Tuesday, 14 June 2016

The Devils Before Brodeur

Every St. Patricks Day, and once in the winter of 2014, the New Jersey Devils wear their vintage green & red jerseys from their inaugural seasons. The team has only worn 4 different jerseys in their entire 34 year history since relocating from Colorado, and has worn the same thing since 1992, and are a defining staple of NHL jerseys. The team has also won 3 Stanley Cups and made it to 5 since 1995. Prior to 1992 however, the Devils were not the team of Niedermayer, Brodeur, Langenbrunner, Arnott, Elias...nope, they were the team that the Great One called "Mickey Mouse".

Considering that the Devils were at one point the KC Scouts, and the 1974 Washington Capitals happened, the Devils were far from the worst thing the NHL produced in the mid 80s. Hell, the Leafs were awful at this point, the Penguins were tanking to get Lemieux, and aside from the Oilers, two of the former WHA teams (Whalers and Jets) were as bad as ever. The Nordiques sure had a conference finals visit, but at this point, if you weren't on the Oilers or Islanders, success only got so far.

The Devils were a symbol of something the NHL would be doing a lot in the next decade: Expansion into smaller US markets that wanted teams. The Devils were not built in Canada or large American cities, they were built in East Rutherford, with a population less than 10'000 as of today, in a county with less than a million.

Considering Wayne Gretzky played for the Indianapolis and Ste. Sault Marie, it wasn't the size of the city that mattered...it was how bad they were...and it was at this point the team snapped.

Gretzky was calling out a certain type of team that was very common during this time and the decades following, and a type of team we haven't seen since the 1992-93 Ottawa Senators. TERRIBLE! Yes! The worst teams in NHL history came between 1967 and 1992. The California (Golden) Seals, Cleveland Barons, Kansas City Scouts, Washington Capitals, Hartford Whalers and Winnipeg Jets, during this era, set records for being terrible and/or gained a reputation for being mediocre at best and awful often. Some teams like the Jets, Whalers and Capitals grew out of it, but the Seals/Barons folded and the Scouts moved to Colorado and finally got a taste of the playoffs. Having teams....multiple teams in a decade....in hockey (not basketball or football) losing 80%+ of their games gets to you.

You're out there running circles around these teams who can't string a single line together and it makes the league look bad. Sure the Islanders, Habs, Flyers and Oilers are great, but the Jets lose 20+ games in a row, well no wonder the Oilers/Islanders are so good, look who they have to play against! That isn't true, but to the average person who reads eye catching headlines in the paper, this opinion is not uncommon, a league with little competition does not breed dynasties, it makes the rest of the league's fans feel alienated. A common compliant of baseball is that the same teams win every year and small market teams like Seattle, Toronto, Colorado, San Diego, Arizona etc. cannot win on a year to year basis and don't have the money to get the best players without a salary cap. That turns fans off, and having teams winning constantly without competition turns fans off too.

A 13-4 loss is pretty bad, but in the 80s, hockey was A LOT higher scoring than it is today by a large margin. Having perennial shit team starter Rob Low add another bad team to his resume also doesn't help, but to think that in 11 years, the Devils would be cup winners and the Oilers be in a 5 year playoff drought, and Gretzky being shipped to the Blues of all places. 11 years is a long time sure, but when you sink that low, and your opponent is that much higher than you, you can really only go one place.

By 1988, the Devils were finally a playoff team, getting to the conference finals and never looking back on those previous years. But who were the Devils, how big of a mess were they and what a cash strapped organization could afford. Are there any stars to be pulled from this era of NJD hockey?

Surprisingly, yes.

Names like Bruce Driver & Ken Dayenko may not be the first names when you think stars in the mid 80s, but both guys were staples of the Devils from 1983-1995. Aging Islanders star Chico Resch played goalie from 1982-86, after playing in Colorado since 1980, and of course, Kirk Muller was the most well known name on the team from 1984-1991. Young Brendan Shanahan was on the team from 1987-1991 before returning to finish his career where he started in 2008. The team wasn't strapped for good players, but never really had a star on the team to call their own before Brodeur.

Goaltending truly was an issue for the team. Resch isn't the worst name to have on your team, but he wasn't in Islanders dynasty form from the late 70s. Ron Low, Craig Billington, rookie Sean Burke and Alain Chevrier all started for the Devils before Broduer...but the no.1 before Broduer truly was Chris Terreri, from 1988-1995, he was the guy backstopping New Jersey. He certainly wasn't best of all time or even HHoF worthy by any stretch, but respectable in getting the Devils to the playoffs most years. He also wore a unique cage in a time where cages were on the decline.

The jerseys were some of the best in NHL in my opinion. The logos and colours popped against each other, the colours were well laid out and the team used a very unique colour pattern. The jerseys did something odd in the arms, where they had a single white stripe above the arm stripes and then put that said stripe underneath the hem striping (hem striping being under the stripe along the waistline of the jersey to the bottom of the jersey). The yokes (coloured area on the shoulders that the shoulder patches are found on) had a double outline around them, which is classic 80s design but looked really good and helped the green/red stand out. I really liked their jerseys during this era, but they lasted as long as they needed to, and seeing them 2-3 times a season is good enough for me and most Devils fans.

The team, aside from the green & red jersey, really doesn't look back on the years before the 1995 Cup win, and even more rarely on their early history. Similarly to the Penguins, once the team got their superstar, the rest of the noise just faded away and the Devils reputation until 2013 was a perennial playoff contender and always a Cup threat. That has changed, and it seems we've entered another 1988-1995 period. The team isn't bad, but I won't call them good until they make the playoffs again. Corey Schneider is a good goaltender, however, without Parise or Kovalchuk, a scoring star has yet to be seen. What will the Devils of 2013-20XX bring?

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