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2001-02 New Jersey Devils Team Photo - Click to View Full Size

2001-02: Making A Transition

Although every organization would like the chance to compete for the Stanley Cup every season, eventually it may endure rocky times and be forced to make some changes.

For the Devils, the rocky times lasted one season, and that’s only if you consider winning 41 games, gaining 95 points, and falling just three points shy of winning the Atlantic Division rocky.

Hardly, right?

But the Devils operate under different standards than most, especially after winning a Stanley Cup Championship in 2000 and following it up with another trip to the finals the very next season.

In other words, a successful regular-season isn’t necessarily cause to throw a block party in East Rutherford. Coming off of a heartbreaking loss to Colorado in the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals, when they lost both games six and seven, the Devils lost to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Carolina Hurricanes in the opening round of the 2002 playoffs.

March 19, 2002: Devils obtain Jamie Langenbrunner (shown, 2001-02 season) and Joe Nieuwendyk from Dallas for Jason Arnott, Randy McKay and a 2002 number one draft pick.

The Devils outscored the Hurricanes, 11-9, but couldn’t take the series to seven games. All four of their losses were by one goal, including a 1-0 heartbreaker at home in game six, their only home loss of the series. Carolina won a pair of 2-1 games and a 3-2 decision in game five on their home ice.

“I don’t care what anybody says, we played well, but we just couldn’t score goals,” ex-defenseman Ken Daneyko said. “We dominated that series. We gave up nine goals, and lost four to two. That’s sports. That happens. It was disappointing, but to me it was just unfortunate that it happened. We fell into an offensive rut.”

It should also be noted that Carolina only received the home ice advantage in the series by virtue of winning the Southeast Division. The Hurricanes had six less wins and four less points than the Devils, but still got the third seed because no other team in the Southeast Division was good enough to even crack the top eight in the Eastern Conference. The Devils, meanwhile, were the sixth seed.

Nevertheless, the Hurricanes rode the goalie tandem of Kevin Weekes and Arturs Irbe to the Cup Finals, where they eventually lost to Detroit in five games.

“I try to forget those things,” former Captain Scott Stevens said. “When you win you tend to forget the bad things, and you just focus on the good. They played well. They were coming on at the right time. It’s just the way it went. It was a tight series.”

Change, though, was evident with the Devils in 2001-02, and it would all lead to yet another Stanley Cup Championship for this team in 2003.

Larry Robinson, the coach who led the team to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, was replaced by Kevin Constantine on January 28 and led the Devils to a strong finish.

The Devils completed the regular-season 20-9-2. After losing three straight on the West coast from March 4-8, the Devils wound up winning 14 of their last 18 games, including six in a row to end the season.

The Devils couldn’t catch either Philadelphia, which won the division with 97 points, or the Islanders, who finished second with 96.

Devils' Assistant Coach Viacheslav Fetisov (second from right; with from left, Mike Gartner, Dale Hawerchuk, Jari Kurri, and Craig Patrick) is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on November 12, 2001, becoming the second Devils' player ever to be honored.

Helping the final playoff push through March was a blockbuster deal orchestrated by General Manager Lou Lamoriello on March 19. He acquired Jamie Langenbrunner and Joe Nieuwendyk from Dallas in exchange for Jason Arnott, Randy McKay, and a future no. 1 draft pick.

Nieuwendyk and Langenbrunner each played the last 14 regular-season games, and the six playoff games. They became major contributors to the 2003 Cup run, and Langenbrunner is currently a mainstay on the Devils’ second scoring line.

“There’s no question they’re both great hockey players,” Stevens said. “Jamie hadn’t reached his peak, but was a great playoff player, which he still is. Joe had a lot of experience, was a goal scorer, and showed tremendous leadership. It was definitely a good move, and still is a great move with Jamie still being here.”

It was a swansong season for a couple of key contributors to the previous two playoff runs. In his tenth and final season as a Devil, Bobby Holik was second on the team with 25 goals and 54 points. Also, in his seventh and last season in New Jersey, Petr Sykora, who with Arnott and Patrik Elias helped make the ‘A Line’ famous in 2000, was third on the team with 48 points.

Arnott had 41 points in 63 games before the trade to Dallas. Once the dust had settled after the 85th NHL season, Lamoriello continued to build for his future 2003 championship team by trading Sykora to Anaheim in a deal that brought Jeff Friesen to the Devils. Friesen went on to score four game-winning goals during the 2003 Cup run.

“It would be nice to keep everybody,” Stevens said, “but you need different people. So many things factor into it.”

Dan Rosen covers high school sports and the NHL for The Record (Hackensack, N.J.). He is a regular contributor to Center Ice Magazine.

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