New Jersey Devils History: Lou Lamoriello’s Legacy Part 1


As the summer winds down and our anticipation builds for a new season, I would like to spend the next couple of weeks looking back at the historic era Lou Lamoriello spent with the New Jersey Devils by looking at some of the big moves he made over that time. I was 17 when Lou was hired as president. The year before I finally had moved to an area of New York that had cable TV. Up until that time I was listening to most Devil games on the radio and catching the occasional game that came on WWOR. The 1986-87 Devils season was the first one during which I got to watch every game and it was not a good one. Living in New York and also pre-Internet, Devils news was hard to come by and I remember reading only a little blurb in my local paper that the Devils had hired Lou as president in April of 1987. I honestly didn’t think much of it at the time.

Before training camp had started Lamoriello was also the General Manager and would make one of the first big moves of his NHL career. In early September of 1987, he traded promising young goaltender Kirk McLean and forward Greg Adams to the Vancouver Canucks for center Patrik Sundstrom. I must admit I was not a fan of the trade when I first read it and I could not have been more wrong. Sundstrom did not have a great start to his first regular season as a Devil but became a key cog down the stretch run playing with Mark Johnson and John MacLean and was a leader in the team’s first post season appearance. The next couple of seasons playing with MacLean and Brendan Shanahan, Sundstrom was a top-3 scorer for the Devils until a bad back forced him into early retirement. I wish we could have seen Sundstrom play for Jacques Lemaire as the Swede epitomized the two-way play that Lemaire preached when he was a coach. It would have been a perfect match.

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As that first season under Lou went on, the Devils were tied for second in the Patrick Division in December, but in January the wheels came off, and, after a 6 game losing streak in late January that saw the Devils drop all the way to fifth, Lamoriello made his first coaching change, firing Doug Carpenter and replacing him with Jim Schoenfeld. An excellent motivational coach, Schoenfeld helped turn the team around with a 17-12-1 record in the last 30 games and led the Devils to their first ever playoff appearance. The Devils would come within 1 game of the Stanley Cup finals, losing in 7 games to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern conference final.

The story of that post season and to me where Lamoriello really showed his refusal to back down was on Mother’s Day, May 8 1988. Two days before, the Devils had lost game 3 to the Bruins and afterwards Jim Schoenfeld confronted referee Don Koharski after the game in the infamous “Have another doughnut” incident. The NHL suspended Schoenfeld for the next game, without a hearing and not long before the start of the game. Lamoriello got a restraining order prohibiting the suspension and Schoenfeld was going to be behind the bench for game 4. The assigned referees refused to work the game if Schoenfeld coached and the game was delayed over an hour as substitute officials were found to work the game. The league had their hearing and suspended Schoenfeld for game 5 anyway but Lou showed the league he was not going to be pushed around.

In his first season, Lamoriello took a non-playoff team to within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals and challenged the NHL authority. It’s safe to say he made a few fans and quite an impression in year one.

The following season the Devils did not make the playoffs and two more things became evident about Lamoriello, first, that he would not rest on his laurels and, second, that contract disputes could lead to a player being shipped out. After having a career season in 87-88, Pat Verbeek held out for the beginning of camp the next year. He did sign in time for the season but his production dropped and that June after the season ended, Verbeek was traded to the Hartford Whalers. It wouldn’t be the last time a player who held out was moved to send a message.

The other big move Lamoriello had in store for that summer was the arrival of the Russians. Lamoriello spent a week over in Moscow hammering out the final contract details and paperwork to bring over Soviet star defensemen Viacheslav Fetisov and Sergei Starikov. While Sergei Priakin was technically the first Soviet player allowed over legally, bringing over Fetisov was really the start of Soviet stars coming over to play in the NHL legally. Later in December of that season, Lamoriello also brought over defenseman Alexei Kasatonov reuniting what was considered the best defensive pairing in international hockey, despite the chance for it to cause a bit of a locker room distraction due to a rift in the relationship between Fetisov and Kasatonov.

Along with some other trades Lamoriello had changed over a good portion of the roster for the 1989-90 season and the Devils climbed to second place in their division but were upset in 6 games by the Capitals in the first round of the playoffs. He fired head coach Jim Schoenfeld in early-November after a poor start to the season and replaced him with John Cunniff. Essentially, Lamoriello gave the 1987-88 team — a team that had a tremendous playoff run the next season — a year to see if they could do it again. When they missed the playoffs he didn’t hesitate to change things up.

In his first three seasons Lamoriello had made an immediate impact on the team and turned them around enough that a playoff loss in the first round was considered an upset. For me, as a young fan, the Devils went from a bottom feeder to something to be excited about, and the best was yet to come. I hope you have enjoyed this trip down memory lane for the beginning of Lou’s tenure with the Devils. In the next installment I will cover the next five seasons in which all of Lou’s changes pay off. Thanks for reading.

Next: The Devils' Go-To Forward in 2015-16