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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: A New Coach, A New Era

Stan Fischler looks back at the early progress made under new coach Doug Carpenter in his weekly NewJerseyDevils.com column

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

After L'Affaire Gretzky and an arithmetically disappointing 1983-84 season (17-56-7), Devils owner Dr. John McMullen decided to wipe the blackboard clean and draw a new leadership slate.

The first order of business was completed on May 31, 1984 with the decision to replace vastly amusing coach Tom McVie with the more subdued Doug Carpenter, a 42-year-old redhead from Cornwall, Ontario.

While Carpenter lacked the humorous persona of the valiant McVie, Doug brought a new kind of intensity to the team. Superficially, he looked like the ideal substitute for his bench predecessors, Billy MacMillan and Talkative Tom.

Never a headline-grabber, Carpenter nevertheless was a career mentor who had handsomely paid his dues in the minors. 

Lean and sharp-featured, Doug displayed a different dynamic than either MacMillan or McVie. Veteran pro leaders such as four-time Stanley Cup-winning Toronto Maple Leafs coach Punch Imlach gave Carpenter a ringing rave.

"Doug did a tremendous job coaching the Cornwall (Ontario) Junior team," Imlach recalled. "That club wasn't supposed to win but it came away with all the biscuits, the Memorial Cup. 

"I liked the way he handled the team and handled himself on the bench. I liked his system of play."

Matter of fact, Punch admired Doug so much he hired Carpenter to coach the T Maple Leafs farm team in Moncton (New Brunswick) for the 1980-81 season. From there, Imlach moved Carpenter to Cincinnati in the AHL.

Imlach: "We didn't give him a great deal of talent to work with but he didn't complain. Doug did the best he could with what he had." 

Carpenter was not the only interviewee for the Devils job. But Dr. McMullen, a naval officer during World War II, relied on his military background while doing his one-on-one with the prospective coach.

"One thing you learn about in the Navy," Doc Mac explained. "is people. You have to judge them and find out what they'll do in a tough spot. So when Doug came down to be interviewed I said to myself, 'I'm gonna a find out if this guy has confidence.'

"I told him he could work for us but that he wasn't getting a contract. When he said, 'That's okay with me.' I figured we had something."

Carpenter didn't put on an act. He stayed cool, calm and collected. "I was myself during the interview," he said. "No phony stuff."

If there was an upset in the front office shuffle, it was the hiring of Lou Vairo, a former Brooklyn roller hockey player, as New Jersey's assistant coach.

Vairo: "It's a dream come true. A Brooklyn guy who fantasized about making it to the NHL in some way shape or form; and here I am. Hard to believe."

Neither Lou nor Doug believed they'd instantly be on the road to victory. Win-wise, the Devils were worse in their second year than during the rookie campaign yet there were rays of sunshine streaming through the clouds.

The NHL's second overall Draft pick, Kirk Muller, was impressing in training camp along with Canadian Olympian defenseman Bruce Driver. Carpenter smiled every time he watched the 1983 top Draftee, John MacLean.

"Johnny has been the best player on the ice enough times to make me think he could make the big club," said Carpenter.

There was no doubt about Tim Higgins, formerly with the Chicago Blackhawks, whose goal-scoring ability guaranteed a slot as number one right wing.

The general staff had no beefs about the men between the crease. Glenn (Chico) Resch would be the starter with Ron Low as the fireman.

Low and Vairo knew that their most formidable challenge would be improving the second and third-liners. Nor were they chary about naming names: Jan Ludvig, Pat Verbeek and even captain Mel Bridgman headed the list.

"We have to close the 52-point gap between fourth and fifth place in our division," Carpenter explained. "We have to build a nucleus. I know what kind of battle I'm in for, but I'm a hard-worker -- but not a miracle-worker."

The media wholeheartedly agreed. The New York Post published a season preview with little optimism for the Garden State crew. DISMAL DEVILS GOING NOWHERE -- ONLY GOAL: AVOID CELLAR.

With that in mind general manager Max McNab continued to add new faces to the lineup. Doug Sulliman and Rich Preston were imported along with defenseman Dave Pichette who was picked off the waiver draft.

The newcomers didn't hurt and after four games New Jersey was batting .500 (2-2-0). Pichette added oomph to the offense while also playing solid D alongside former University of Wisconsin star Bruce Driver.

Staying afloat through October, the Devils discarded their Sad Sack label. Driver, who had impressed with Team Canada in the 1984 Olympics, was good enough to push promising tough D-man Ken Daneyko out of a starting job.

In its November 2, 1984 edition, the New York Post showed contrition. This time the newspaper's headline shouted: CARPENTER BUILDING WINNER IN N.J. 

While he was at it, Doug kindled some animosity. His sometimes harsh post-game reactions to defeats rubbed some veterans the wrong way; especially Resch.

The mutual anger boiled over on the night of December 1, 1984 when the Chicago Blackhawks invaded the Meadowlands and sprayed five goals behind Chico in a 5-3 decision for the Visitors.

Carpenter pointed a finger -- "Their guy (Murray Bannerman) outplayed our guy" -- which meant that Resch had to take a backseat to Low. Ron grabbed the baton and blanked the Rangers 6-0.

Subsequent victories over the Islanders and Flyers fortified Carpenter's position but the biggest -- and most gratifying -- triumph awaited the Wayne Gretzky-led Cup-winning Oilers arrival in East Rutherford on December 17, 1984.

"Mickey Mouse" revenge had not been realized when Edmonton's skaters visited a year earlier but this was a new season, with a new coach and a new spirit. There was no Mouse-ing around this time against the champ Oilers.

Carpenter's crew seized a 3-2 lead and then benefitted from a rare Gretzky faux pas. On a Rocky Trottier Devils breakaway, the pursuing Great One uncharacteristically tossed his stick at the puck. 

Referee Andy Van Hellemond gifted Trottier with a penalty shot which he deftly deposited behind Oilers goalie Andy Moog. The crowd went nuts when the final buzzer signaled a Devils 5-2 victory over the Champions.

Frustrated because the Devils halted Gretzky's pursuit of his 1,000th point, Wayne took responsibility for his club's defeat in a manly post-game press scrum.

"I threw my stick by instinct," he asserted. "It wasn't very smart of me."

Smart hockey was the order of the day as the Devils, at last, took aim at a playoff berth in the new year. On January 14, 1985 hopes reached a skyscraper level when they beat the Rangers 2-1 at Madison Square Garden.

Rookie center Greg Adams -- recently promoted from the AHL Maine Mariners -- won all but one of 14 face-offs again the New Yorkers. Rangers coach Herb Brooks was one of many hockey men who jumped on Carpenter's bandwagon.

"I like the way the Devils are playing," said Brooks in his post-game huddle. "They play well without the puck and have a good cohesive flow going. You can't pick up easy points against them anymore."

Only six points out of a playoff berth, the Devils record was 13-23-4 at mid-season. A year earlier it has been 8-30-2.  

Highly-touted Kirk Muller was making good on his rookie clippings while Doug Sulliman upped his goal count to 18. Meanwhile, the Pichette-Driver defense combo never looked better and even Resch had won over his coach.

"Nobody is joking about the Devils this year," boasted Carpenter."I'm seeing sacrifice and commitment from my guys."

Resch seconded the motion: "We don't have nearly the talent of a lot of teams but, I'll tell you this, we're inching along."

True enough; but the Devils needed yards, not inches, to make the post-season and when the homestretch arrived, they faltered like a tired thoroughbred.

The late-season slump was finalized with a 6-1 loss to Philadelphia in the 80th and final game of their third campaign. It placed New Jersey in the Patrick Division's fifth place with a record of 22-48-10 for 54 points.

For coach Carpenter, there were multiple ways of judging his first year behind a big-league bench. Doug chose to accent the positive.

"We improved thirteen points over last year," he noted. "We may have improved by as many as eighteen or twenty if not for an eight-game losing streak. We were workaholics. We didn't roll over and play dead."

This time Dr. McMullen did something he had failed to do in the fall. He presented Carpenter with a new, two-year contract.

There were mixed feelings to be sure. Veteran hockey writer Rich Chere of the Newark Star-Ledger wrote about "a power play clash." 

An unidentified player argued that "Some guys thought they were the coach. Besides, Doug was tougher on Lou Vairo than any of the players."

The most cogent coda on the non-playoff campaign was delivered by the very prescient Resch: "Next season will be very pivotal for us!"

LISTS: FOUR REASONS FOR OPTIMISM LOOKING AHEAD:

1. MAGNIFICENT MULLER: Kirk continued his improvement avoiding a sophomore slump with a solid 22-goal season.

2. CAPABLE CAPTAIN: Mel Bridgman led by example, pacing the team in scoring with a 22-61-83 mark.

3. BIG MAC: John MacLean's sharpshooting was impressive as well as ability to deliver in the clutch.

4. MANAGER AT WORK: G.m. Max McNab promised a number of off-season additions to further bolster the goal-scoring.

(NEXT WEEK: BUILDING A RIVALRY WITH THE RANGERS.)

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