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Devils' issues go beyond who is coach

6/17/2010

One could argue that no team has been a bigger disappointment since the lockout than the New Jersey Devils.

After winning Cups in 1995, 2000 and 2003, the Devils have failed to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs in five straight postseasons and been ousted in the first round in three straight years.

Whether this is a case of cause and effect or simple coincidence, there has been a steady flow of free agents out of New Jersey, including cornerstones of those championship teams, Scott Niedermayer, Scott Gomez and John Madden. This summer, there could be the departure of yet another crucial part of the Devils' lineup in defenseman Paul Martin, who, sources told ESPN.com, has yet to begin contract talks with the team (he will be among the most sought-after defensemen on the free-agent market).

Martin, a cerebral puck-moving defenseman who was a lock to make the U.S. Olympic team before suffering a fractured forearm, can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Which brings us to Thursday's announcement from the Devils, who named longtime player and associate coach John MacLean as the team's third head coach in as many seasons.

After Brent Sutter skulked out of New Jersey a year ago claiming he wanted to be with family only to take on the Calgary coaching job, New Jersey president and GM Lou Lamoriello went old school and hired Jacques Lemaire, who had guided the franchise to its first championship in 1995.

The hiring was a snub to MacLean, who was an assistant to Sutter, and typical of Lamoriello, who knows what he loves and loves what he knows.

MacLean, instead, was given the Devils' AHL franchise to hone his coaching skills and didn't disappoint in guiding the Albany squad to its best record and first playoff berth. The bar was set low for the Devils' AHL team, however, so it's hard to tell whether MacLean is ready to coach at the NHL level or not.

While it was believed Michel Therrien was in the mix to succeed Lemaire, who abruptly "retired" after the Devils' disappointing first-round turn against Philadelphia, Lamoriello once again turned to what he knows.

Whether this is more about keeping it in the family or actually solving the revolving coaching door in Newark, whether this is a hiring of expediency and cost-saving or a hiring based on coaching acumen, will be borne out in the coming weeks and months.

What seems clear, though, is the Devils' problems extend well beyond who stands behind the bench.

Neither Sutter nor Lemaire could coax the Devils out of the first round as the Devils were dispatched easily by the New York Rangers three years ago, collapsed in Game 7 at home against Carolina in 2009 and flamed out in five games against a Philadelphia team crippled by injuries by the end of the first round this past postseason.

Were those disappointments a lack of coaching or a lack of direction from above or a lack of leadership on the ice? Perhaps all of the above.

This past March, Lamoriello shocked the hockey world by boldly acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk from Atlanta for a mix of prospects and draft picks. Kovalchuk played well enough in the first round and led the team with six points, but it's hard to imagine the Devils offering enough to keep the offensively gifted unrestricted free agent in the fold.

If Martin and Kovalchuk leave, the Devils will be even further removed from being a contender and there will be more pressure on MacLean to keep the franchise on track.

While the Devils have now qualified for 13 straight postseasons, they are not a "destination" franchise. Free agents do not flock to play for Lamoriello. If it was ever the case, it isn't anymore.

The playoffs may be a given thanks to a culture of strong defensive play and superlative goaltending that has defined the team regardless of who has been coaching; but we are long past the days when the Devils were annually regarded as a formidable playoff foe.

Martin Brodeur and two-time Cup winner Patrik Elias remain the last real ties to the team's glory days and the former has consistently failed to raise his play come playoff time since 2003, when the team last won at least two rounds.

New Jersey has no discernible Plan B in goal and the game plan is no different than it was a decade ago, which is to play the daylights out of Brodeur unless he's hurt. MacLean will have to decide whether he's going to alter that plan of attack, but he can only do so if there's an acceptable backup for Brodeur. Right now, there isn't (Yann Danis was last season's backup, but he could become an unrestricted free agent on July 1).

The leadership vacuum created by the departure of Niedermayer, the retirement of Scott Stevens and the leaking away of key personnel has never been adequately filled.

This will be MacLean's ninth season with the Devils' coaching staff. He was an assistant on that Cup-winning team in 2003, but this figures to be a harder road to travel with a lot more pressure on his shoulders and a lot fewer tools to get the job done.

But, then again, that's been the Devils' story for quite some time now, regardless of who has been shuffling the lines.