1988-89 New Jersey Devils Team Photo - Click to View Full Size
1988-89: Paving the Way
Being one win away from the Stanley Cup Finals not only put the Devils on the NHL map, it made them a team to beat heading into the 1988-89 season.
Rightfully so, too.
The Devils experienced drama the previous spring as John MacLean scored both the game-tying and overtime winning goals to vault the Devils into the playoffs on the very last day of the season. The Devils then beat a former juggernaut, the New York Islanders, in six games to win the opening round of the playoffs.
They knocked the Washington Capitals out of the playoffs in seven games thanks to yet another game-winner from good ’ol Johnny Mac in game seven, and took the Boston Bruins to the brink before falling in game seven of the Wales Conference Finals.
“People still talk about the ’88 run around the NHL,” ex-Devil defenseman Joe Cirella said. “Everyone remembers it. It was a good story and a great run. I think people continue to believe in that sort of stuff. That’s one of those fairy tales.”
So, entering the 1988-89 season, the expectations placed on the Devils were at an all-time high.
Unfortunately, the Devils failed to make good on their new status among the NHL elite.
The Devils hit a one-year stumbling block in 1988-89, dropping back into fifth place in the Patrick Division with a 27-41- 12 record. They had won 38 games and garnered 82 points the season before, won 29 games in 1986-87, and 28 in 1985- 86. However, the Devils battled with .500 through the first 20 games of the season before closing the first half on a 6-10-3 bender.
They were 13-22-5 in the second half, including a streak of five straight losses from Feb. 15-24.
“It was frustrating at the time, but a learning experience,” MacLean said. “You know, they’re all learning experiences. It’s never easy to repeat. You have expectations of others and expectations of yourself, but just because you did it once doesn’t mean you don’t have to work twice as hard the next time.”
Hard work wasn’t the problem. The Devils certainly put in the time and effort.
What hurt them, though, were the same problems the Devils had in the seasons before1987-88. They were still young, still fresh, still learning. Everything they did during the 1988 run was a first, meaning coming back and trying to repeat the feat was something they had never done before.
The core of the team could be considered veterans because of how many years they had in the NHL, but nobody was close to their 30th birthday.
MacLean, who led the team with 42 goals and 87 points, turned 24 early in the season. Kirk Muller, the captain who scored 31 goals and dished out 43 assists, turned 23 midway through the season. Sean Burke celebrated his 22nd birthday halfway through the season. Pat Verbeek, who scored 26 goals, was still only 24. So too were Doug Brown and Ken Daneyko.
Perry Anderson (27), Cirella (25), Tom Kurvers (26), Patrik Sundstrom (27), Randy Velischek (27), and Aaron Broten (28) were considered old guys on the team. Backup goalie Bob Sauve, who was 33 years old, was ancient when it came to this group, yet he could have still been the number one goalie had Burke not been on the team as well.
“What was Kirk, all of 22 or 23,” MacLean said. “I was 24, and Patty [Verbeek] was the same age. The nucleus was all still young. Aaron was an old man Patrik Sundstrom at 28. That’s just how it worked. We were still trying to find ourselves. Everybody had to find their own way to deal with success. We had to figure that out.
“There were expectations, and it started to change in that way. Everybody had to find their way again. We had to change out of that rookie potential and start producing as veterans.”
When asked why he thought the team went backwards for just one season, Cirella said, “I wish I had the answer for that. If you could bottle that up, you’d be one heck of a coach.
“You build from those experiences,” Cirella added. “We were still young and naive. What we didn’t realize is that, to get to that point, everyone had contributed and there was a goal thereto attain. In the second year we might have thought a little differently, in the sense that maybe it would be that easy. Wenever had that same drive, and that was the scenario. Wewereto the point wherewe werequite satisfied, and that’s something you can’t be.”
However, it could also be considered a transition year in Devils’ history. The reversal of fortune was unexpected, of course, but ever since the Devils have won at least 32 games in every season (not including the lockout shortened season of 1994-95, the year New Jersey hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time in team history). They have missed the playoffs only once (1996) since the 1988-89 campaign.
The Devils started their forward trend by going 37-34-9 in 1989-90, landing them in second place in the Patrick Division.
“Maybe we did pave the way for what they do now,” Cirella said. “There has to be a beginning, and there was no identity going from Kansas City to Colorado to New Jersey. Then management became stable, and it’s been like a rock there ever since with Lou [Lamoriello] being therefor the longest time. It starts from that building block and goes all the way through, and yeah we were part of it.”
“We learned over the years what it takes,” added MacLean, now an assistant coach on the Devils bench. “The expectations and base we built made a solid foundation, and now a solid franchise. We were just building at the time. Chemistry is such a hard thing to put together.”