Lou Lamoriello, Devils at crossroads
NEWARK, N.J. -- At the far end of the empty stands inside the Prudential Center, Lou Lamoriello sat and watched his New Jersey Devils work out.
He was, as always, dressed for business in dress shoes and slacks and a team windbreaker. Even as he welcomed a visitor to sit down and chat, his eyes rarely left the ice as the team went through its drills.
One could excuse Lamoriello, one of the most respected men in the game, for having a sense of disbelief at what he saw.
A Devils team that hasn't missed the playoffs since 1996 is winless at home. They've already lost 10 times in regulation. They have scored just three power-play goals and are mere percentage points out of dead last in that category. They are last in goal production, averaging 1.67 goals per outing. A team whose trademark is defensive accountability ranks 24th in goals allowed per game.
Off to their worst start in over 20 years, the Devils are at a crossroads. How will they navigate out of an unfamiliar hole?
Devils GM Lou Lamoriello must decide how much time he's going to give coach John MacLean. Burnside »
How will Ilya Kovalchuk respond to the pressure to produce in New Jersey? Watch
Former NHL coach Ken Hitchcock says just scoring goals can't be the only way out of a slump. Cross Checks »
How have teams recently fared after a coaching change? Here's our list since the lockout. Story »
Puck Prospectus says key injuries haven't spoiled the Devils' season just yet. Story
As Lamoriello followed the drills on the ice, he knew the team he has built is at a crossroads. And if he is honest, Lamoriello sees that he, too, is at a crossroads.
"I take full responsibility," Lamoriello told ESPN.com. "I put those people on the ice. Certainly we're not happy with where we stand. The good news is that we have time to correct this."
No "Pollyanna," Lamoriello acknowledged a turnaround won't come from thinking good thoughts. It will take work and it won't be easy. When it was suggested he is a man who has been around long enough not to panic at a slump, even one as ugly as this, he smiled.
"I'm not a patient person," he said.
In the coming days, Lamoriello will have to do some soul-searching and decide whether he has made the right decisions with team personnel and his head coach, longtime Devils player, John MacLean. There is more than a little history at play here. The last time the Devils started this poorly (4-10-1 as of Tuesday morning) was in 1983-84, when MacLean was a rookie.
MacLean had been overlooked for the Devils' coaching job in the past. With great loyalty, he served as an assistant with the big team and as head coach of the team's AHL affiliate. When Jacques Lemaire walked away (was it more like pushed?) after the Devils were ousted in the first round of the playoffs last season, Lamoriello gave MacLean his shot.
MacLean's challenge was to find the right mix to get the Devils over the playoff hump after three straight one-and-done springs. He was charged with creating an environment in which $100 million free-agent signee Ilya Kovalchuk could thrive and return the Devils to Stanley Cup contender status.
So far, he has failed.
Kovalchuk is without a goal in six games and has one in his past nine. There are others, of course, who have under performed, but like it or not, Kovalchuk is the sun around which the rest of the Devils' offense must orbit. It will be so for many, many years. And right now, Kovalchuk and the offense are a black hole.
It seems counterintuitive to suggest that a team has to tailor itself to the needs of one player. This is especially so in New Jersey, which has always epitomized sacrificing personal goals for the greater good. But then again, it was counterintuitive for the Devils to have signed Kovalchuk at all. That point is now moot. What is not moot are the facts surrounding Kovalchuk's slow start.
Is it a coaching issue or a personnel issue? Kovalchuk started the season playing off-wing (the right side) with Zach Parise on the left and Travis Zajac in the middle. Kovalchuk said he didn't mind, but sources close to the player said he didn't like the switch. Now Parise is gone until February with a knee injury, and Kovalchuk is back on the left side, playing mostly with captain Jamie Langenbrunner and Zajac, and the goals still aren't coming.
The attention on Kovalchuk's slump is greater here than during his long tenure in Atlanta, where hockey remains an afterthought. Still he said he welcomes that scrutiny.
"No, I like that," Kovalchuk said. "That's why I'm here. I like when it means a lot, and I like that kind of pressure."
I take full responsibility. I put those people on the ice. Certainly we're not happy with where we stand. The good news is that we have time to correct this.” -- Devils president and GM Lou Lamoriello on his team's lowly start
Still, he admitted his game isn't nearly where it needs to be.
"No, definitely not," he said. "You have to be much better, and that's what I'm working on. I just need a little break, and you just have to work hard and harder than I was. I know how to get out of it."
Lamoriello said he won't make changes for the sake of making changes, but he expects much more than he's received, and if he's made a mistake with his personnel, changes will come.
"Your best players have to be your best players," he said. "They know it. It's not like they're denying it."
The reality of the NHL is it is far easier to make a coaching change than to trade a player with a $3 million or $4 million price tag. And when he has a cornerstone player locked into a 15-year deal, it behooves Lamoriello to ensure he has a coach that can get the most out of that talent. It behooves Lamoriello to ensure it's not a situation in which the coaching staff is trying to pound a round Kovalchuk peg into a square Devils hole.
MacLean insisted to a small group of reporters last week that his confidence remains high, and he believes he and the coaching staff can get this team to where it needs to be.
"I'm fine, MacLean said. "We'll get through this. As a staff, we're going to get through this. We just have to keep believing, and we do. It's not easy. It's not going to be easy, but we have to keep our energy up and our enthusiasm up to every day come in and do our work and get this thing turned around."
Lamoriello said he refuses to point a finger at the coaching staff.
"I have no issue with the coaching staff. You don't know how close you are. That's why you have to be careful," he said, citing the fine line between wins and losses. "I think we're close to that line."
Langenbrunner suggested after the Devils' disappointing 3-0 loss to the Rangers on Friday night that effort isn't the issue. If it's not effort, then what is it? Injuries have played a role in the Devils' woes, but plenty of teams work through injuries. Two seasons ago, the Devils lost goaltender Martin Brodeur for more than half the regular season, and they still won the Atlantic Division.
So, Lamoriello must decide in his heart of hearts whether MacLean deserves more time.
To fire MacLean would be an admission of failure for the coach and the GM. But it would be a small price to pay, if finding a coach who can coax something approaching Kovalchuk's potential out of the big winger meant getting the Devils back to the postseason.
Ken Hitchcock, Bob Hartley, who coached Kovalchuk at his best in Atlanta, Michel Therrien and Craig MacTavish all have significant NHL coaching credentials. It could be argued that any of them would be adequate replacements if Lamoriello decides that is the route he must take.
There is more at play than just the immediate future of this team.
ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun reported this past weekend that Parise is now represented by the powerful Newport Sports agency. Parise will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season. If the team continues its downward spiral, will that affect Parise's willingness to commit to the team over the long haul?
In recent years, homegrown or longtime Devils like Paul Martin, John Madden, Scott Gomez and Scott Niedermayer have chosen to move on rather than stay in New Jersey. To lose Parise, the team's most complete player, would be a monumental blow. Lamoriello must again ask himself whether MacLean can create the kind of environment that will entice Parise to remain with the Devils.
The players in the dressing room understand time is of the essence. They know the pressures that are building.
Forward David Clarkson motioned toward the coaches' offices and insisted there isn't an issue with the staff. When he scored 17 goals in 2008-09, cementing his place as an NHL player, it was MacLean who was working with him after practice, Clarkson told ESPN.com.
"I love Johnny Mac," Clarkson said. "I want to see him succeed. I believe we have the guys to turn this around."
This week, the Devils will complete a three-game homestand against two of the weakest teams in the NHL, Buffalo and Edmonton. For a team that has made the playoffs every year since the 1995-96 season, it is a sobering indictment of just how precipitous its fall has been. Putting points on the board against two of the league's bottom-feeders will stand as a crucial part of the Devils' schedule and a test of their mettle.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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