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Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun weigh in on the Devils' recent run and debate whether it will have an impact on Zach Parise's decision to stay in New Jersey:
Burnside: Welcome to the last day before the NHL's All-Star break, and it can't come too soon for some teams (hello, Toronto Maple Leafs!). But as you noted earlier in the week, we wonder if the New Jersey Devils were wishing they could just keep on trucking?
The once-woeful Devils are an impressive 6-0-1 over their past seven games. Ilya Kovalchuk is scoring, Martin Brodeur is keeping pucks out of the net, Jacques Lemaire looks like he's finally woken up and realized he's back to being an NHL coach again. Wow. Big test tonight against Detroit, but the resurgence also makes you wonder what GM Lou Lamoriello will do between now and the trade deadline.
LeBrun: Scotty, I know how much you take delight in seeing the Devils suffer, so this positive conversation about New Jersey will be tough on you. Hang in there!
I phoned Lamoriello this morning and actually made him laugh when I said, "Lou, I called you a lot during the bad times this year, but wanted to make sure I called you when things were going well."
In all seriousness, though, it's nice to see the Devils finally play up to their potential.
"I think what's transpired is simplistic -- we're starting to get goals from different people right now, which we weren't getting before," Lamoriello told me. "We're more cohesive and consistent. But the major difference for me is that our best players have become our best players again. If your best players aren't your best players, you can't win."
That last part, as you noted Scotty, is indeed the key. At 20 points out of the last playoff spot, it's too late to make the dance, but playing well over the last 30-odd games is important to ensure next season won't turn out to be a gong show.
Burnside: You, like a lot of New Jersey fans, seem to think I have it in for the Devils. Not so. I was on hand for Martin Brodeur's record-setting win a couple of seasons back and dropped in on training camp this fall. But let's not sugarcoat things, my friend: This team was awful and, as it turns out, John MacLean was an awful hire as coach even though everyone is defending him. The fact Lemaire, who was in semi-retirement, has been able to get production out of guys like Kovalchuk, Brian Rolston (who was previously put on waivers) and Jason Arnott suggests there were issues behind the bench.
That said, if the Devils get back in the playoff hunt, it will be the comeback of all comebacks. Not going to happen. So what does Lamoriello do? Does he take advantage of this period of excellent play and try to move Rolston (again) and/or Arnott or other pieces before the Feb. 28 trade deadline? Of course, the better the team plays, the further they get from a draft lottery position and a chance at the No. 1 overall pick in June. Quite a conundrum. Or is that a paradox?
LeBrun: Much like Rangers coach John Tortorella, I think it's unfair John MacLean is getting singled out in all of this. Clearly, there were issues out of camp that would have hampered the Devils no matter who was behind the bench. The Kovalchuk drama this past summer affected the team coming out of the gates on several levels.
I asked Lamoriello if the first half was the toughest thing he had to go through in his career.
"We hadn't experienced this in the past, for sure, but nobody lost sight of what had to be done," Lamoriello said from Detroit. "There was no finger-pointing. Quite frankly, I'm the one that has to take that responsibility and that's the way it should be. But right now, we're moving ahead. We're not out of it yet by any means. We have lots of work to do yet, but we are playing better."
As you mentioned, Scotty, Lamoriello's work is not done on the trade front. Arnott is the most notable UFA-to-be left on the roster. He wants to join a playoff contender, so expect him to go before Feb. 28.
And while I agree hurting their draft position doesn't seem to make sense at this point, I think finishing the season on a positive note is hugely important so the team can open camp with a better frame of mind in September.
Burnside: I don't want to quibble over the coaching, but it seemed to be a flawed move. Whether it's MacLean's fault or not, the bottom line is, now that he's gone, the team is playing like most people thought it would play. Coincidence? Hmm. In hindsight, if MacLean would have been removed a couple of weeks earlier, who knows how things would play out in the playoff hunt? But I digress, as usual.
The most significant question moving forward is how or whether an upturn in the Devils' fortunes helps encourage soon-to-be restricted free agent Zach Parise to commit to the Devils long-term. Is seeing a happy, productive Kovalchuk and rejuvenated Brodeur enough to get Parise under contract? If not, Lamoriello faces the unpleasant prospect of having to decide whether to trade the team's most important player in the coming weeks.
LeBrun: Parise is represented by Wade Arnott and Don Meehan of Newport Sports. Lamoriello has done a million deals with them over the years, so there's a relationship and a comfort level there. But this is going to come down to Parise deciding whether he wants to remain a Devil long-term. It's uncanny how many different hockey people point to the Los Angeles Kings or Minnesota Wild as long-term fits for Parise. He's an RFA for one more year before reaching UFA status in July 2012. If Newport tries to negotiate a one-year deal for Parise, then you'll know what his intentions are. If the Devils keep their winning ways of late, maybe that's enough to persuade Parise to stay. Until tomorrow, my friend.