By Steve Lichtenstein
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I guess if Billy Crystal can star in a basic cable TV show with Josh Gad, Lou Lamoriello can run the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Well, sort of run.
Rather than fade to black, the long-time Devils president, general manager and emperor, who in May relinquished his duties as GM to Ray Shero, has decided to leave New Jersey for good. On Thursday it was announced that Lamoriello will join a consortium of folks in charge of revamping a team that has qualified for the playoffs just once since 2004.
Depicted as a man who ran his office with an iron fist, Lamoriello will now technically serve in conjunction with/under former Devil Brendan Shanahan, the Leafs’ president.
Hey, at age 72, you take whatever gig you can get, especially if you’ve had just one hit in the last decade or so.
Lamoriello is the Leafs’ 10th GM since 1987, the year then-Devils owner John McMullen tapped the man barely known in professional circles to re-brand his club from Mickey Mouse to an A-team.
And he did by drafting and trading wisely as the Devils inched up the ladder until 1995 when they finally capturing the franchise’s first of three Stanley Cups.
Lamoriello did it his way. He built the team from the back, with Martin Brodeur in goal and the Great Scotts — Stevens and Niedermayer — on defense.
Offense was mostly an afterthought. In Lamoriello’s mind, the big goal scorers would command too much money and threaten to derail the team concept he ingrained into the franchise’s culture.
During that 1994-95 season, more people remember the fourth line, otherwise known as the “Crash” line, of Bobby Holik, Randy McKay and Mike Peluso than who was on the top line.
Lamoriello’s timing couldn’t have been any better. The NHL was transitioning from pond hockey stat accumulators like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux to the dead-puck era, where coaches like Jacques Lemaire could take advantage of the more liberal officiating and trap opponents into turnovers and counterattack opportunities.
The advent of new rules following the 2004-05 lockout brought changes to the game that Lamoriello never seemed to be able to adapt. The game was faster. You couldn’t sit back and try to win every game, 2-1.
The Devils wasted years on draft picks that never developed and free agents who underachieved but did chew up salary cap space. The one time Lamoriello bet big on a star — the 15-year, $100 million contract lavished on winger Ilya Kovalchuk in 2010 — it backfired. Kovalchuk bolted the continent for Mother Russia in 2013.
Outside of a fluke run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012 (they were fourth in their division during the regular season and were the sixth seed in the East), the Devils haven’t won a playoff series in nine years, missing out on the postseason entirely the last three seasons.
When your approval ratings drop that significantly, it’s only a matter of time before your run gets canceled — even for living legends.
Lamoriello with the Maple Leafs will be like Brodeur finishing his career on the Blues. I can’t see this ending well.
If Lamoriello couldn’t figure out the new NHL in New Jersey, why would he fare better in Toronto? This is not baseball. The salary cap magnifies mistakes, even for a club that prints money like the Maple Leafs.
While I certainly don’t blame Lamoriello for accepting this new challenge, it’s always sad to see a legacy tarnished.
I grew up with the Devils from the day they moved east from Colorado. Lamoriello saved the franchise and spawned a generation of fans who had previously supported the Rangers, Flyers and Islanders.
I wouldn’t call the Devils’ reign a dynasty — there was too much time between championships and too much roster/coach turnover — but Lamoriello presided like it was. There was a “Devil Way,” just like there was a “Yankee Way” or a “Celtic Way.”
That way hasn’t worked for quite some time now. His shtick got old. It happens.
Lamoriello with the Leafs has the potential to be as awkward as Crystal on “The Comedians.” Neither is a laughing matter.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter at @SteveLichtenst1.