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DEVILS OVER THE DECADES: Ch. 38 - Explosive Devils of 1991-92

Stan Fischler writes about the start of the 1991-92 season and the lineup changes made by Lou Lamoriello

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

One by one, as the Devils converged on training camp in September 1991, the talk was all about g.m. Lou Lamoriello's reincarnating his hockey club.

The additions of Scott Stevens on defense and Lou's new faces up front -- Dave Barr and Randy McKay -- would have seemed to be a sufficient shake-up for the boys.

But not as far as Larrupin' Lou was concerned.

"Who's next to go?" one vet whispered as the stickhandlers prepared for their first skate-around.

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Lamoriello' s response came faster than the calendar could flip to October.
On September 20, 1991 -- a day before the advent of fall -- Kirk Muller became the fall guy.

Not only the captain but reliable goaltender Roland (Rollie The Goalie) Melanson were dispatched to the Montreal Canadiens for forwards Stephane Richer and Tom Chorske.

For all Muller's leadership qualities and Grade A work ethic, Kirk disappointed his boss in one tantalizing area, clutch scoring. At playoff time the man with the "C" looked more like he was auditioning for a remake of "The Invisible Man."

By contrast, the bilingual Richer already was a 50-goal scorer and notorious for his fondness for big games. And if you didn't believe it, Stephane could articulate same in both French and English.

Richer: "I don't mind pressure. I have to deal with it as part of my job."

Meeting the media during a break in scrimmages, Lou enthusiastically explained the method to his non-madness.

"We traded for an explosive talent in Richer," The Boss asserted. "He gives our club a dimension it needed." Then, a pause and a smile: "He can shoot the puck!"

Those who knew Lou best recalled that he always had a soft spot in his heart for the Canadiens style of play. He learned by watching them win four straight Stanley Cups (1976, 1977, 1978, 1979) under coach Scotty Bowman.

Lamoriello especially respected the Habs élan and always would trade for a Montrealer if he felt the player could improve his club. Now he had two ex-Canadiens renowned for their explosiveness, Richer and Claude Lemieux.

"Stephane will be just fine for us," assured Lemieux. "The pressure doesn't bother him. He'll just play better and better if you put that kind of pressure on him."

Less obvious -- but no less meaningful -- was New Jersey's "Fortress Defense," led by Stevens. Once the club's weak underbelly, the blue liners were now experienced and collectively strong.

Scott would be working with the Russians, Slava Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov as well as Ken Daneyko, Bruce Driver, Eric Weinrich and Tommy Albelin. A sleeper looking for a varsity spot was top Draft choice Scott Niedermayer.

"We'll be one of the best defensive clubs in the league," boasted Fetisov and nobody argued with him.

What Stevens brought to the blue line corps was the reason why all NHL arenas maintained stretchers. Scotty was a fearsome bodychecker whose nickname easily could have been either Bingo or Bucko.

"Scott is a much-needed piece to the puzzle for our team," said Driver, who was named captain to replace Muller. "The biggest plus for us getting a player like that is his physical game."

Sure enough, in an exhibition game against the New York Islanders on September 20, Byrne Meadowlands Arena rocked and rolled with hard-hitting at both ends.

In the end though, New Jersey got the worst of it. Out of a first period melee, John MacLean was buried under a mound of brawlers and emerged with damage to his medial collateral ligament of his right knee.

As it happened, Johnny Mac would be lost for the entire season but there was enough in coach Tom McVie's arsenal to compensate for the injured sharpshooter.

Beating the Islanders 9-1 did not put two points in McVie's pocket but Tommy didn't have to repeat one of his quips employed during the previous holiday season:

"What I want for Christmas is a Mike Bossy doll. Wind it up and he scores sixty goals!'

Now it was Richer, Lemieux, Chorske and company making like a Bossy. Facing their old buddy, Brendan Shanahan, and the St.Louis Blues on opening night (October 5, 1991) the East Rutherford guns were loaded.

Richer and Chorske in particular led the attack and when the ice had cleared the scoreboard remained lit: DEVILS 7, BLUES 2.

"I couldn't have hoped that it would go better," chuckled Chorske. "That's about as well as things have gone for me in a long time. I've gotten confidence and feel appreciated in New Jersey."

Richer looked like a new man -- "It's just great the way the night turned out." -- and in one game proved that the Muller deal was another Lou winner.

As for the Shanahan-Stevens sideshow, Shanny got himself a goal and earsplitting boos throughout. While Scotty failed to score he put the fear of fracture in every visiting skater with his thunderous checks.

Not that the Devils dressing room was paradise personified. What once looked like a harmonious Chris Terreri-Sean Burke goaltending duet turned dissonant as the little man from Rhode Island displaced the big guy from Canada.

Burke went a step further by eschewing his New Jersey persona to play for Team Canada. Such a move was not calculated to cause Lamoriello to do handstands nor did the press do Sean any favors.

Writing in the New York Post, Hugh Delano gave the goalie a stiff, verbal thwacking. "Burke has made a mess of things for himself since Terreri became the number one goalie by outplaying Burke."

Absent Burke, Lou inserted likable young Craig (Call Me Biller) Billington in the back-up role. Team camaraderie was further enhanced by Driver's ascent to the captaincy; a role he coveted and for which he was respected.

Writing in the Bergen Record, John Dellapina called Driver, "The best defenseman in Devils history." To that point it was a good point.

After all Bruce held team records for goals (50), assists (205) and points (255) by a defenseman heading into the 1991-1992 campaign.

Driver: "Being named captain is definitely an opportunity for me to be recognized. I feel grateful for that and I feel I can do the job. I may be more of a quiet leader than anything. I'll lead by example."

What remained to be seen was whether McVie could weather competition in a Patrick Division that had become the most powerful in the NHL.

If nothing else, this would be an explosive season for the Garden Staters -- and a good one, at that.

Stay tuned:

LISTS: FOUR PLAYERS WHO MADE THE DEVILS STRONGER THAN EVER:

1. SCOTT STEVENS: Bruce Driver may have been captain, but Stevens soon became the realistic leader on defense. He could hit; he could hurt and he even could score.

2. STEPHANE RICHER: As Lou Lamoriello had hoped, the French-Canadian sniper lived up to his notices and then some. He was better for New Jersey than Kirk Muller.

3. CRAIG BILLINGTON: Unlike Burke, The Biller was a rah-rah back-up goalie to starter Chris Terreri. That helped restore a positive attitude in the dressing room.

4. TOM CHORSKE: A "sleeper" acquisition from Montreal, the fleet forward surprised with his goal-scoring and all-round usefulness as a swing-man winger.

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