You couldn't tell by the start of the 1986-87 National Hockey League season that head Devils coach Doug Carpenter was in trouble.
Matter of fact, the robust Redhead seemed to be in super shape as training camp opened. As the folks were saying in East Rutherford, Red was just breezin' along with the breeze. The Man was in command.
For starters, Doug replaced exited aide, Lou Vairo, with a pair of his own pals, Ron Smith and Bob Hoffmeyer. Those changes solidified Carpenter's hold on his general staff.
Meanwhile,the media stayed right on the coach's bandwagon, especially the key broadsheet daily that mattered most, the Newark Star-Ledger. Examining the bench boss' hold on his club, the newspaper's headline said it all:
THERE'S NO DOUBT ABOUT IT; DEVILS ARE CARPENTER'S TEAM.
What made that statement so valid was the most important element in the coach's thinking -- victories. And the wins were flowing like water drifting down the Hudson River.
Not only were the Devils putting up a W here and a W there but after 30 games the hockey writers were talking up Doug as a candidate for the Jack Adams Award for Coach of the Year.
But the season was not even half over and a warhorse such as Carpenter knew that early season skirmishes do not a major victory make. When folks would pat him on the back for his team being in the playoff race, he'd reply:
"We're not really satisfied. I'll be satisfied when we're in first place. Even then I won't be fully satisfied until we win the whole thing. Then, I'll be happy and content for two weeks."
For two months everything was honky-dory. But the second half of the season would put Carpenter and his stickhandlers to the test.
By late December 1986, the Devils actually had moved six points ahead of the reviled Rangers. Plus, the Islanders were only two points ahead of New Jersey. That was the good news. The bad news would come.
Once the new year got underway, Carpy's cautionary words that he had uttered back in Autumn now boomeranged on the team in mid-Winter. At Byrne Arena there were signals that read S.O.S.
Winless in seven games, the Devils watched the Rangers pass them as New Jersey sank into fifth place. Alas, there would be no homestretch rally just a disheartening 5-13-1 March-April mark dropping them out of the playoff run.
Not that it was any solace to Carpenter, but his supporters noted significant gains. There were, in fact, enough pluses to solidify his position heading into 1987-88. Really, what mattered was what Doc Mac thought.
McMullen couldn't have been unhappy about his club setting a record for most points in a season, with 64; nor most wins in a single campaign, 29; not to mention most home wins, 20.
Then there were individual gains made by previous Draft picks. Kirk Muller, for one, hit a career-high with 26 goals and 76 points. John MacLean wound up with a career-high 31 goals.
Then there was The Comeback Kid, Pat Verbeek. Following his near career-ending farm accident, the tough hombre on wing tied a team mark with 35 goals while establishing himself has an impressive pint-sized power forward.
Even special teams glowed. When g.m Max McNab traded Tim Higgins for Claude Loiselle he got a savvy defensive forward who killed penalties as well as anyone in the league. Ditto for his P.K. partner Andy Brickley.
McMullen: "What's happening is that management and the coaching staff are maturing at the same time that our players are maturing. The team is starting to be put together with real Devils people.
"The challenges are there and we have to rise up to them. The ultimate goal is to make the playoffs and get a shot at The Stanley Cup. You can't be satisfied with a season where you didn't make the playoffs."
Those last five words -- "...you didn't make the playoffs" -- had to leave Doug Carpenter with only one thought worth two words:
LISTS: FOUR GOOD THINGS ABOUT ANOTHER NON-PLAYOFF SEASON:
1. OWNER'S FAITH: Another owner might have canned Carpenter for again missing the post-season. Doc Mac decided to give Carpy another shot.
2. GOALTENDING OK: Alain Chevrier and Craig Billington held their own between the pipes. The absence of Glenn (Chico) Resch was not felt.
3. FAN BASE: Despite another non-playoff season, the numbers of Devils rooters were growing steadily. Given better results they would grow even faster.
4. ADDITON BY SUBTRACTION: Club president Bob Butera resigned on April 24, 1987. That enabled McMullen to search for a first-class hockey executive.
(NEXT WEEK:NEW LIFE UNDER LOU -- THE LAMORIELLO ERA BEGINS)