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DEVILS OVER THE DECADES: Ch. 37 - Building a Champion

Stan Fischler details Lou Lamoriello's 1991 off-season moves for building the Devils franchise

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

As his players packed their bags in the spring of 1991 Lou Lamoriello minced no words.

"Our franchise has reached a point where we can start taking aim at winning our first Stanley Cup," the Devils boss proclaimed. "Our record against the best teams shows we're getting closer."

You didn't have to look up into the sky for evidence; it was all there in the National Hockey League Record Book.

The Stanley Cup Champion in 1991 was Pittsburgh. Yet the Penguins had their hands full beating the Devils in their seven-game playoff. Matter of fact, New Jersey almost ousted Pitt in Game Six.

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"We always felt that the (disallowed) Laurie Boschman goal in the sixth game should have counted," said Claude Loiselle. "Video showed that the puck was in but the ref said 'no' and that was that."

Still, the fact that New Jersey extended the eventual titlists to the limit gave new impetus to Lamoriello's mantra and put the league on notice that the Devils had become a legitimate contender.

"They weren't patsies anymore," said New York Ranger veteran Steve Larmer. "They've got talent from the goal on out."

Among those players Larmer had in mind, captain Kirk Muller had become Mister Devil. Selected first in 1984 by the team (second overall after Mario Lemieux), Muller played a blue collar game that appealed to Garden State fans.

"Kirk was a good leader," said teammate Doug Brown, "because he led by example. He never took a night off and gave everything he had.."

Muller was surrounded by teammates who also were challenged but in different ways. For example, John MacLean was selected sixth overall in 1983 but was slower to ripen than a tomato in the Arctic. But in time he matured into a star.

But Lou wanted more and no sooner had Lamoriello put his desk in order before the 1991 Draft he was hit between the eyes by forward Brendan Shannon's unexpected decision to skip New Jersey.

In June the big forward revealed that as a Type 1 free agent he signed with the St.Louis Blues. That gave Lou an opportunity to be, well, Lou, and take a chance to fill the Shanny gap. Like any good poker player he had to gamble.

Instead of settling for a seemingly easy pick from the Blues roster the Devils leader went for broke and designated defenseman Scott Stevens at his choice.

The shockwaves extended from East Rutherford all the way to St.Louis where the Blues high command suffered a case of migraine-on-top-of-migraine.

If there was one thing Missourians didn't want to see other than a flooded Mississippi River it was the 6-2, 210-pound Stevens in any uniform other than that of the Blues.

After all, the hard-hitting backliner had been a free-agent pick up by the Blues from Washington a year earlier. Sacre bleu! It cost St. Louis g.m. Ron Caron five first-round picks over five years.

Caron didn't want another disaster and -- in Ron's eyes, at least -- losing Stevens would be roughly equivalent of an Indy 500 car going up to the starting line with two wheels instead of four.

"No way I wanted to give up Scotty," said Caron who then countered with an offer to Lou of forward Rod Brind'Amour and goalie Curtis Joseph.

The NHL arbitrator who would render a non-challenge-able decision would be a veteran of the business Judge Edward J. Houston. He summoned Lamoriello and Caron to Toronto for their arguments -- and his verdict.

Most "experts" in the hockey world figured victory was in the bag for Caron and his Blues. Ron, himself, was inclined to agree since there was no charge for wishful thinking.

"We're going to the judgement with the confidence that our offer is the most fair," said the very emotional Caron. "We're ready to pay what we owe."

Never one to boast, Lou was willing to allow the powers that be do their due diligence and let the puck fall where it may. With three raps of his gavel, Judge Houston delivered his decision:

DEVILS GET SCOTT STEVENS!

"There's terrific irony here" MSG Networks Devils scouting reporter Leo Scaglione, Jr. recalls. "On the day of the ruling, Stevens was in Canada participating in the Canada Cup. His teammate was Brendan Shanahan!"

Round One went to Lou, but he wasn't through. When NJ's Troy Crowder -- no doubt cashing in on his winning bout with Bob Probert -- declared for free agency as well and signed with the Detroit Red Wings, Lou made his move.

If any award could be highly-rated -- in a class with the Stevens acquisition -- a rip-off of the Red Wings was it. For Crowder -- a player who would prove virtually useless for the rest of his career -- Lamoriello scored a bonanza.

The Devils were gifted with not one but two forwards -- Randy McKay and Dave Barr -- each of whom by comparison would make Crowder look like a rank minor leaguer. And that they did!

In two fell swoops Larrupin Lou had bolstered his fort into an imposing structure while adding howitzers to its arsenal. Never in the team's young history had New Jersey presented a more imposing lineup.

But The Boss wasn't even finished with his off-season moves; the truth is, Lamoriello was just starting. The next project involved coaching.

Team USA Miracle On Ice Gold Medal leader Herb Brooks was hired to lead the Devils Utica sextet in the American Hockey League. Meanwhile, ex-NHLer Robbie Ftorek was named head Devils coach Tom McVie's assistant.

Lamoriello: "We want Herb to develop our young players in Utica, We want the best-qualified coaches we can get. That's why we signed Herb and Robbie."

McVie could be excused had he been concerned about his head-coaching status. But, as usual, he found humor in his seemingly tenuous situation:

"I can be out of town in twenty minutes," chirped Tom Terrific "Thirty if I have stuff at the cleaners!"

On a more serious note, McVie understood Lou's blueprint for the franchise's future.

"Herb Brooks is a good coach," Tom Terrific allowed. "And I know Robbie Ftorek is a good hockey man. We've got a great coaching staff here.. It's great for the Devils."

McVie's latest inaugural address impressed his constituents. But how would the voting audience -- ergo, the fans -- react to it once the season started? Truthfully, when all was said and done, Tom's job really was on the line.

Stay tuned!

LISTS: FOUR WAYS LOU MADE THE TEAM BETTER:

1. THE STEVENS COUP: Nobody expected the Devils to win the Scott Stevens-for-Brendan Shanahan case but Lamoriello scored a huge upset win on that one with more victories to come.

2. TWO SOMETHINGS FOR NOTHING; Troy Crowder deservedly rated fans support for his TKO of Bob Probert. But Troy's usefulness ended there. In return New Jersey gained two meaningful offensive assets, Randy McKay and Dave Barr.

3. COACHING INCENTIVE: Tommy McVie was no fool; he knew that he had to produce because both Herb Brooks or Robbie Ftorek could move into the head coaching spot faster than you could say, "Lou doesn't fool around!" Tom would be at his coaching best.

4. MATURING LEADERS: The likes of John MacLean, Kirk Muller and other young stickhanlders were ripening into post-season heroes. Lou's patience enabled this transformation. The youth movement could only get better.

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