Lamoriello at fault for Devils' downfall

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

It shouldn’t happen in a beer league. For it to happen in the big leagues is inexcusable.

Imagine you’re playing in a men’s league down at the local rink. Three guys don’t show up for a game. Whatever the reasons – a meeting ran long, got caught in traffic, the dog ate my schedule – it doesn’t matter. Everybody’s got problems, and the guys who manage to deal with life like adults end up huffing, puffing and double-shifting, while the opponents, with a full complement of players, kick their butts.

Now look at what happened Monday in New Jersey. The Devils were missing three forwards for a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Whatever the reasons – a suspension, injuries, salary-cap constraints – it didn’t matter. Every team deals with the same things, and the guys the Devils did put on the ice couldn’t get the job done, losing, 3-1.

This is the NHL. The Devils have been a premier franchise, winning three Stanley Cups in a nine-year span from 1995 to 2003, racking up at least 100 points in 12 of the past 15 full regular seasons. Lou Lamoriello has been regarded as one of the best general managers in the league.

At least he used to be.

This is on Lamoriello, not the circumstances, not the system. He took a risk when he signed winger Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) to a mega-contract this summer. He took a risk when he opened the season with a bare minimum roster of only 20 players because of how he had (mis)managed the cap. And it all backfired quickly.

Thanks the suspension of Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond(notes) and injuries to Brian Rolston(notes) and Anton Volchenkov(notes), the Devils had only 17 players left, including only nine forwards. Thanks to their cap situation, they had no room to maneuver. So they played against the Penguins with only three forward lines.

Coach John MacLean can say what he wants: “We don’t use excuses. We had enough players.” But he has to say that. He has to go with what he’s got and do the best he can. Rookie coach or not, he can’t exactly call out the front office, can he?

The players can say what they want. “It was not an issue at all,” said winger Patrik Elias(notes). And maybe it wasn’t a big issue on the ice for one game. Maybe the players enjoyed a little more elbow room on the bench. Maybe they enjoyed the extra ice time and a chance to get into a good rhythm.

But it’s obviously not sustainable, and one game is enough of an embarrassment.

The Devils have waived Letourneau-Leblond and could sign center Adam Mair(notes), a veteran who was in camp on a tryout. But they have to do more to give themselves some breathing room. Lamoriello might even have to banish a veteran to the minors, as New York Rangers GM Glen Sather did with defenseman Wade Redden(notes).

If only Lamoriello could get out of the albatross contracts that he gave to veteran forwards Brian Rolston and Dainius Zubrus(notes). If only Lamoriello could go back in time and undo the Kovalchuk deal. This incident is just one more item on the pile of evidence that signing Kovalchuk to a crazy contract just wasn’t worth it.

Kovalchuk is one of the most dynamic goal-scorers in the game, the kind of player who can put pucks in the net and fannies in the seats. But the Boston Bruins loved center Marc Savard(notes) and the Vancouver Canucks loved goaltender Roberto Luongo(notes) when they signed them to huge long-term contracts, and now there is plenty of buyer’s remorse in both cities. They should have been cautionary tales.

But Lamoriello signed Kovalchuk to a 17-year, $102 million contract, anyway. And after the NHL rejected it and an arbitrator ruled that it circumvented the collective bargaining agreement, Lamoriello didn’t walk away. He couldn’t walk away, having already marketed Kovalchuk and committed to building his team around him. He signed him to a 15-year, $100 million deal.

It went through only after the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association amended the CBA, adding rules to better define cap circumvention. And then, because of the original violation of the CBA, the NHL slapped the Devils with a $3 million fine and took away two high draft picks.

Kovalchuk will have to keep performing at his highest level for many, many years to live up to all of that – perhaps long after Lamoriello is gone – and that’s going to be tough to do, especially if the Devils can’t surround him with enough complementary pieces. He has only two assists in three games so far, and no points since the first period of the opener. He turned over the puck Monday, leading to a goal against.

No matter how much the Devils are paying Kovalchuk, he can’t do it by himself. But the way the Devils are going, he might have to.