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SUNDAYS WITH STAN: Exit Carpenter, Enter Schoenfeld

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

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

What Devils coach Doug Carpenter needed most of all when it came to 1987 Christmas presents was not hard to figure -- gift-wrapped or otherwise -- wins and more wins.

But one game -- one win -- could save the Redhead's job and perhaps ensure it far into the new year.

The date was December 16, 1987; the place, Madison Square Garden; the foe, the rival Rangers. 

The theme for the visitors; win or else!

With plenty of hockey left on the NHL schedule, the Devils were in a position to get off the rutted, losing road and back on the victory highway where they had been driving hard earlier in the season.

As a perfect script would have it, the Rangers were in the way, sprinkling large puncture-producing nails in front of New Jersey's limo. This was a hockey version of road rage. Author Tim Sullivan remembered it well.

"This season was the one where the rivalry rose to a new level," Sullivan wrote in his book Battle On The Hudson. "Cute no more, something to joke about no longer. the Devils-Rangers feud was gaining fire."

But the onus clearly was on the Devils to prove that they were for real. The press was on to this melodrama. Hordes of television news crews poured into The World's Most Famous Arena. They knew a good story was ahead.

True, but good for who?

"This game," said one press box observer, "is the litmus test for New Jersey. If they win, they've got a shot at the playoffs. If not -- who knows?"

Ah, but Lou knows. 

Lamoriello wanted his coach to spur the Devils to new heights. At the very least he wanted a major effort. If they fell short by a goal or two; so be it. But the colossal push must be evident.

It was; but it came from the wrong side. The Blueshirts blitzed Carpenter's crew from the opening puck drop to the final buzzer. 

There could be no excuses; no blaming it on the officiating nor poor ice nor bad luck. The 9-3 defeat would not allow any of that. Nada.

Post-game, Carpenter's face said it all. So did his pithy two-word observation: "We stunk!"

There was no arguing the facts but there was plenty of debate about where McMullen's demoralized team would go from here. The snake-bitten coach summed up his situation very accurately. "It has to be turned around."

Lou was thinking the same thing, but in a very different direction. He needed to find a new leader; someone who could galvanize a team with fresh ideas and spirit. 

In the meantime, Carpenter retained his gig into the first three weeks of January.

Some Devils-watchers thought Lamoriello would wait out the season before pulling the chute on Doug. 

Those beliefs ended on January 26, 1988, when the media was summoned to the Arena's Winners Club.

The Doug Carpenter Era was over; the Jim Schoenfeld Era had begun. Lou's short message was clear -- Playoffs or bust! The longer version went like this:

"While I certainly respect the work Doug has done to move the team into playoff contention, I reached the conclusion that a change in our coaching staff was necessary at this time to get the Devils into the playoffs.

"This was not a decision reached easily, nor is it one implemented without some regret because I do recognize the contribution Doug has made to this franchise."

A blazing redhead just like Carpenter, Schoenfeld, 35, enjoyed a commendable 13-year NHL career on defense; mostly with the Buffalo Sabres. He had coached Buffalo to a .500 record during the 1985-86 season.

Lou: "In this business difficult decisions must be made for the good of the franchise regardless of personal feelings. My belief is that the talent on this team is good enough to make the playoffs. 

"Furthermore, I believe that Jim Schoenfeld will coach this team into the playoffs."

Strong words; very strong and intensely pressurized for the new mentor.

"I'm very proud to have been offered this opportunity," said Schoenfeld, "and am very optimistic for the future."

So was Lou. He brought the curtain down on the Meet The New Coach event with a conclusive commentary on his Help Wanted crusade.

Lamoriello: "I wanted a certain personality who can get us where we should be. Jim Schoenfeld is the person I wanted."

Ah, but could Gentleman Jim accomplish where the likes of Tom McVie and Doug Carpenter failed? 

The next three months -- some of the most exciting homestretch hockey in NHL history -- would provide the answer.

LISTS: FOUR REASONS WHY LAMORIELLO COULDN'T WAIT FOR A COACHING CHANGE:

1. SOLID ROSTER: Lou realized that maturing youngsters such as Kirk Muller, Pat Verbeek, and Ken Daneyko, among others, had become playoff-quality players.

2. NEW ACQUISITIONS: The g.m. bolstered his defense with the additions of Jack O'Callahan and Tom Kurvers. Each would play a big part in the surge.

3. PRESSURE FROM ABOVE: Without any previous NHL experience, Lou also was under pressure; from the man who hired him, Dr. John McMullen.

4. DRAINING OF CARPENTER: Doug worked hard at his job; very hard. But the one-sided pre-Christmas loss to the Rangers seemed to drain his coaching energy.

(NEXT WEEK; THE MAKING OF A MIRACLE.)

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