contracts of some players, freeing up cap space would be difficult.
In fact, The salary-cap hampered New Jersey Devils began the season with an NHL minimum 20-man roster. Needing to shed roughly more than $3.5 million to get under the league’s $59.4 million cap limit, the Devils placed defenseman Bryce Salvador on long-term injured reserve while designating defenseman Anssi Salmela as an injured, non-roster player. It wasn’t supposed to matter though because the combination of Zajac, Parise and Kovalchuk on the top line was supposed to score goals in by the buckets. It didn’t happen.
In fact, NJ got off to a terrible start and it only got worse as the season would continue. Kovalchuk looked lost on the ice and was certainly not worth the contract he signed (not yet anyway!!). Marty looked old in net and the defense couldn’t stop anything. The Devils’ nightmare season managed to get worse on November 2nd with the news that left wing Zach Parise would miss three months after having a torn meniscus in his right knee repaired during exploratory arthroscopic surgery. One day later, Martin Brodeur bruised his right elbow in the second period against the Chicago Blackhawks, an injury that kept him out of the lineup for weeks.
The Devils had no leadership, no ability to score goals and no ability to stop the other team. New head coach John MacLean looked lost and his team was becoming a complete joke. Finally, after a 7-1 thrashing by Altanta and a pitiful 5-1 loss to the Caps, the Devils showed MacLean the door and surprisingly announced that Jaques Lemaire would return as coach. It wouldn’t matter though, as the Devils are currently winless under Lemaire and riding a 6 game losing streak. They currently sit in 30th place at 9-25-2 and trail Montreal for the 8th and final playoff spot by 22 points. It’s safe to say that on this New Years Day, the Devils will only be playing 46 more games this season.
I’m guessing that next spring won’t be the year the Devils give up that first round draft pick. Here’s hoping that 2011 either gets A LOT better of that the Devils find themselves the lottery winner for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
A big thank you to the readers of this blog for without you, I wouldn’t be doing this. May it continue in 2011 and I certainly wish you happiness and health in the 2011!!