Success: A Reflection of Leadership
By: Mike Luciano (@MikeLuci)
Well the stresses of final exams are over, I’ve returned home from Buffalo, I’m all unpacked and settled in at home, and I’m ready for a nice, relaxing, and well-deserved summer break. It truly has been a rather peculiar postseason this year, the most bazaar I think I can recall in almost two decades of closely watching hockey. We witnessed the dismissal of every cup favorite (save the New York Rangers) in the first two rounds of the postseason and have four teams that survived the first two rounds of filtration that nobody expected (except me, which I’ll get to later) to get this far. To get to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2003, the Devils had to fight tooth and nail in an emotional and psychologically adversarial seven-game bout against a frustratingly underrated Florida Panthers team before turning heads and raising eyebrows when they ousted the Philadelphia Flyers in five games in the conference semifinals.
Tonight, the stage is set for the Devils and Rangers to renew one of the most well-documented and notarized rivalries in hockey and add another chapter in its already decorated and illustrious history. The hype is electrifying for Devils fans as this postseason marks the first time the Devils have advanced beyond the first round since 2007. The Devil’s faithful has most certainly learned not to take the Devil’s regular season success for granted over the past couple of years after witnessing their team miss out on playoff contention last year, which was preceded by three consecutive first round exits. Obviously to go from that to presently being one of the final four teams participating in the postseason, one has to distinguish the glaring differences this year’s team features compared to the squads of recent years that failed to qualify no further than the conference quarterfinals.
Perhaps most overlooked factor is the Devil’s present stability of leadership. Since the beginning of their 2007-2008 campaign, the Devils have recycled head coaches a total of six times. Brent Sutter manned the bench for two seasons (2007-2008, 2008-2009) and was succeeded by Jacques Lemaire for the 2009-2010 season. The dismal 2010-2011 campaign was split between John MacLean and a second stint by Lemaire, who opted for reentry into retirement this past offseason. Current head coach Pete DeBoer has completed his first full regular season behind the bench, making him just the third Devils coach to accomplish that feat since 2005.
This begs the question. What has DeBoer done differently compared to his predecessors? The most notable difference that first comes to mind is the absence of turmoil in the locker room. While it could never be factually acclaimed, I’m one to believe that a locker room where negative energy thrives is a silent killer of a team’s success down the stretch and in the playoffs. During Brent Sutter’s reign, he was resented by a select few of his veteran players, who cited reasons such as underplaying and being misused. One could say that Sutter was overly experimental with line combinations and he was starting to earn a reputation for giving rookies shelf lives in his lineup.
The bulk of the Devil’s locker room dramas surfaced under Jacques Lemaire’s reign in 2009-2010. Lemaire continued to mix and match line combinations, had virtually no patience with rookies (see Nic Bergfors), and will be most remembered for his clashes with captain Jamie Langenbrunner. After Lemaire scratched Langenbrunner towards the end of the regular season to rest him for the playoffs, the Devil’s captain was very vocal about his unhappiness with the decision, bitterness that resonated into the playoffs. What a lot of people forget is Langenbrunner stirred up drama at the very beginning of that season when he had a verbal altercation with defenseman Colin White about White not fighting much anymore since his eye injury. In addition, many Devils players expressed much unhappiness with Lemaire’s overplaying of mid-season acquisition Ilya Kovalchuk and his handling of veterans moving in and out of the lineup such as Jay Pandolfo.
The following season ought to speak for itself. Even before the Devil’s mysterious and unexplainable start to their 2010-2011 campaign, salary cap issues were looming over the heads of the Devils players as it appeared to be inevitable that a body or two would have to be moved to get the team under. The list of candidates were broad and the fact that about half of them had a movement restriction clause of some kind further complicated matters. I personally believe the handling of this situation factored immensely to that disastrous season the Devils had, although appointing a rookie head coach to inherit a veteran team surely factored as well. John MacLean also made some rash decisions such as scratching Ilya Kovalchuk in a game against the Buffalo Sabres early on in the season, which made him and some of his star and veteran players bump heads as well. The return of Jacques Lemaire a little less than midway through that season prompted the Devils to trade away captain Jamie Langenbrunner, after which the Devils underwent an admirable run that found them falling short of securing a playoff berth.
Fast forward to the present, Pete DeBoer is arguably unlike any head coach the Devils have had in recent years. To the public’s knowledge, news of any locker room incidents or dramas have surfaced and the players have had nothing but positive feedback about their head coach. Despite the slow start to the season, the Devils have responded marvelously to DeBoer’s unique style of play and have bought into his calm demeanor and upbeat yet straightforward attitude. Under DeBoer, the Devils finished the regular season with a record-setting penalty kill, witnessed the transformation of Ilya Kovalchuk into one of the best two-way players in the league and the resurgence of his offensive skills, and sported one of the league’s most rounded out offenses, which featured three players that notched thirty or more goals and six players that scored at least twenty-one goals. The last time the Devils had six or more players hit at least twenty goals was 2000-2001. Throughout the postseason, several players have emphatically credited the coaching staff as one of the biggest factors to their success. In addition, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a tighter locker room than the one this Devils team has. Players have stuck up for each other throughout the season and perhaps the second-biggest factor to the way this team’s played has been the positive atmosphere in the locker room as well, which many Devils players have noted.
During Jamie Langenbrunner’s reign as captain (2007-2011), the Devils sported a 5-12 playoff record, during which, as we all know, they weren’t able to get past the first round in either of those three years. In Zach Parise’s first season as captain, the Devil’s presently have gone 8-4. I think the fact that the Devils almost doubling their playoff victories under one season of Parise’s captaincy compared to three seasons under Langenbrunner’s speaks volumes on principle alone. Although Parise (who admitted this himself) isn’t a vocal captain in the locker room, his ability to lead by example on the ice has proven to be more than inspirational to the rest of the locker room. When you put the captaincy in perspective, Parise is indeed an iconic leader. He’s one of the few players in the NHL today that gives it his all every time he steps out onto the ice, which is reflected by his constant involvement in all three zones, constant presence around the net, battles in the corners, and ultimately, his undying hunger to win.
During Langenbrunner’s occupancy of the captaincy, he wasn’t anything remotely close to being the face of the franchise, a title that was occupied by Martin Brodeur. Outside of the Devils community, Langenbrunner’s captaincy was scarcely acknowledged. With Brodeur in the twilight of his career, Parise is more than qualified to succeed him as the face of the franchise, a more than appropriate title for him to occupy especially now that he bares the “C” on the front of his sweater. Although Parise’s future with the team is shrouded in uncertainty after this season, the present situation of the Devil’s leadership situation ought to speak volumes about how it’s affected the team as a whole.
Now, don’t think I haven’t noticed my stretches of inactivity throughout these playoffs. Schoolwork aside (a formidable excuse), I’ve been dying to share my input throughout this playoff run and the reason I’ve retained myself from doing so is rather…odd: Superstition. The past few times I’ve posted articles, the Devils subsequently experienced a few rough stretches that occurred at pivotal and opportune times where a win or loss made the biggest difference. In retrospect, the Universe has all things happen for a reason and perhaps the slightest change in outcome could have produced different results for this Devils team (i.e. the butterfly effect).
So why have I decided to emerge out of the woodwork now? It stems back to my superstitious mindset. Perhaps if I explain the figuring behind this psychological barrier of mine in a post, things will change. Ultimately, it’s trial and error and in my mind as the figuring is me typing these words will have a pivotal role in the outcome of tonight’s game and potentially the series. I know this sounds a tad unorthodox but at the same time, we’re all hockey fans and have different perspectives on the unforeseen paths our teams are currently on.
As I’ve said multiple times before, I’m not one to post series previews and I try as hard as I possibly can to veer away from predictions. While I think series previews are merely shades of grey, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve gone ten for twelve in series predictions this postseason. In the first round, I got every series except Vancouver/LA right and ironically was only wrong about the Devils/Flyers series in the conference semifinals. At the start of the playoffs, I predicted a New York Rangers/Phoenix Coyotes Stanley Cup Final. Although my Devils are facing off against the Rangers to represent the Eastern Conference this year and the Coyotes lost a tantalizingly close game one to the Kings last night, I’m afraid I’m going to have to stick to my initial predictions. I’m forecasting a Rangers triumph over my Devils in six games, while the Coyotes and Kings go down to the wire with Phoenix prevailing in a grueling seven-game series. It’s going to be fun to see how everything pans out from this point onward.