Give the Devils Their Due

The stadium scene.
Oct. 12 2001 3:00 AM

Give the Devils Their Due

How New Jersey can save the NHL.

New Jersey Devils

The NHL's chief concern at the start of this season, as always, is boosting hockey's perennially low TV ratings, which currently hover just above those of the WNBA and the now-defunct XFL. The problem is compounded by the leaguewide decline in offense over the last decade. Chief among the culprits, according to most journalists, are the New Jersey Devils, peddlers of dullness on ice. This month's Maxim magazine features a panel of "experts" addressing hockey's ills and, sure enough, New Jersey is high on the list. Comedian Dennis Leary put it bluntly: "The Devils—God love 'em, God love their fans, but I hate that fucking team. I hate the way they play. It's boring, frustrating hockey." But the Devils aren't what's wrong with hockey at all. In fact, they may be the team best suited to curing the sport's image woes.

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The way the Devils play, in Leary's and most others' eyes, is plodding and entirely defensive, stifling and without flair. The team is deplorable, in other words, on grounds both of results (the games are low-scoring) and style (they're a "faceless, starless Devil monolith"). This is a reputation the team earned when it first won the Stanley Cup in 1995 under Jacques Lemaire, by playing the neutral-zone trap, a kind of zone defense designed to jam the opposition up at center ice and keep them from mounting an attack. A year later, the Buffalo News saw fit to label New Jersey "a team that couldn't catch fire if it carried gas cans through a volcano." But Lemaire hasn't coached the team since 1998, and few people seem to have noticed that the Devils are in many ways the opposite of their reputation.

Last season, New Jersey scored 3.6 goals per game, more than any other team. The year before that they scored the second-most goals (after Detroit), and the year before that the second-most as well (behind Toronto). For the last three seasons, then, no team has generated more offense than the supposedly defense-crazy Devils. If the league is genuinely worried about going the way of soccer, putting fans to sleep with 1-0 games, it might consider suggesting that other teams mimic the New Jersey model; only three clubs played higher-scoring games on average last year. (And one, Atlanta, only because, as an expansion team, it got beat badly so often.)

Not that this fact alone will silence the skeptics. Because of their previous success and the imitations it has spawned, the Devils have been deemed responsible for the state of hockey today—a game which, because of its "clutching and grabbing" and its emphasis on zone defense, renders ineffectual the explosive, wide-open styles of the superstar-laden Oilers and Penguins of the '80s and early '90s. Alec Wilkinson, for example, stopped just short of blaming the Devils for Mario Lemieux's original, frustration-induced retirement in ESPN magazine last year. In the New Order of the NHL, Wilkinson lamented, "Randy McKay becomes the equal of Joe Sakic." McKay, the rugged New Jersey right winger, epitomizes the Devils as they are generally perceived. He is big, tough, highly competent—a team player. Sakic, on the other hand, is slender, subtle, and capable of taking the game into his own hands with his moves.

But Wilkinson's complaint missed the more interesting point. McKay is a checking line player on the Devils who nonetheless demonstrates surprising deftness with the puck and skates with deceptive speed. That McKay can manage to score almost as many goals as Joe Sakic (as he did, four years ago, with 24 to Sakic's 27) shows the versatility of the Devils' model for success, which is based on a balance between the need for size and strength and the benefits of skill and finesse. It is a strategy that has produced higher-scoring games than the norm.

The consensus seems to be that fans want to see fast, hard-hitting action. If so, they could again look to New Jersey for an example, where the defense corps, too, is built around a balance of speed and strength. Scott Niedermayer was clocked as the fastest player at the 1999 All-Star Game (his teammate, Brian Rafalski, is possibly an even better skater), and captain Scott Stevens is indisputably the league's hardest hitter. Try asking Eric Lindros, Ron Francis, or Shane Willis (all of whom sustained concussions from Stevens checks) if the Devils are merely clutching and grabbing their way to victory.

Or is it a dearth of marketable superstars that makes New Jersey undesirable? If you take the view once expressed by league vice president Colin Campbell, McKay is merely one of the Devils' "interchangeable flock of forwards." But can you name the league's third-leading scorer last season, behind Jaromir Jagr and Sakic? It was the Devils left wing Patrik Elias, who, at 25, has averaged more than a point per game over the last two years. Meanwhile, Elias' line-mate and fellow Czech, 24-year-old Petr Sykora, has more points than Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman, and Adam Oates in the last three seasons. By virtue of their play, Sykora and Elias ought to be superstars worthy of national endorsement contracts, so it can hardly be a bad thing if they are complemented by the likes of tough, two-way players McKay and Bobby Holik.

Sportswriters (and league executives, one supposes) groaned when the Devils eliminated the Penguins, a team overflowing with "jaw-dropping stars," from last year's playoffs. In the third game of the series, a 3-1 Devils victory, the papers reported that the Penguins had been "bored into submission" and that the Devils "bleed every ounce of drama and emotion" out of the game. And yet, that same day, we also read that the Devils were credited with "storming [Penguins goalie] Johan Hedberg on odd-man rushes," and with "an endless barrage of four-on-threes and three-on-twos." Sounds like the kind of hockey people used to rave about. Does it make a difference if the guys doing the rushing are named Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski instead of Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Kovalev?

The NHL's headquarters are only 7 miles east of the Meadowlands. Maybe the marketing guys ought to drop by and see what they're missing.

Ben McGrath is on the staff of The New Yorker.

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