- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2002

From the day Larry Robinson became coach in March 2000, the New Jersey Devils were synonymous with hockey success. They won the Stanley Cup that June and last season finished atop the Eastern Conference and took favored Colorado to Game 7 of the Cup finals before losing.
Whether from the fatigue of playing 212 games the previous two seasons or the overconfidence that came from all those victories, the Devils weren't their usual unbeatable selves for most of this season. On Jan.28, with New Jersey at 21-20-7-3, general manager Lou Lamoriello fired the easygoing Robinson (who returned as an assistant four weeks later) and replaced him with noted disciplinarian Kevin Constantine.
"It wasn't Larry's fault, but something had to be done," veteran center Bobby Holik said. "We needed somebody who was more demanding, who would hold us more accountable. Kevin doesn't let things go. If you're not doing your job, you're going to have your ice time cut, you're going to get talked to or you're going to have to watch video."
The stunning change behind the bench didn't pay immediate dividends. At the March 19 trade deadline, New Jersey was 6-5-2 under Constantine. So Lamoriello dealt No.1 center Jason Arnott and veteran grinder Randy McKay to Dallas for 35-year-old center Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner, a more skilled and younger version of McKay. Nieuwendyk is eight years older than Arnott but is a much more positive presence in the locker room.
"You can talk all you want about age, but character and attitude is what wins in the playoffs," Holik said. "That's what we got in Joe. He puts the team ahead of himself. Jason's line [with young wings Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora] was fine when we were winning, but maybe they weren't mature enough to handle that pressure when we weren't playing well."
Captain Scott Stevens said the trade was a statement that, despite the team's precarious playoff hopes, management believed that the future was now.
"That was a good message," said Stevens, 38. "Joe's a proven winner. He's a little older, but he takes care of himself. He's got good speed, and he's great on draws. And Jamie's an energy guy who goes to the net and finishes his checks."
Many around the league were surprised that Lamoriello gave up on the talented Arnott, but after last night's 4-3 overtime victory over the Washington Capitals at MCI Center the Devils had won six straight games to improve to 11-3 since the trade and had clinched a playoff spot. The biggest improvement has come in their goals-against average (2.08 in those 13 games, all but two with two-time Cup winner Martin Brodeur in net).
"We're playing more as a team, and we're winning the low-scoring games and the close games that we were losing earlier in the year," Stevens said. "Our system hasn't changed that much. Kevin asks a little more from the forwards defensively in terms of blocking shots and backchecking a little more to cut down on the other team's scoring chances."
Nieuwendyk, who had produced just 47 points in 63 games for the once-formidable Stars, had 11 points in his first 13 games for the Devils.
"I was in Dallas seven years, so initially I was disappointed even though we had gone through a lot of turmoil this season," said Nieuwendyk, who has been centering Elias and Langenbrunner with Holik skating between Sykora and veteran Sergei Brylin. "But I'm really enjoying it here. The system is similar to what we played in Dallas. We have a good group of veterans [six have won two Cups with the Devils, 18 have won one]. We've been playing well. We have a real good chance to do some damage in the playoffs."

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide