A Devil of a dilemma in New Jersey

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

So now the captain is gone in New Jersey, following the coach out the door as the Devils – once a near-dynasty, now an utter disaster – try to clean up the mess they have made for themselves.

And Jamie Langenbrunner(notes) returns to Dallas, as the Stars – a surprising contender, despite uncertain ownership – make a move to win now and reassure everyone about their future.

One trade, one player. Two teams, two directions. Yet so many intersections and so much deeper meaning.

Langenbrunner spent his first seven-plus seasons in Dallas, the past eight-plus in New Jersey. He won a Stanley Cup with each team. The man who traded for him Friday, Dallas general manager Joe Nieuwendyk, was traded with him as a player when the Stars sent the two to the Devils on March 19, 2002.

“I know Jamie probably better than anybody,” Nieuwendyk said.

Langenbrunner laughed.

“Well, he’s the boss, not my roommate anymore,” said Langenbrunner, sad to leave New Jersey, but excited to go back to Dallas. “That’ll be a little bit different.”

New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello knows Langenbrunner well, too. But he also knows what he has gotten himself into now that the Devils – who made the playoffs 19 of the past 20 seasons, winning three Cups in that span – have fallen so far so fast that they sit dead last in the NHL with only 22 points, eight fewer than anyone else.

Dealing Langenbrunner was the easy part. Langenbrunner is 35. He has four goals and is a minus-15. He is a pending unrestricted free agent. Considering where the Devils are in the standings, if you can get something for him, you do it. Lamoriello got a conditional draft pick from the Stars – a second-rounder if the Stars win a playoff round or sign Langenbrunner before July 1.

The hard part will be fixing problems that trace to the off-season, when Lamoriello hired rookie coach John MacLean and signed sniper Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) to a 15-year, $100-million contract, but go back even further with expensive, restrictive contracts that were already on the books.

MacLean was overwhelmed. The Devils were so tight against the cap, they dressed as few as 15 skaters for a game. Kovalchuk has been so bad that he has only 10 goals and a stunning minus-30 rating, last in the NHL by far. Star forward Zach Parise(notes) went down with a knee injury. Future Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur(notes) started struggling.

Lamoriello fired MacLean and brought back Jacques Lemaire for a third tour behind the bench in New Jersey. Lamoriello tried to get rid of veteran forward Brian Rolston(notes) by putting him on waivers, but no one wanted him even at half his $5-million salary. Lamoriello said he would not trade Brodeur but declined to identify anyone else as untouchable. Perhaps Parise is the only one who should be.

Several Devils, like Brodeur, Rolston, Jason Arnott(notes) and Patrik Elias(notes), have no-trade or no-movement clauses. But so did Langenbrunner, and in this situation, even the most stubborn, bleed-red Devils vet might be willing to leave, just as Langenbrunner was.

Lamoriello said he despises the word “rebuilding,” that this is not “something that you have to go subtract, subtract, subtract and then start from the bottom – absolutely not.” But it absolutely is

“I think we’ve got to look at what the reasons are that we find ourselves in this position, because in my opinion, it’s not talent,” Lamoriello said. “Maybe it’s the wrong talent. Maybe it’s the wrong chemistry. And I have to take that responsibility.”

The Devils lost their identity when they went through all that drama to sign a one-way sniper like Kovalchuk to such a gigantic contract, and it’s clear that – like it or not – they need a new identity. They have no choice but do everything they can to get the maximum return from their major investment.

Lemaire, Mr. Trap, is a stopgap. The Devils must find a coach that can bring out the best in Kovalchuk – Bob Hartley? Kovy’s old coach in Atlanta? – and acquire skilled, fast players who can complement him. They also have re-sign Parise, a pending restricted free agent. The more cumbersome contracts they can dump, the easier the process.

“I think they really changed the look of their team with Kovalchuk,” said Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Paul Martin(notes), who left New Jersey as a free agent July 1 after six seasons with the Devils. “You can only have so many people of that magnitude on your team.”

The feeling is completely different in Dallas. The Stars are this season’s version of the Phoenix Coyotes, who overcame uncertain ownership, an under-the-cap budget and sparse crowds to post 107 points last season.

Stars owner Tom Hicks defaulted on loans, and the team is being run by a group of lenders, looking for a new owner. Nieuwendyk has had to keep his belt tight. American Airlines Center often has been far from full.

But Nieuwendyk made a couple of tough calls, parting with the face of the franchise, Mike Modano(notes), and the team’s longtime goaltender, Marty Turco(notes). He brought in some fresh faces, like goaltender Kari Lehtonen(notes) late last season and forward Adam Burish(notes) in the off-season. And with star center Brad Richards(notes) leading the way, his 47 points sixth in the NHL, the Stars are atop the Pacific Division and on pace for a ’09-10-Coyotes-like 104 points.

Suddenly, the Stars are buyers instead of sellers (in terms of players, anyway, not the franchise). It’s a great sign that they got the go-ahead to acquire Langenbrunner, whose right-handed shot, veteran savvy and leadership skills will add to the power play, third line and dressing room. He is the rare player who produces even better in the playoffs, which is where the Stars are headed.

“The reality is, the backing and the support of the league and the lenders was the reason for this trade,” Nieuwendyk siad. “I think they appreciate what we’ve done this year. They know we’re in a strong market. We wouldn’t have made the case strongly if we didn’t think that this helps our hockey club, and I think they believe in what we’re doing.”

Trade rumors have swirled around Richards, a pending unrestricted free agent. But he has a no-movement clause, and Nieuwendyk should have no motivation to move his best player while his team is in contention, even if he can’t be sure of signing him to an extension. He can point to this trade to show Richards – and everyone else – that he and the Stars are doing what they can to compete.

“I don’t think any of us had a crystal ball and knew the type of team we were going to be coming out of training camp, but we’re halfway through the season, and I think all of us are really happy with where we’re at,” Nieuwendyk said. “I know there’s a good feeling in the locker room. There’s a belief in that locker room. And I think this move today will even strengthen that belief.

“I think it sends a message to the people. I think it sends a message to our fans – to our players in the locker room – that we’re serious not only about the future of our team but currently right now, too.”

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