Lou Lamoriello was in a talkative mood Friday morning, the phone line burning with his passion for the game, but mostly his passion for his New Jersey Devils.
While the conversation began with thoughts on his team showing the experts wrong by reaching the Eastern Conference finals, it’s clear the longtime GM of the Devils was tempering his present success with the regrets of last season.
A year ago, his team missed the postseason for the first time in 14 seasons. It’s just not something the Devils do under Lou Lamoriello. It was a nightmarish first half that ultimately forced him to fire loyal Devil John MacLean as head coach just before Christmas.
"Last year I take full responsibility because you can’t have the players we have and the summer we had and put that in the hands of a young coach," Lamoriello told ESPN.com on Friday. "Once the wheels start coming off, unfortunately we had to make the decision we did. Then we got it back on track but it was too late. We’ve always felt that we should be able to have a team that can compete."
They are doing more than just competing right now, fresh off a five-game second-round victory over the favored Philadelphia Flyers.
Just don’t tell Lou the Devils "have surprised."
"We did have over 100 points during the season; it’s not like we weren’t one of the teams that have a chance," he pointedly observed.
When Jacques Lemaire went back into retirement after last season, Lamoriello filled the coaching void with Pete DeBoer, who had been fired in Florida. And that’s where this year’s success begins, Lamoriello said.
"I think Pete is very intelligent; that’s the first thing I recognized about him. He has no ego, and that’s a prerequisite here," Lamoriello chuckled. "And I felt very comfortable when I spoke to him.
"Philosophically, he believes in defense [another Devils must] and yet he wanted to push a little. The game has changed today and you have to adjust. But the one thing you don’t do is change the fundamentals, the particulars, that players have to do. He’s done, in my mind, a tremendous job coming from last year to this year."
Under DeBoer, star winger Ilya Kovalchuk has flourished. A year ago, Kovalchuk was the whipping boy for the critics, some of it fair given his lack of production at times and his seeming difficulty adjusting to the Devils after signing a huge contract in the summer of 2010. Today, Kovalchuk is the Devils’ top Conn Smythe candidate through two rounds.
"I can’t say enough about Ilya," Lamoriello said. "First thing you have to know about Ilya Kovalchuk is that he’s a good person. He cares about his teammates, he gets along with them, he interacts with them. He came into an organization [Atlanta] when he was 18 years old and he was asked to do things that you really shouldn’t ask anyone to do and along the way you take things into your own hands. He’s come here, he’s fit in, he’s responded to the changes that were asked of him to make for the good of the team, and I can’t say enough about him. I just can’t say enough."
Before I can ask another question, Lamoriello moves on to captain Zach Parise. Again, hefty praise.
"We’ve got a leader here in Zach who just exemplifies what you want out of a player every shift," Lamoriello said. "And Patrick Elias and Marty [Martin Brodeur] and [Bryce] Salvador -- the leadership has been strong. We’ve got people who help each other. They don’t want to let each other down right now and that’s what you need."
What better way to end the conversation than with "Marty." Can anyone remember a time when neither Lamoriello nor Brodeur was not part of the scene in New Jersey?
Having just turned 40, Brodeur is defying those who said his game was slipping.
"I mean, how many years now people have said, 'Marty this' and 'Marty that,'" said the Devils GM. "I don’t know of any other goalie that I’d want in a seven-game series -- including today. Where he’s at, he’s been tremendous."
Marty and Lou on a playoff run. The game has changed, but some traditions haven’t.