DEVILS OVER THE DECADES: Ch 32 - Adding Muscle on top of Muscle
Stan Fischler discusses the changes Lou Lamoriello made with the Devils in 1990-01 Season
/ Special to NewJerseyDevils.com
Making the playoffs is all well and good but any coach will tell you that merely being in the first round is just like tasting frosting on a cake. After that you want more.
Owner Dr. John McMullen and general manager Lou Lamoriello agreed that achieving the post-season in the spring of 1990 had it moments but, definitely, not enough.
"After what we had accomplished in 1988 -- getting all the way to the third round -- we expected to keep going up from there," Doc Mac acknowledged. "Lou would have been the first to tell you that we had to make more moves."
Entering his fourth season as the club's architect, Lamaoriello studied his lineup's structure and found faults in its foundation.
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"We had the desire," said Larrupin Lou, "that's for sure. But we didn't have enough size, enough grit. Fixing that area was a focus."
The repair job required gambles on two talented pros with gumption but who also carried potential "baggage" on their backs.
Claude Lemieux of the Montreal Canadiens was the chief protagonist. Lou obtained the French-Canadian by dispatching another francophone -- Sylvain Turgeon -- to the Habs.
This was an iffy deal at the time for a couple of reasons. On the one hand Turgeon was a high-scoring forward and on the other Lemieux was regarded as "lazy" by the Montrealers who couldn't wait to unload him.
But Lou wasn't interested in hearsay along the Rue de Rumeur in Habtown. He knew well enough that Turgeon didn't savor rough play; Lemieux did. Hence, au revoir, Sylvain.
Lamoriello: "Claude gives us a dimension which we lacked at times last season. He's a solid player who can simultaneously contribute to our offense and eliminate the opposition's ability to take liberties with our players.
"Being able to bring in a player like Claude on the eve of training camp is great from all standpoints. But, rest assured, I'm not going to stop with that deal."
One method Lou employed to obtain strength to his team was to pore over a list of Devils-killers. One stood out among others; Laurie Boschman, a Winnipeg Jets center who was not a happy camper in Manitoba.
Over a nineteen-game span against New Jersey, the clever pivot had totaled seven goals and a dozen assists; a point-a-game mark. Not at all bad. Lamoriello sent Bob Brooke to The Peg for Boschman, who turned happy.
"Comparing Laurie to our present centers," Lou explained, "he's a different type of player. He's one of the best face-off men and the record tells you that in the past he just ruined us."
Granted that both newcomers added muscle but The Boss wanted muscle on top of muscle. For that he turned to his American Hockey League farm club in Utica and promoted a big broth of a boy, 6-4, 215 pound Troy Crowder.
A right wing, Crowder would play on a line with left wing Al Stewart while Boschman centered the unit. It proved to be a checking line that also boasted a top fighter in Crowder and an accomplished penalty-killer in Stewart.
Of course, no training camp, anywhere, any time, opens without Its check-list of question marks. Topping the page was none other than Coach Cunniff. Granted, he pushed his skaters into the playoffs, but was that good enough?
"I liked our training camp," the coach optimistically opined. "The players challenged each other and it showed me they had made a commitment to the team and to the season."
But one man was missing and his absence hurt. Erstwhile reliable red-light man Walt Poddubny had reconstructive surgery on his ailing knee and would be a mere onlooker for the new campaign.
Another issue centered on Slava Fetisov's ability to lift his game a notch after a year acclimatizing himself to the tougher North American brand of hockey played on smaller rinks than he had been accustomed to in the Soviet Union.
Cunniff: "Overall, Fetisov had a pretty good rookie season. But if I know Slava he probably wasn't satisfied.and he wants to play better this season."
Finally -- and perhaps the prime issue of concern -- there was the matter of Sean Burke's ailing back. It had been troubling enough during training camp for the goalie to miss a portion of camp.
Fortunately, Sean was ready for opening night and with the infusion of Lemieux, Boschman and Crowder, Cuniff felt secure in the knowledge that he had a winner.
"I like this team," he confidently told reporters on the eve of the opening game. "I feel confident going into the season with the talent we have. Rest assured that we'll be a physical team. Now we have to live up to our high expectations."
The first combatants would be the Detroit Red Wings, armed with one of the best fighters in NHL annals, Bob Probert.
After Claude Lemieux made Lamoriello look good by doing a bull-in-the- china-shop routine and adding a pair of goals, Probert went after him and mugged the Devil to the ice.
First Al Stewart courageously sought revenge but took a quick beating. Enraged, Troy Crowder challenged the unofficial NHL Heavyweight champion and the East Rutherford crowd went nuts.
Troy scored a TKO, overpowering the surprised Red Wing, then jerking him off balance, then pulling his jersey over his head, then pulling it off altogether revealing a tell-tale gash under Probert's eye.
The game ended in a 3-3 tie while stitches were applied above Probert's optic. Poof! Just like that, the formerly anonymous Crowder became the media darling. He now was the Devils "watchman," as he would put it.
When the press mob surrounded him in the dressing room Troy spoke of the fight and the result. "I think it picked us up. It's always nice to know that somebody is watching out for you."
Lemieux, who could have earned a doctorate in Fight Analysis, commended Crowder in simple hockey lexicon: "When Troy did what he had to do, it lifted us as a team and gave us a spark."
The "spark" included Brendan Shanahan's tying goal with only fifteen seconds remaining in the third period. Then, the new, improved, tougher Devils disposed of the equally belligerent Philadelphia Flyers and all was right with the world.
Devils supporters would have done transports of joy had Cunniff's club maintained that two-game state of robust -- and winning -- behavior.
But, alas, dark clouds began hovering over the Meadowlands and they didn't roll by fast enough to suit coach Cunniff.
And, more importantly, general manager Lou Lamoriello!
LISTS: FOUR REASONS TO LIKE THE NEW-LOOK, 1990-91 DEVILS
1. LEMIEUX FOR TURGEON: Nice guy Sylvain just didn't like corner work. Lemieux loved it and what's more he began scoring in the prolific Turgeon style.
2. BOSCHMAN FOR BROOKE: Lou knew that this Brooke had run dry. By contrast Laurie evolved into the quintessential "Handy-Man" forward; aces on face-offs!
3. BEHEMOTH CROWDER: It's one thing to be a skating monster but you don't want your big guy to be like Ferdinand The Bull. Keith's TKO of Probert was no bull; it was Goliath over a Goliath!
4. PRO-ACTIVE LAMORIELLO: The g.m. made no bones about being an actions-come-louder-than-words leader. More to the point, he would maintain that philosophy all season.