Monday, April 2, 2007
Despite bold move, Lamoriello not without blame
By Scott Burnside ESPN.com
You have to tip your hat to New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello.
No one but Lamoriello could make the decision to fire a head coach -- with three games left in the regular season, 102 points in the standings and wins in four of the past five games -- seem like the most logical thing in the world.
Lou Lamoriello said there was no bad blood between him and coach Claude Julien.
But that's exactly what Lamoriello did Monday, dismissing Claude Julien, the man he hired to take over for, well, himself, last summer.
Sixth sense or tea leaves or a bad Stephen King dream, whatever it was that sparked Lamoriello's decision, he leaves no impression other than it was the right thing to do.
"The easiest decision would have been no decision," Lamoriello told ESPN.com on Monday afternoon.
But that's not how Lamoriello does things. With a feeling that his team was not where he thought it should be for a No. 2 seed, Lamoriello sat down with Julien first thing Monday morning and told him he was done.
"I wouldn't say it's a tough decision because it's the right decision," Lamoriello said.
For years, the Devils have cultivated a reputation as the model of NHL consistency, winning three Stanley Cups out of four finals appearances between 1995 and 2003. But that reputation has also been shot through by a weird, cultlike atmosphere that makes "The Stepford Wives" look like a counterculture love-in.
"He must have done something to [tick] Lou off," one longtime NHL talent assessor familiar with the New Jersey organization said in the wake of Monday's shocking news.
Lamoriello insisted there has never been any rancor between him and Julien, and indeed Julien will remain with the organization in some unnamed capacity.
NHL observers familiar with the team say no team is more respected for its unwavering dedication to its team-building plan. It's a plan developed and implemented by Lamoriello, who has been GM since 1987, making him the longest-serving GM in the NHL. But they add that Lamoriello runs such a tight ship that staff members are constantly on pins and needles for fear they will run afoul of Lamoriello's wishes and be summarily dispatched.
And so it is that Julien -- who has guided the Devils through treacherous waters, given injuries to leading players like John Madden, Patrik Elias, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, among others -- is today without a job. Although the Devils are just 5-5 in their past 10 games, they are coming off a 3-1 win over Boston on Sunday and have won four of five.
Want a little irony with your firing? While the Devils were handling the Bruins with relative ease Sunday, Boston coach Dave Lewis was being assured his job was safe even though the Bruins have grossly underachieved and will miss the playoffs for the second straight season.
"This is a hockey decision," Lamoriello said at a news conference Monday. If that's so, the veteran GM surely has as much to answer for as Julien.
After all, it was Lamoriello who boxed himself in with ill-advised post-lockout contracts for Vladimir Malakhov, Dan McGillis and Alexander Mogilny, contracts that hamstrung the team last season and this vis-à-vis the salary cap.
This season, the team often has played with a shortened bench because of the team's cap woes. The Devils also have been forced to rely almost exclusively on netminder Martin Brodeur because the team does not have, or has not been able to afford, a viable backup. Scott Clemmensen has played just 241 minutes this season, with Brodeur playing the balance.
Lamoriello wouldn't get into specifics about what gave him the willies heading into the postseason, but suffice it to say it had something to do with the atmosphere around the team. Rather than wait to be proved right once the playoffs began, Lamoriello went with his gut once again.
He caught lightning in a bottle once before, dispatching demanding Robbie Ftorek late in the 1999-2000 season and installing Ftorek's good friend Larry Robinson, who guided the team to the Stanley Cup.
After what might be called the "Hotel California" tradition that permeates the Devils (you can get canned whenever Lamoriello likes, but you can never leave), Ftorek remained with the organization. So did Robinson, whom Lamoriello fired early in the 2001-02 campaign after Robinson led the Devils back to the Cup finals in 2001.
Robinson, who technically had never left, returned as Devils coach at the start of last season but departed for good before Christmas, citing personal problems. Lamoriello took over as coach and enjoyed surprising success, helping the Devils shake off a slow start to win the Atlantic Division. The team swept the New York Rangers in the first round before bowing to eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina.
It's unlikely Lamoriello would have made this move had he not accrued the coaching experience he did last season. Of course, this is Lamoriello we're talking about, so perhaps he'd have done it regardless.
A former Devil, speaking earlier this season about New Jersey's success, said Lamoriello routinely bypasses higher-profile players with more skill to bring in players who might be less skilled but are smart and can be coached or molded to the Lamoriello way. The same can be said of the staff that supports the team.
Despite their injuries, the Devils are considered one of the favorites to emerge from the Eastern Conference because they have developed that rarest of qualities -- a winning mentality. They might not have as much offensive oomph as the Ottawa Senators or Buffalo Sabres and they might not have the imposing blue line they once did, but they simply know how to win.
Now, Lamoriello's decision to fire Julien will put the franchise at center stage at the season's most crucial moments.
If the Devils win at least a round, Lamoriello will have reinforced the notion that it's not so much who is behind the bench or on the ice, but the system and mentality that oozes from the dressing room walls in the swamp. But if the Devils are upended in the first round, Lamoriello opens himself up to significant second-guessing in the new NHL that could chip away at his ability to attract the kind of people that have been crucial to maintaining the team's cycle of success.
Asked if he thought the move might upset the dressing room, Lamoriello said he had no idea. "You never know which way anything will go," he answered.
Only time will tell whether Julien's bizarre dismissal is just another in a long series of steps forward for the franchise or the first step toward something much less pleasant for Devils fans.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.