Big What Ifs Following New Jersey Devils Stanley Cup Final Run

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 11: Justin Williams #14 of the Los Angeles Kings reacts after teammate Dustin Brown #23 of the Los Angeles Kings scored in the first period past goaltender Martin Brodeur #30 of the New Jersey Devils in Game Six of the 2012 Stanley Cup Final at Staples Center on June 11, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 11: Justin Williams #14 of the Los Angeles Kings reacts after teammate Dustin Brown #23 of the Los Angeles Kings scored in the first period past goaltender Martin Brodeur #30 of the New Jersey Devils in Game Six of the 2012 Stanley Cup Final at Staples Center on June 11, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /
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Taking the time to write about anything, let alone hockey and the New Jersey Devils, seems wholly unimportant during a global pandemic. The entire world is at a complete standstill and the more time we have on our hands, the more we find ourselves craving our packed schedules and 24-hour sports cycle. The NHL has been frozen for almost three weeks, and it might as well be three years because the void it’s left in us is vast and uncomfortably empty.

Understandably, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to look ahead with so much uncertainty surrounding us and that includes the sports world. But, a nice distraction from current events can be just what the doctor ordered.

As a way to fill some of that void, let’s harken back to the good old days of Devils hockey and remember what might have been had Ilya Kovalchuk not hit the post in overtime. Sounds fun, right? Now let’s take a walk down memory lane and ask ourselves, “what if?”.

The Devils 2012 playoff run was magical. A couple of bounces in the Final against the Los Angeles Kings and we as fans could be boasting about the fourth Stanley Cup ring. In reality, they lost and that playoff run has actually skewed our perception of what that team really was – little more than a bunch of aging vets and overachievers riding a wave of luck to an Eastern Conference Championship.

Backstopped by a declining Martin Brodeur and backed up by Johan “Moose” Hedberg, the Devils finished the season with 102 points, good enough for fourth in what was the Atlantic Division. Brodeur started 59 games that season with a record of 31-21-4. His.908 save percentage and 2.41 goals against obviously wasn’t one of his best seasons, but we weren’t here for the regular season. Hedberg was a sensational backup, He went 17-7-2 with a .918 SV% and a 2.22 GAA and four shutouts to Marty’s three.

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New Jersey was led on offense by Kovalchuk, with 37 goals and 46 assists, followed by Patrik Elias‘ 25 goals and 52 assists. That roster had three 30-goals scorers, led by Kovy. Parise finished with 31, followed by David Clarkson’s 30. Yes, that’s the same team that had a 30-goal David Clarkson.

The offense dried up pretty quickly after that. Elias scored his 26 goals and Petr Sykora added 21, yep… that same Petr Sykora. He returned to New Jersey after seven seasons away and retired later that summer.

Only two other players reached double-digits in goals on that roster, Adam Henrique (16) and Dainius Zubrus (17).  Other forwards of note, Mattias Tedenby, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Ryan Carter, Jacob Josefson, Cam Janssen, Travis Zajac, Eric Boulton, Stephen Gionta, and the infamous Steve Bernier. That’s some very slim pickings upfront.

The defense was anchored by a 35-year-old Bryce Salvador, it was his last healthy season in the NHL. The future captain highlighted a cast of characters on the blueline that included Mark Fayne, Andy Greene, Anton Volchenkov, Matt Taormina, Marek Zidlicky, Adam Larsson, Kurtis Foster, Henrik Tallinder and of course the great Peter Harrold. And you guys think Mirco Mueller is bad? Ha!

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When looking over the roster, you’d be shocked by the average age of that team. More than half of the final playoff roster was in their late 20’s to late 30’s with both Brodeur and Hedberg pushing 40. That roster construction caught lightning in a bottle in the spring and was never intended for the long haul.

Henrique, Greene, and Zajac became Devils’ mainstays, but beyond the aging New Jersey legends on that roster, the team was simply forgettable. Trying to build around Parise and Kovalchuk would have been nightmare worthy.

What if Zach Parise convinced Ryan Suter to join him in New Jersey? And what if Ilya Kovalchuk hadn’t bolted to the KHL? What might the last eight years have looked like and where would the team be today? This conversation has probably taken place between Devils’ fans hundreds of times since it all went down with plenty arguing for and against. When it first happened we were all crushed, but time has given us enough clarity to realize the Devils are in better shape now than they would have been had they stayed.

If the Devils had signed both Parise and Suter to those ridiculous matching contracts of 13 years, $98 million it would have set this franchise back for decades and if you include the $11 million-plus Kovalchuk was slated to make from 2013 to 2017, we would be looking at a roster that would make the current Red Wings chuckle.

The twin contracts are widely considered to be among the worst free-agent signings in NHL history. Parise’s best years were already behind him when he bolted for home. His time in Minnesota’s been overshadowed by his countless trips to the injured list. Suter’s play is all that’s made that contract somewhat palatable.

When Kovalchuk abandoned the Devils, he was already reaching the tail end of his viability in the NHL. He enjoyed great success during his first run in the league, but the game was transitioning to a faster, more uptempo style and he was already starting to show signs of losing a step. Let’s be honest, he never was the fastest skater on the ice to begin with, and we all saw what he’s looked like since he came back.

If things worked out differently, it’s possible the Devils may have made a couple more trips to the playoffs, but at what cost? Would they have ever been able to compete for another Stanley Cup? Not a chance. Economics would have forced the team to spend sparingly to ice a complete roster. Remember the names I mentioned above? Think worse than that. That’s the team the Devils would be forced to ice today.

If you believe that we currently live in the franchise’s darkest days, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Just be thankful then-general manager Lou Lamoriello had enough sense to look away and push the reset button. Enjoy where the Devils are at today because it could have been a whole lot worse and hey,  we always have Henrique’s goal to hang our hats on. Stay safe everybody.