The Most Enjoyable Season

On a frigid Wednesday night in Whippany, NJ several weeks ago, I was asked to address the New Jersey Devils’ Fan Club at their monthly meeting — much to the dismay of my wife.  Our MSG Networks’ Devils crew had just returned from a week on the road with stops in St. Louis, Colorado, and Arizona, and I had spent a grand total of one night at home over a 15-day stretch. But Mrs. Cangialosi gets it — this is a seven-day-a-week endeavor until the Devils are eliminated. Then the Red Bulls season is well under way and it’s a six-and-a-half-day-a-week endeavor. We’ve scheduled dinner for May 12.

But it’s a labor of love.

The Devils’ Fan Club is comprised of mostly longtime fans, many whom would drive to the Meadowlands to see their favorite team for a quarter of a century before making the adjustment of training to Prudential Center.

It’s an annual appearance for me, meeting and greeting some of the most loyal hockey fans you’ll find anywhere. Their questions range from anything such as ‘What’s Ken Daneyko really like?’ (Inconsolable after a Devils’ loss), to ‘What’s your favorite road venue?’ (Bell Centre in Montreal by a country mile), to ‘How many cigars does your producer Roland Dratch smoke daily?’ (I’ve stopped counting).

This year, however, was different. It struck me while I was addressing the group that this 10th season on the Devils’ broadcast crew has been far and away the most enjoyable. That statement, on the surface, might make little sense to you.

The Devils will emerge from the All-Star break with 32 games remaining in their regular season, on the bubble of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. The Penguins have their act together, the Lightning are playing well, and it’s a matter of time before Carey Price returns to the Canadiens. In short, it will be difficult — though not impossible — to qualify for the postseason. But there’s a plan, and that’s a wonderful thing.

MISSING LOU, CREDITING SHERO

Let’s be clear: I miss Lou Lamoriello. I miss him needling me on the day after a broadcast with gems such as “Really nice hearing you coach the team on the air last night, Steve. Any advice for tonight?”

He commanded respect in any room he entered. It could not have been easy for Ray Shero to step into a general manager’s role being the “new boss” after 28 years, yet Shero has made it work marvelously. His acquisition of Kyle Palmieri from Anaheim for 2nd and 3rd round draft choices has the potential to benefit New Jersey for the next decade. His signing of Lee Stempniak, after a professional tryout, rates as one of the best NHL bargains this season. In John Hynes, he’s appointed a head coach that I believe can have the longest run of anyone to hold his position previously (Jacques Lemaire’s first term from 1993-94 to 1997-98 currently being the longest).

Much of that is circumstantial. Hynes inherited a team from which observers around the league expected little — and he’ll likely be given time to cultivate this group and transform it into a winner. His name has been mentioned as a Jack Adams Award candidate this season, but even Hynes seems uncomfortable and uninterested in the chatter. As an NHL broadcaster, I have an Adams’ ballot and my first place vote would currently go to Washington’s Barry Trotz. Of course, Trotz has the horses, but you don’t disqualify candidates on that basis either.

DEVILS EPITOMIZE ‘TEAM’

So how can this be a “most enjoyable season” for someone who first joined the crew as a pre-game and post game host in 2006-07? Since then, the Devils have won three division titles. Martin Brodeur became the NHL’s all-time winningest goaltender and the team, of course, advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012.

It’s simple. I’m surrounded by players who from the first day of training camp didn’t care about predictions that forecasted them finishing 30th in a 30-team league. It all could have gone so wrong after an 0-3-1 start, but instead, the Devils got to work. There’s a life lesson here and you don’t get that too often in sports.

When Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique were sidelined with injuries, Michael Cammalleri stood calmly at his locker and said this team is not dependent on one or two players.

When John Moore was asked to point to the primary reason his team was in the playoff hunt, he pointed to “a level of coaching that I have not seen from any other staff.” Moore is a defenseman who’s played for a Stanley Cup-winning coach in John Tortorella and a coach who has led teams to Presidents’ Trophies on three occasions in Alain Vigneault.

We work in a results-oriented business and the time will surely come when the organizational nucleus of Shero-Hynes-Schneider-Larsson-Greene-Henrique will be judged on playoff wins and losses.

At present, it’s a team that does and says things for the right reasons. And we’re having a blast.