Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Top 10 Greatest New Jersey Devils

I really wanted to get this top-10-players-for-all-area-teams project done in February. Good thing this is a leap year.

Last night, the Devils lost to The Scum. Martin Brodeur stopped 14 shots, but one went in, before he was pulled for an extra attacker in the last minute and the Broadway Boozehounds got an empty-netter.

The Devils have been around for 30 years now. They have history. They have great moments. They have Hall-of-Famers. They have retired numbers. They have banners. They have 3 Stanley Cups in the last 17 years -- as many as the Rangers have in the last 82 years, and more than the Flyers have in their entire 45-year history.

So here's the 10 greatest, in the opinion of this fan of the Mulberry Street Marauders (made up a Facebook page with that title).

Honorable Mention to members of the Hockey Hall of Fame who played for the Devils, but didn't get elected on the basis of their Devils' service: Peter Stastny, Viacheslav Fetisov, Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwendyk and Igor Larionov. And to Jamie Langenbrunner and Brian Rafalski, not yet eligible for the Hall but will probably fit into this category.

Also to coaches Jacques Lemaire and Larry Robinson (both elected as Montreal Canadiens players before becoming Devils coaches), to general manager Lou Lamoriello (who does still piss me off with his cheapness-inspired transactions), and to broadcaster Mike "Doc" Emrick.  (UPDATE: Lamoriello was subsequently elected to the Hall of Fame.)

Also to Brian Gionta, whose 48 goals in the 2006 season are a team record, and who, despite being just 5-foot-7 (if that), got picked on by the 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara (then of the Ottawa Senators), and held his own for a full minute before the referee separated them. (I was there, I saw it.) And to Sean Burke, whose 1988 heroics helped give us our first Playoff run.

And to Jim Dowd, of Brick, the only New Jerseyan to play for the Devils and the only New Jerseyan to play for a Stanley Cup winner. And to Stephane Richer, who always seemed to score against the Rangers, including the overtime winner in the first NHL game I ever saw live (December 23, 1992 at the Garden) and on Seinfeld (the episode where David Puddy wears a BRODEUR 30 jersey and paints his face).

And to the 3 men who scored what amounted to the Cup-winning goals: Neal Broten (also a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that won the Gold Medal, and whose brothers Aaron and Paul also played for the Devils), Jason Arnott, and Mike Rupp (who didn't do much else in a Devil uniform). And to Sergei Brylin, the only player to play on all 3 Devil Stanley Cup teams who does not otherwise make the Top 10.

And to Ken Daneyko, who, though his Number 3 is retired and was a Devil for 20 years and a member of all 3 Cup teams, was never really a great player. Also to Glenn Resch, a.k.a. Chico and Gomez Addams, awful goalie but fun broadcaster – the Joe Garagiola of hockey, if you will.

And to Dr. John McMullen and Governor Brendan Byrne, who got the team here, and to Jeff Vanderbeek and Newark Mayors Sharpe James and Cory Booker, who got the Prudential Center built and made the Devils a grown-up team in a way even the 3 Cups never really did.

And to all those fans who recognize that, if you live in New Jersey, and are too young to remember the Rangers' Sasson jeans commercial, you are supposed to be a Devils fan, not a Ranger fan. Especially all those Crazies in Section 233.

Dishonorable Mention to Scott Gomez, great player but a traitor who crossed over to the Dark Side.

10. Bruce Driver, Number 23, defenseman, 1984-95. He was the Captain for one season, before Scott Stevens arrived, but willingly gave up the C the next season. He, Danno and Johnny Mac were in the organization, if not at the major league level, at the beginning, and were still around for the 1995 Cup, whose clincher was his last game for the club.

He then signed as a free agent for the Rangers, but I forgive him, as he was, up to that point, the best defenseman in Devils history. He now coaches the girls' hockey team at the Morristown-Beard Academy, and won the State Championship and Coach of the Year in 2007.

9. Bobby Holik, Number 16, center, 1992-2002 & 2008-09. He was big: 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds. He was mean: He centered the Crash Line with Randy McKay and Mike Peluso. And he was good: 326 goals, 202 of them for the Devils. He helped us win 2 Cups, and didn't take any crap from anyone.

8. Kirk Muller, Number 9, left wing, 1984-91. Oh, how it infuriated us when "Captain Kirk" was traded to the Canadiens! He and goalie Sean Burke were the face of the franchise in that 1988 run to the Conference Finals.

The trade looked even worse when Muller became a key part of the Habs' 1993 Cup win. But we got Richer and Tom Chorske in that deal, and we wouldn't have won the '95 Cup without them. It also didn't help that, with 1 more loss and 1 more Pittsburgh Penguin win, the Devils would have had the 1st pick in the 1984 Draft, and gotten Mario Lemieux.

But let's be honest here: If we'd had Lemieux, we probably never would have had Brendan Shanahan; if we'd never had Shanahan, that "trade" with the St. Louis Blues wouldn't have happened, and we wouldn't have gotten Scott Stevens. Sure, we might've won the Cup in 1988, but would we have won in 1995? 2000? 2003? I don't think so.

As for what Muller did for the Devils, he was really good on offense and defense, providing toughness and 185 goals in 7 years. He's now the head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes.

7. Claude Lemieux, Number 22, right wing, 1990-95, with a brief return in 2000. There's a difference between a "goon" and a "pest." A pest is a fighter who actually does have the talent to play in the NHL beyond simply fighting. Claudie, along with Theo Fleury, was the embodiment of pestiness.

In spite of his cheap shots (and, often, his subsequent "turtling"), he's my favorite hockey player of all time. Why? Because he scored goals, because he didn't take any crap, and because he seemed to save his best games for the Rangers and Flyers. His goal with 44 seconds left in Game 5 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals, a 65-foot knuckleball that Ron Hextall still hasn't seen, pretty much won that series for the Devils and remains my favorite goal ever, even ahead of Jason Arnott's 2000 Game 6 overtime Cup-winner.

Claudie is one of only 10 players to win Cups with 3 different teams (1986 Canadiens, 1995 & 2000 Devils, 1996 Colorado Avalanche). He scored 379 NHL goals, and that's not counting the 13 he scored in the 1995 Playoffs that made him the first Devil to receive the Conn Smythe Trophy as Playoff MVP.

So if you're a Detroit Red Wings fan reading this, and you still hate Claudie for what he did to Kris Draper while with Colorado in 1996, I understand, and I won't tell you to get over it. But I still love the guy. Interestingly, when Budd Lynch introduced Claudie before Game 1 of the 1995 Finals, nearly a year before the unwarranted hit on Draper, Claudie still got the hell booed out of him, since he was already known as a dirty player.

6. Zach Parise, Number 9, left wing, 2005-present. The son of Jean-Paul Parise, who scored one of the biggest goals in Islander history (ask a Ranger fan about that at your peril), the current Devils Captain will probably end up as the team's all-time leading scorer. In spite of missing nearly the entire 2010-11 season, he already has 186 career goals and 207 assists. Although the Devils got beat by the Senators in the Conference Semifinals, Zach scored 7 goals in the 2007 Playoffs.

And his goal with 24 seconds left in regulation sent the 2010 Olympic Gold Medal game to overtime, before Sidney Crosby scored to give Canada the win over the U.S. (While J.P. Parise was born in Ontario, he was an assistant coach with the Minnesota North Stars while Zach was born in Minnesota and thus plays for the U.S.) If he helps the Devils win a Cup, and helps the U.S. win a Gold Medal in 2014 or '18, Zach could become one of the biggest heroes in American hockey history -- and move well up this list.

(UPDATE: Lou Lam didn't try to sign Zach to a new contract, and he signed with his home-State team, the Minnesota Wild.)

5. John MacLean, Number 15, right wing, 1983-97. He came with the team out of the bad old days, and his goal in overtime on the last day of the 1988 season clinched the team's 1st Playoff berth. He then came up with big goals in the series wins over the Islanders and the Washington Capitals.

An injury turned him from a sniper into a defensive forward who could still score a little, much like Steve Yzerman. He was still a big contributor at the time of the 1995 Cup win, and when Scott Stevens took the Cup as Captain, the 1st man he handed it to was MacLean, who then handed it to the other two guys who'd been there almost since the beginning, Driver and Daneyko.

Until recently, he was the team's all-time leading scorer, with 347 of his 413 goals and 354 of his 429 assists coming with the Devils, for 701 of his 842 career points. After coaching through the Devils system as minor league head coach and major league assistant, his tenure as major league head coach, early last season, was a disaster, though hardly all his fault.

He now assists Kirk Muller, his former linemate in East Rutherford and Dallas (with Guy Carbonneau, they were "the Grumpy Old Men Line"), with the Hurricanes.

4. Scott Niedermayer, Number 27, defenseman, 1991-2004. He recently became the 3rd Devil, after Stevens and Daneyko, to have his number retired. (All defensemen, perhaps typical of our "trap" team.) He will be eligible for the Hall of Fame next year, and why not? A member of 4 Stanley Cup winners -- 3 with us, 1 as Captain of the Anaheim Ducks (alongside his brother Rob, who later came to us).

He scored 172 goals and had 568 assists -- pretty good for a defenseman. He helped Canada win Olympic Gold Medals in 1992 and 2010.  He was named to 6 NHL All-Star Games (3 with the Devils). Named Captain after Scott Stevens' concussion that led him to retire.

3. Patrik Elias, Number 26, left wing, 1996-present. He has now surpassed MacLean's team records for points (has 874 at this writing), goals (354) and assists (520). He was a member of the 2000 and '03 Cup winners. The former Devils Captain turns 36 in April, but has missed only 1 game this season and only 1 last season, and is averaging a career-most 20 minutes and 20 seconds per game this season (he's never topped 19 minutes before), so it looks like he's going to remain productive for a while.

2. Scott Stevens, Number 4, defenseman, 1991-2004. He's not quite the greatest player in Devils history, but, beyond any question, he is the most important. Before his arrival, the Devils were pretenders. He made us contenders, then Champions, 3 times over.

Once a brawler, and a pain in the ass to the Devils, for the Washington Capitals, he became a pain in the ass for the Devils. Ever heard of "the cold shoulder"? Scottso was Mr. Cold Shoulder. Vyacheslav Kozlov in the 1995 Finals. Paul Kariya in the 2003 Finals. And, most notably, Eric Lindros in the 2000 Conference Finals. Even Flyer fans, who love great hits whether they're clean or not, admit that it was a great, and clean, hit.

But Scottso was not just a thug. He was a great player, a defenseman with over 900 career points (196 goals, 712 assists). He was awarded the 2000 Conn Smythe Trophy. His career plus/minus rating is 393, including a whopping 53 in 1993-94. And he Captained 3 Stanley Cup winners, something that is true for only 6 other living humans (George Armstrong, last with the '67 Leafs; Jean Beliveau, '71 Habs; Yvan Cournoyer, '78 Habs; Denis Potvin, '83 Isles; Wayne Gretzky, '88 Oilers; and Steve Yzerman, '02 Wings).

It should be no surprise that he was the 1st Devil to get his number retired, and the 1st Hall-of-Famer to be identified primarily with the club.

1. Martin Brodeur, Number 30, goaltender, 1992-present. Is there another NHL team whose greatest player ever is a goalie? Along with his idol Patrick Roy and Terry Sawchuk, Marty is on the short list for the title of Greatest Goalie Ever. (In this sport, anyway.)

Sawchuk's records of 447 wins and 103 shutouts were once thought of as unbreakable. Marty now has 647 wins (although Roy got to that record first) and 117 shutouts -- plus another 99 wins and 23 shutouts in the Playoffs. Seven times, he played the most minutes in goal in the NHL, and 9 times has had the most wins, including a League record 48 in 2006-07. As of last night's game, he's played 69,056 minutes in goal -- that's 1,151 hours, or 48 days, or nearly 7 weeks.

The last remaining player who won all 3 Cups with the Devils, he should have won the Conn Smythe Trophy in both 2000 and 2003. Seriously, in 2003 he had 3 shutouts in the Finals, something that had only been done once before and never since, and they give it to the goalie of the losing team (Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Ducks)?

He turns 40 on May 6, but he's still averaging just 2.5 goals per game. He's no longer the best goalie in the league, maybe not even one of the top 5, but he's still got it. Ranger fans call him "Fatty," but Devils fans still say, truthfully, "Mar-ty's bet-ter!"


capt paul said...

A few thoughts--from a boroadcasting standpoint, I've come to see Glenn (Chico) Resch as the Devls version of Phil (Scooter) Rizzuto, though admittedly Resch was not the player Rizzuto was--however I don't mind the comparison to Garagiola as well

As for MacLean, I'm wondering if the Devils will ever retire the number 15 for him. After their bitter divorce in 97 it seemed unlikely, though when the hatchet was buried I thought it would happen.

And as for Captain Zach Parise, let's just hope the Devils can keep him come July before we start anticipating him becoming the team's all time scoring leader...

Uncle Mike said...

Looks like I have to revise the list. Which means Parise drops a little. If I ever do the Tri-State Area's Top 10 Sports Traitors, Parise won't make it, since Minnesota is his hometown team and not a division rival. But Gomez might.