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1990-91 New Jersey Devils Team Photo - Click to View Full Size

1990-91: Making The Transition

The miracle run through the 1988 Stanley Cup Playoffs now seemed so long ago. The Devils, playoff-less in 1989 and a first-round departure in 1990, were a team in total transition. They found themselves trying to find the right mixture of coach and players to get them over that proverbial hump they miraculously cleared in 1988.

It wouldn’t happen until the 1993-94 season, when the Devils and Rangers battled in a seven-game Eastern Conference Final Series. However, the process truly began around the 1990-91 season. The late John Cunniff, a respected hockey man with a stable and conservative mind behind the bench, was at the helm entering the 1990-91 season, but didn’t last. Cunniff, the team’s first-ever coach to win more than he lost (59-56-18), was replaced on March 4 with the Devils still mired in mediocrity with a 28-28-11 record, just four points ahead of Washington for the fourth and final spot in the Patrick Division playoff race.

The 1990-91 season saw the addition of Claude Lemieux, who would win two of his four career Stanley Cups in New Jersey, John MacLean's career-high 45 goals, the emergence of Chris Terreri as the team's number one goaltender, a full season of future Hall-of-Famer Peter Stastny, as well as Russian-born defenseman Alexei Kasatonov. Tom McVie, a coach who former defenseman Ken Daneyko calls one of his all-time favorites, was hired to replace Cunniff. McVie, who coached the Devils briefly in 1984, was a stern and somewhat surly leader.

He finished the regular-season, leading the Devils to a 4-5-4 record, and brought them back to the playoffs. The result was the same, another firstround exit. This time, the Devils won game one against Pittsburgh in the Patrick Division Semifinals, but went on to lose the series in seven. The Penguins, meanwhile, went on to win the Stanley Cup with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr leading the way. The Devils lost game seven, 4-0, at a sold-out Civic Arena.

“That’s the thing about a seventh game,” defenseman Bruce Driver told The Bergen Record after that game. “It’s down to one game, like the Super Bowl. They were the better team by a long shot.”

The Devils, though, held a 3-2 lead in the series and had a chance to knock off the eventual champions on their home ice in game six. They were outscored, 3-1, in the first period and lost the game, 4-3, forcing a return trip to Pittsburgh. “That was the biggest disappointment because we dominated Pittsburgh,” Daneyko said. “Nobody looks back, but we should have won game six because we had a goal disallowed. That’s what teams go through, and Pittsburgh sailed after that. We looked at it like that could have been us. We had the Penguins on the ropes, but that’s all part of the process. You keep learning.”

Devils select Martin Brodeur (right, with Head Coach John Cunniff) in the first round, 20th overall, Corey Schwab in the 10th round, 200th overall, and Valeri Zelepukin in the 11th round, 221st overall.

While losing to Pittsburgh in seven games is easily the most memorable (or forgettable) moment of the 1990-91 season, what happened in the ensuing off-season led the Devils down their historical path. It started with the 1990 NHL Entry Draft when the Devils passed on highly touted goalie Trevor Kidd and selected an 18-year-old from Montreal who was playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League at the time. Martin Brodeur is still setting NHL records while climbing his way up the all-time wins’ chart.

“I don’t think anybody could have predicted it, especially if you’re not a number one overall pick or even top five,” Daneyko said. “It was the turning point for our franchise, but you can never predict that. I don’t think anybody, scouts included, thought of how special of a guy we had coming in. “They must have known something because Marty is still the cream of the crop, as good as it gets. Maybe somebody knew something, but we were as lucky as it gets.”

Following the 1990-91 season, the Devils had to deal with integral players, including Brendan Shanahan, Sean Burke, Alexei Kasatonov, Eric Weinrich, Doug Brown, David Maley, and Troy Crowder. They were all free agents at the end of the 1990-91 season.

“We needed to have quality star guys, and all the pieces began coming into place,” Daneyko said. “They say it starts from goaltending out and it certainly does for the New Jersey Devils.”

While nobody was aware of it at the time, the off-season would be a turning point in franchise history, led by the addition of defenseman Scott Stevens, who would lead the Devils' to three Stanley Cup Championships over the next 12 seasons.

“You want to build your franchise, so anything less than the Stanley Cup is not good enough,” Daneyko said. “We still live to that level today as an organization. That was all part of the process in the early 1990s.”

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