DEVILS OVER THE DECADES: Ch. 27 - Build-Up to a Letdown
Stan Fischler details the shortcomings of the 1988-89 season for the Devils
/ Special to NewJerseyDevils.com
Beware of the build-up to a letdown. Show business mantra.
In a sense, the New Jersey Devils 1987-88 season was too good to be true.
If a Hollywood screen writer had scripted the last-second playoff entrance or the post-season victory over the first-place Islanders or even the Yellow Sunday triumph over Boston, he might have been canned for exaggeration.
But it happened, and Garden State hockey fans exulted throughout the summer of 1988 while the high command led by general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Jim Schoenfeld laid out a scenario for the upcoming 1988-89 campaign.
In an earlier take-off on the sitcom television comedian Larry David, Lou's line was simply "Curb your enthusiasm." The Boss preferred caution and for good reason.
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Lou: "What often happens after a first-year player, or an organization that has success for the first time, gets to the second year is that they think they don't have to prepare anymore.
"They forget about what it took to attain that success. And they're in for a rude awakening."
Fair enough; but who could blame such young aces as playoff heroes John MacLean and Sean Burke for crowing about their accomplishments. Or defenseman Ken Daneyko whose bruising play helped eliminate the Islanders.
"We accomplished something last spring," Daneyko explained at the start of September training camp. "Now we expect to accomplish something more in the new season."
There were no objections among the media flock. Some reporters were as enthused as the Devils stickhandlers, and some even more.
"The Patrick Division has a new team to worry about," wrote Barry Meisel in the New York Daily News. "The Devils were no Stanley Cup fluke."
Nor was the New Jersey hockey bandwagon limited to the Metropolitan Area. Out-of-towners had gained new respect for the crew of Lou. Even an NHL pre-season guide waxed ecstatic over East Rutherford's favorite team.
"Picking up where they left off last spring, the Miracle Devils will benefit from a full year of Sean Burke's goaltending," the guide pointed out. "New Jersey has a young nucleus and the leadership of Kirk Muller."
But once training camp opened and his club played exhibition games, Lamoriello looked more prophetic than anyone.
The Devils went 2-6 in pre-season games including a severe 11-3 spanking administered by the Buffalo Sabres at the Meadowlands. Nonplussed, Schoenfeld chose humor when asked if he saw anything positive.
"Well," the coach said, tongue well-ensconced in cheek, "we had some good line changes. No one was seriously hurt and we have one more exhibition game to go. Those are the positives."
Actually there were more to come once the curtain lifted on 1988-89. After losing a 4-1 decision to the Flyers in Philly, the Devils rebounded for a win in Quebec and then invaded Madison Square Garden.
Beating the Rangers 5-0 was enough of a delight but it also reinforced Sean Burke's claim to the club's goaltending throne.
"Sean was awesome," back-up Bob Sauve glowed. "The way he played against New York, I don't think anybody can beat him."
But could Burke do it alone? Throughout training camp, there were questions about the defense; mainly, was it taut enough? Tom Kurvers and Jack O'Callahan, in particular, were more porous than perfect in exhibitions.
When the backliners blew their assignments, Burke often was let out to dry with the result that Schoenfeld had a less-than-500 club to fix. Just before Christmas he ventilated his feelings and they were less than comforting.
Jim: "For the first time since I've been here I see a lack of heart and desire for hard work. We analyzed certain aspects, and we realized that guys are not working hard enough.
"I'll never say that it was a bad thing to make it to the semis last year, but our arms are so sore from patting each other on the back we can't shoot the puck anymore."
The media was equally perplexed.
"How should the Devils be judged?" asked John Dellapina of the Bergen Record. "Is the team's first-half record (14-19-7) a true representation of a talented group that lacks superstars?
"Or was last season's inspiring run to and through the NHL playoffs a better indication of the Devils' capabilities? I give them a C-minus midterm grade."
The low mark was underlined by a team that now was twelve points out of fourth place and the final playoff berth. But as they approached the homestretch the Garden Staters launched a big push.
They won three out of four in February 1989 including a 8-1 demolition job on the Toronto Maple Leafs. A line comprised of fast-rising Brendan Shanahan, John MacLean and Patrick Sundstrom further inflated hopes.
"Shanny's skill level has risen to accommodate his linemates," said Schoenfeld. "We've done it before and we can do it again."
Not so. Another devastating skid deleted all hopes for another homestretch miracle and when the season ended on April 2 in East Rutherford, the arithmetic said it all. 27 wins, 41 losses and 12 ties.
In his post mortem about the campaign, Schony reflected on Lamoriello's September song which turned out to be blues.
"I knew we were in trouble in training camp," the coach asserted. "We were not prepared mentally or physically. As the coach, I was responsible but the players have to share responsibility. The hunger wasn't there.
"Not from everybody but from some players; guys who heard how terrific they were and they rested on their laurels. That did us in; no question."
Meanwhile, Lou, who had picked up the negative vibes in September, had surreptitiously been carrying out a mysterious season-long revival plan engineered by owner Dr. John McMullen.
It would remain a deep secret, except for those who recognized Comrade Lamoriello one day on the streets of Moscow in the Soviet Union.
Believe it or not, a Russian Revolution was about to happen in Bergen County!
LISTS: FOUR REASONS WHY THE DEVILS FLOPPED IN 1988-89:
1. OVERCONFIDENCE: Too many players got cocky over their playoff histrionics in the spring of 1988. Too often they took the easy way out the second time around.
2. DEFENSE; While Sean Burke continued to shine between the pipes, his blue line corps sagged too often and the young goalie could not stem the negative tide.
3. OPPOSITION: Whereas, in the non-playoff past Devils opponents would take the club lightly, the foes were now ready for a stronger team and often beat New Jersey at its own game.
4. SUPERSTAR LACKING: While Kirk Muller proved a hard-working leader, he lacked the skills of a Mario Lemieux who had been picked directly ahead of the Devil in the 1984 Draft. New Jersey needed a similar superstar.