What If New Jersey Devils Kept Scott Niedermayer After NHL Lockout?

Scott Niedermayer of the New Jersey Devils. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Scott Niedermayer of the New Jersey Devils. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The New Jersey Devils were a team in transition when the NHL Lockout hit in 2004. After winning three of the previous ten Stanley Cups, the core of the team was breaking up. The defense that was leading the team to new heights was completely different. Ken Daneyko was retired. Scott Stevens ended up retiring after the lockout. He missed the majority of the season prior with head injuries. The Devils had quite a few major free agents to focus on, and Lou Lamoriello now had a salary cap to deal with.

Here is what was on New Jersey’s plate after the lockout ended:

Unrestricted Free agents-Scott Stevens (eventually retired), Brian Rafalski, Scott Niedermayer

Restricted free agents-Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez, Jeff Friesen, Brian Gionta, Jamie Langenbrunner, Colin White, and Paul Martin.

Has there ever in the history of this league been a group of free agents with as much talent as this that one team had to deal with? If anyone could do it, it was Lamoriello. However, it was just too many players at once as the Devils tried to deal with the salary cap. Even with the restricted free agent group, Lamoriello had to find time and space to make all of this work in what was then an unprecedented hockey world.

Lamoriello put the full-court press in bringing back Rafalski and Niedermayer. The push didn’t work on who would be the Devils captain in Niedermayer, as he signed to play with his brother Rob with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Lamoriello offered Niedermayer more money and even floated the idea of an extra year on his deal, but nepotism really can’t be beaten.

After Niedermayer picked Anaheim, Lamoriello reacted by signing Rafalski, then adding Dan McGillis and Vladimir Malakhov to solidify a defense in transition. Those two latter signings couldn’t have worked out worse. McGillis signed a two-year deal, but he only played 27 games in a Devils uniform. Malakhov also signed a two-year deal, but he only made it 29 games. Both players saw their final NHL games in New Jersey.

So, we have to ask, what if Niedermayer changed his mind and returned to New Jersey? How would that change his legacy and the legacy of the Devils as a whole?

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Obviously, the Devils never won a Stanley Cup title after Niedermayer left, but the Ducks were able to lift the best trophy in sports back in 2007. Niedermayer showed he was still one of the best defensemen in the game especially when it came to moving the puck. He would be elite through the next five seasons until he retired in 2010.

In the seasons after Niedermayer left, Martin Brodeur was still an elite goalie despite losing most of his elite defense. Lamoriello tried to say that the defense was “better than last year” referring to the 2003-04 season, but it clearly wasn’t. Over the next five seasons, the Devils were a really good regular-season team, but they constantly failed in the playoffs. This was new to this Devils team, as they couldn’t get past the second round. In the five losing series, only one went past Game 5, and it was the dreaded Game 7 where they gave up the tying goal and losing goal with less than two minutes left in the third period against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Is switching Niedermayer out for McGillis and Malakhov enough to change a 4-1 loss into a win? The Devils won the Atlantic Division four of the five years, so they had really good teams. They just needed something they weren’t getting in the postseason. Niedermayer knew how to win the postseason. Niedermayer immediately helped the Ducks get to the 2006 Western Conference Finals, and then he helped the team win the 2007 Stanley Cup. His impact was immediate.

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The 2006 Devils lost to the Hurricanes, who eventually beat the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers to win the Stanley Cup. The Devils were the better regular-season team, but the Canes were on a roll at the time. Was Niedermayer going to win them the series? The Devils came out flat and never really recovered. Expect for a desperate Game 4, the Devils were never really in the series. Something was off about the team. Maybe Niedermayer could help steer the ship. If the Devils win that series, a Stanley Cup Championship was definitely in the cards.

In 2007, the series against the Ottawa Senators was razor thin. The one Devils win came in double OT. Four out of the five games were decided by one goal, and the fifth game had an empty-net goal to make it 2-0. It couldn’t have been a closer five-game series. Having Niedermayer on the ice, who eventually went on to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, would flip at least one of those games. It is curious to know how momentum would have flipped with that.

Nobody can say whether the Devils would have had the same success as the Ducks with Niedermayer staying on the blue line, but it definitely would have been a better ride. The team was missing an identity, and they rode Brodeur until the wheels fell off. He could only do so much, and it probably took a Stanley Cup away from him.