Hard for Robinson to get these Devils on track

Updated: December 20, 2005, 12:26 AM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

If you've watched the Devils play this season, you know why Larry Robinson was getting headaches. They've been a pretty inconsistent bunch. Some nights, they look pretty good. On other nights, they look pretty bad.

Robinson, an easygoing coach, was losing sleep trying to figure out which buttons to push. In early November at a pre-practice meeting, Robinson aired out the team with a profanity-laced tirade. About a month later, he told reporters that this was "the strangest team he'd ever been around." He also wondered out loud about the leadership on the team.

Robinson tried benching veteran players for long stretches during games. On other occasions, he scratched some of those same vets.

Nothing seemed to get the club's engine going for more than a few games. So, when the inconsistent play started to wear on his health, Robinson decided to walk away.

In this case, there might not have been anything that Robinson could have done -- no button he could have pushed -- to make this bunch play like the Devils we've grown used to over the past decade.

That team had gladiators Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko on defense. They also had quiet Scott Niedermayer, an effortless skater who could control a game from the blue line. Niedermayer was finally recognized for his outstanding play in 2004, when he won the Norris Trophy.

Now, those three are gone. Daneyko retired after winning the Cup in 2003. Stevens, who now admits he played through post-concussion problems during that Cup run, announced his retirement prior to this season. And Niedermayer opted out of New Jersey in August, turning down more money to sign a free-agent deal in Anaheim, where he could skate with his brother, Rob.

How do you replace those kinds of defensemen? How do replace those types of leaders in your locker room?

The answer is simple: You can't. At least, you can't do it overnight.

The club's problems have extended past the defense. Up front, the Devils don't have a No. 1 center. The closest thing they have to that is Scott Gomez, who's best suited as a No. 2 man. In recent weeks, Robinson and Gomez have disagreed about the player's performance. On Saturday, Robinson benched Gomez during the third period. Viktor Kozlov, their only center with significant size, has been playing left wing.

Elias' absence has been a big problem. Remember, he has led the Devils in scoring in each of the past five seasons. That's another element that's hard to replace. In the offseason, Lamoriello signed free agent Alexander Mogilny to a second stint with the club to help fill the scoring void. The 35-year-old Mogilny, who did not play elsewhere during the lockout due to offseason hip surgery, has struggled to find a consistent scoring touch. Robinson scratched Mogilny on a couple of occasions. But, really, perhaps the expectations for Mogilny were just too high?

In goal, Martin Brodeur suffered an early-season knee injury that forced him to the sideline. Over the years, the Devils have been extremely fortunate with Brodeur, who has been an iron man in the club's crease since arriving in Jersey in 1992. In this case, the injury didn't prove to be too serious. Brodeur, another guy who didn't play during the lost lockout season, returned quickly to action. Playing behind a struggling defense on a still sore right knee, Brodeur's play has been somewhat inconsistent. So, really, there weren't many buttons for Robinson to push with these Devils-in-transition. In the interim, Lamoriello will go behind the bench. He'll likely take the team through the rest of the week (they have three games starting on Tuesday in New York against the Rangers). Lamoriello will take a good long look at things. In the past, he was able to make a tweak to put the club back on track. Now, it will take a different approach. He can seek out help on the trade market. But in the end, he may just have to be patient. He may have to let this team find its new leaders. He'll have to determine which of his young players can be part of a new Devils team. That kind of thing takes time.

As for the next coach, Lamoriello says he wants to think about it. Robinson's decision definitely caught him off guard. The only in-house candidate that could immediately step in is minor-league coach Robbie Ftorek, who coached the team from 1998-2000. That would be a strange twist of fate, though. If you remember, it was Robinson who replaced Ftorek late in the 1999-2000 season, eventually guiding the Devils to their second Cup. Lamoriello ruled out the possibility of promoting assistant coach and former Devils star John MacLean.

Whoever Lamoriello chooses to run his team, the GM and the new coach must accept one simple fact: times have changed. In 2005, the Devils just aren't the same team they used to be. Nothing good lasts forever.

EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.

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