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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: Enter Lou, Enter Changes

Stan Fischler writes about the history of the Devils franchise in his weekly column

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

During the spring of 1987 scant attention was paid to rumblings in East Rutherford as medium eruptions were being felt in the Devils front office.

Club President Bob Butera left the high command on April 24, 1987, and owner Dr. John McMullen searched for a replacement. No big deal; since few expected his find to cause volcanic results. 

But there would be; and then some.

Replacing Butera seemed simple enough. As in the case of general manager Max McNab's hire, there always was a long list of executive candidates comprised of former NHL front office leaders.

Many came knocking at Doc Mac's door but none got a tumble. Turning his back on tradition, McMullen was steered in the direction of Providence College where Lou Lamoriello had become an institution in the university sports realm.

Over a period of two decades, Lamoriello turned the Providence College hockey program into a national success. He was head coach for 15 years beginning with the 1968-69 season, In 1982 Lou was named Friars athletic director.

A year after the Devils were born in East Rutherford, Lamoriello became Commissioner of Hockey East. Slowly, but relentlessly, he began turning inquisitive heads among the pro hockey leaders. Doc Mac was one of them.

Ignoring potential NHL types, McMullen selected Lamoriello to take the Devils reins. While the choice turned some quizzical heads in the hockey crowd, Doc Mac explained his thinking. 

"In Lou Lamoriello, the Devils have a hockey man who has earned respect for his accomplishments at and away from the rink; and for his hockey and business acumen."

The figures supported the choice. Lou had guided the Friars with impressive numbers (248-179 13) and ten post-season tournaments. He would later turn Hockey East into one of the country's most prestigious hockey conferences.

Leaving such a comfortable situation was not an easy decision for Lamoriello but New Jersey's big-league hockey prospects were too tempting to ignore.

Lou: "The Devils have always impressed me with strong ownership and unlimited potential. After meeting and getting to know Dr. McMullen, I'm convinced of this and his commitment to winning in a first-class manner."

According to the high-level game plan, McNab was promoted to executive vice-president while Lamoriello was designated as general manager. Those who understood the team's inner workings knew that Lou had become THE boss.

"Right off the bat," McMullen acknowledged, "I knew I had hired someone who would be the hardest-working general manager in the entire NHL. I got my money's worth."

Lou never looked at the clock -- and often worked 'round the clock. One of his first moves was to trade underperforming Czech forward Jan Ludwig to the Buffalo Sabres for Jim Korn.

This was not an idle trade-for-the-sake-of-trading move. Rather it revealed everything one would get to know about Lamoriello. He traded for Korn because Jim was someone he knew well and liked for good reason.

Korn had played for Providence when Lou coached the Friars; plus Jim was a big, rugged forward coming to a club loaded with many smaller skaters.

"We want to get respect from other teams by having some players who will play a physical role," the new boss explained. "This will ensure that our skill players wouldn't be intimidated. We want an aggressive team. If that fills seats, good!"

One by one -- with head-turning speed -- Lou revolved the Devils roster upside down. Although Lamoriello was a rookie NHL executive, he acted with the confidence of a g.m. who had been around for a decade. 

Examples of that were his earliest moves. To the surprise of many, he traded New Jersey's leading scorer, Greg Adams, and popular goalie Kirk McLean to Vancouver for center Patrick Sundstrom and a fourth-round Draft choice.

It was a brazen shakeup since Adams was considered an untouchable after a season in which he totaled 35-42-77. Adams deserved to be a candidate for the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's top freshman although he didn't get it.

To the curious fans, Lou unswervingly had an answer to why he was willing to unload a fan favorite with solid numbers:

"We have to do something to get to the playoffs. Everything we do is designed to get this team into the post-season. Sundstrom is a quality player and we had to give up quality to get him."

But Lamoriello also had a trick card up his sleeve; Brendan Shanahan. At the 1987 NHL Entry Draft he plucked a 14-carat-gold gem in big Shanny.

Knowing that Brendan would make the big team, Lou was unconcerned about the gap left by Adams departure. To Lou's Argus eyes, talent was written all over Shanahan's 6-3, 206-pound fuselage.

"I'm not making these decisions on my own," Lamoriello added. "If I don't consult then I'm not a good administrator. I'll be relying on Max (McNab) more than ever."

That said, Lou was not going to mess with his young nucleus; especially Ken Daneyko, Kirk Muller, John MacLean and Joe Cirella.

Looking backward, Daneyko observed: "We were a tight group; a bunch of young guys trying to live a dream. The chemistry got good because we were sprinkled in with the veterans and we learned as we went along."

Lou knew that he had to decide whether to stay with his inherited coach, Doug Carpenter, or bring in his own man. His final decision was made after consultation with McNab and others, including me.

Invited to lunch by Lou, I understood that he wanted to hear from someone like myself who had been around the team for a long time. Likewise, I was willing to give him info that I thought would help.

His last question for me had to do with Carpenter. "What do you think of Doug as a coach?"

I should have anticipated the query but I had not; which meant a quick, impetuous answer was given -- with some care.

"You'd better wait until Christmas," I said. "See for yourself."

He was content with the answer and I was content with his contentment; especially after Lou picked up the check.

A bit later a reporter asked him how he felt about Carpenter; or, more specifically, was a replacement in the works? "I have no such plans," he asserted, and that was the end of that.

At first, the team's solid play early in 1987-88 made it easy for Lou to support Doug. In the Meadowlands home opener, New Jersey beat Pittsburgh, 6-3 behind Alain Chevrier's 29 save effort. 

By the start of November Carpenter's skaters were tied for first place. Players who previously had been wary of their relationship with Doug now found him more relaxed and easier to appreciate.

One of them was defenseman Randy Velischek who had played for Lamoriello at Providence College. "The communication with coach is better," said Velischek, "and so is the atmosphere. That comes from Lou."

Another gift in the Smile Department was the new, improved defense. The coach was especially pleased with the one-two combo of Ken Daneyko and Bruce Driver. 

"They stay together better," said Carpy, "have better discipline and have cut down on giveaways in our zone."

Chevrier, who suffered with the worst goals-against average in the NHL in 1986-87, had improved to a healthy 2.72. "The defense is letting me see the puck better," Alain allowed.

While Lamoriello was imposing a new Providence College-type discipline on the team there were occasions when a couple of the stickhandlers were acting like freshman collegians.

During a game in Pittsburgh, both Shanahan and MacLean were doused with beer by a couple of fans. Since no ushers were around to help, the Devils duo attempted to climb into the stands to point out the suds-tossers.

Shanny and Johnny Mac were fined and suspended but only after New Jersey came away with a 5-4 win and a pithy comment on the episode by red-haired rookie Doug Brown. "This team has character!"

That it did; no question about that. but would the club exhibit staying power? Seasoned Devils-watchers remembered the mid-season El Foldos of past seasons. Could it happen again?

Apparently, yes. The almost inevitable annual slump arrived in November and the Devils began slipping in the standings. Pushed about the decline, Carpenter offered a rationale.

"A baby needs time to mature," Carpy defended. "It's no different building a hockey team from scratch. It requires a certain amount of time to develop."

Meanwhile, Lou was checking his calendar. What it told him was that time was fast running out on his head coach!

LISTS: FOUR MAJOR CHANGES MADE BY NEW BOSS LAMORIELLO

1. DISCIPLINE: Following his stint as Providence College athletic director, Lou borrowed from his past and imposed strict new rules that created a new discipline in the dressing room

2. BE PRO-ACTIVE: Once Lou got behind his desk, gung-ho was the rule of the day and trades were immediately made, starting with the acquisition of Patrick

Sundstrom.

3. SHINING SHANNY: Lou's first Draft pick was a brilliant one. Brendan Shanahan would become one of the team's early offensive cornerstones.

4. POSITIVE VIBES: From the stickboy to the highest level of the general staff, Lamoriellos's accent on the positive was pushing the club forward. For a change, there was a sense that the playoffs actually could be attained.

(NEXT WEEK: THE AXE FALLS ON DOUG CARPENTER. NOW WHAT?)

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