This is a peaceful moment for Devils fans. We’ve come to terms with the fact that our team drafted Stephane Matteau’s son, Stefan (and really, what’s up with the same-name-but-not thing? is this some kind of quirky French Canadian custom?), and we have a few days before other teams are allowed to try and sign away our beloved and be-needed captain. So, while we breathe deep and prepare for the utter crumminess of seeing our star become the prettiest girl at the free agent debutante ball, I figured I’d take this opportunity to alienate my Devil-fan readers. Five times. Right now.
5. I never fell in love with Scott Clemmensen: When the Martin Brodeur machine finally started to show signs of wear in November 2008, the Devils found themselves without their franchise goalie for an extended period of time for the first time since… well, it seemed like forever. Brodeur’s torn biceps tendon (an injury which isn’t nearly as career-ending as it sounds) meant the starting job was temporarily up for grabs, and after presumptive fill-in Kevin Weekes failed to grab it Scott Clemmensen seized the role through his profoundly adequate play. When the Devils’ team goals against average didn’t immediately leap above 18.00, many fans credited Clemmensen with rescuing the team from certain disaster.
The trouble is that Clemmer was average at best, giving up bushels of fat rebounds and checking behind himself after every third save as though he couldn’t believe the puck had once again somehow stayed out of his net. The team defense compensated brilliantly, Clemmensen got the credit and Brodeur returned to a playoff-bound squad. Now, I have no problem with Clemmensen as a person; on the contrary, he always seemed to be a likable sort. But in terms of performance he was the Tim Tebow of the ’08-’09 New Jersey Devils: He played the most important position on a winning team that won despite, rather than because of, him.
4. I never turned on Bruce Driver: Driver committed perhaps the worst sin a New Jersey Devil can commit – he left the Devils to play for the Rangers. How bad is this transgression? Ask Scott Gomez, once popular in New Jersey and now public enemy No. 1 in the Garden State. Fellow turncoat Bobby Holik was similarly reviled after he left the Devils to sign in New York as a free agent, forgiven only after he began torching the Blueshirts with quote after incendiary quote from inside the Rangers’ own room.
Driver turned from red to blue long before Holik or Gomez did, in the summer after the Devils won their first-ever Stanley Cup in 1995. The fan base’s outrage was predictable and seemingly justifiable, if one viewed Driver’s move in a vacuum. But Driver didn’t leave for money or fame or to get away from New Jersey; on the contrary, he left because he wanted to make sure he and his family could stay in New Jersey and signing with New York was the only way to ensure that would happen. Longtime Devil Driver had asked GM Lou Lamoriello for a no-trade clause, and Lou had said no. The Rangers said yes, so Driver did what was best for his family by taking a job that would allow them to maintain the stability of their home, complete with a husband/dad who lived with them and periodically traveled for work, rather than one who lived in a hotel room in some strange city and was a visitor in his own house. Driver wasn’t a traitor; he was loyal to something more important than a hockey team, and I have always applauded him for it.
3. I don’t like seeing Scott Niedermayer’s number in the rafters: It doesn’t belong there. As great a player as Niedermayer was, as great a Devil as he was, Niedermayer chose to leave as a free agent and retired in a different sweater. I don’t blame him for leaving to play with his brother in Anaheim (see: Driver section above), but number retirement should be the rarest of honors, reserved for those who aren’t just great players but also unquestionably bleed team colors. The Devils have retired three numbers: Ken Daneyko’s #3, Scott Stevens’ #4 and Niedermayer’s #27. Daneyko was an original Devil who, while not a Hall of Fame-caliber athlete, was a stalwart on the blue line starting on Day 1 and ending after the Devils won their third Cup in 2003. He is known as Mr. Devil, continues to work for the franchise as a broadcaster and remains highly visible in New Jersey communities. Stevens wasn’t the Devils’ first captain and he wasn’t the last, but he is the captain by which all others will be measured. He didn’t start out in New Jersey, but once he got here he stayed, leading the Devils to three Stanley Cups and entering the Hall of Fame as someone primarily – indeed, all but exclusively – associated with the Devils. Those are the kinds of players whose numbers should never be worn by anyone else for New Jersey. Niedermayer was a fantastic Devil and one of the all-time great defensemen, but he falls just short of being rafter-worthy.
2. Speaking of Stevens, in retrospect I hate how he played: This is, I believe, a popular view among hockey fans in general, but not so among Devils fans who associate Stevens with the Golden Age of Devildom that ran from the mid-90s until the lockout. He was an inspiring leader as team captain and he could play a solid stay-at-home defensive game, but Stevens’ primary skill was knocking guys into next season. Back then, we all lauded him as a tough, physical hitter who played the game clean because he didn’t lead with his elbows; today, every one of those clean hits would cost him $2500 and/or a maddeningly random length of time in Shanahanistan. And rightly so. Stevens was an intimidator whose mere presence served to make opponents fear skating the puck through open ice. Unfortunately, that fear was born of a very real possibility that the trip through open ice would end with a Stevens-induced, potentially life-altering concussion. Yes, the hits were legal at the time and yes, they were instrumental to the Devils’ success, but Stevens did real harm to untold numbers of players. As hard as I try to rationalize away the horror of that fact, in retrospect I just can’t see him as anything but a brutal on-ice bully.
1. Giguere deserved that Conn Smythe Trophy: I kind of can’t believe anyone actually denies this. When the Devils won the 2003 Stanley Cup, they did it with a team that was strong top-to-bottom and got big goals from so many players that choosing one as the standout would have been impossible. Brodeur was his reliable self throughout the playoffs, but he was never really spectacular, largely because he didn’t have to be. His most memorable play in the ’03 postseason was a geometrically improbable own goal that he scored completely unassisted. No Devil was stronger than the overall team on the defensive end and no one guy was a dominant set-up man. It was a true team victory.
And then there were the Mighty Ducks (and let us never forget that back then, they were still “Mighty”). From the first game of Anaheim’s first-round series against the Detroit Red Wings, Jean-Sebastien Giguere was the superstar. That game was a 2-1, triple-OT victory in which Giguere made 63 saves, many of them on top-quality shots. The Might Ducks went on the sweep Detroit by scoring exactly four more goals than Giguere allowed the Red Wings. Giguere then opened the second round with a 5OT win followed by another overtime win, eventually taking the six-game series by allowing just 14 goals – the same number that his team provided on offense. Round 3 against the goal-challenged Minnesota Wild started with a 1-0 double-OT win, and ended in a sweep in which the Mighty Ducks scored more than 2 goals just once.
That set up the finals against New Jersey, where the Mighty Ducks finally ran into a team with a justifiably confident goalie and a tenacious offense. And still, Giguere held his team in the series, which went to seven games. Three of Anaheim’s four losses came in shutouts, which is to say that even if Giguere had been perfect in those games, the best he could have hoped for was more overtime. The Mighty Ducks had a few decent offensive threats on the team – Paul Kariya, Adam Oates, Steve Sullivan and Petr Sykora – but their defense was anemic and the team as a whole was grossly overmatched against the Devils, as it had been overmatched in each of the first three rounds in every dimension except goaltending.
Had the Mighty Ducks won one more game that postseason, this wouldn’t even be a conversation: Giguere’s status as playoff MVP would be as non-controversial as Jonathan Quick’s was this year. But because his team lost Game 7, Devils fans mistakenly believe he should have been disqualified from Conn Smythe contention. This is partially due to the misconception that the Conn Smythe Trophy goes to the MVP of the finals, rather than to the MVP of the playoffs, but it is mostly due to the notion that the Stanley Cup champion is automatically entitled to the Conn Smythe as well. It is not. No Devil was as valuable to his team as Giguere was to the Might Ducks, who wouldn’t have made it out of the first round – or any subsequent round – if their goalie hadn’t been playing impossibly well. Giguere was the only Mighty Duck who deserved to win the Stanley Cup that year, and he deserved it so thoroughly that he almost got his team’s name engraved there. Instead, Anaheim lost Game 7 and the right team won the Cup, leaving Giguere with the individual award that he more than earned.