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January 9, 2011
Driving To The Net
Langenbrunner's Loss?

by Timo Seppa


I must have had my crystal ball out again. The player comment I wrote for Jamie Langenbrunner in Hockey Prospectus 2010-11 began:

"Seriously, do you think of Jamie Langenbrunner as a New Jersey Devil or a Dallas Star?"

Well, I think we have our answer now!

I've heard essentially nothing but praise for Dallas' GM Joe Nieuwendyk's acquisition of former Star and now former Devils' captain RW Jamie Langenbrunner. For instance, on Friday night's telecast, Stars' color commentator Daryl Reaugh gushed:

"And yeah, they just got a little bit better by adding Jamie Langenbrunner to the fold. They get grit, they get character, they get leadership, they get ability—the guy can still play. So you look at it from a distance, you see these Stars halfway through this season, they've reestablished their identity, and now they've reinforced it."

But is it that simple, that this trade was a clear win for Dallas?

You certainly could say that the 35-year-old Langenbrunner has been a valuable contributor for New Jersey of recent, having been worth 7.3 GVT, 15.9 GVT and 11.9 GVT over the past three seasons, but given his advancing hockey age—don't let the boyish face throw you off—it's not surprising that our VUKOTA projections pegged him at slightly lower totals of 20 G, 35 A, 55 P and 9.2 GVT for 2010-11. Of course, even those somewhat modest numbers haven't come to pass; it's been an extremely disappointing season for Langenbrunner thus far, as it has been for most of the Devils. The veteran forward has a paltry 4 G, 10 A, 14 P and 1.2 GVT (and only 0.6 GVT aside from shootout contributions) at the halfway point of 2010-11.

While there's no doubt that anyone's stats are going to go up by leaving New Jersey at this point, can we expect Langenbrunner to fulfill half of his VUKOTA projection during the second half of the season? If you're asking me, no, I'll take the under.

And I have to laugh…what's this about leadership? Doesn't Langenbrunner get any blame for the Devils' losing record in the second half of 2009-10? Or for their quick exit against seventh-seeded Philadelphia in the first round of the postseason? Or for the poisoned locker room that drove Jacques Lemaire out of New Jersey? Or for the Devils' putrid first half of the season, which led to MacLean's dismissal?

If a player was part of one team's problem, what makes everyone so quick to think that he'll be part of another team's solution? That sounds like hockey's version of "willing suspension of disbelief". It would seem at least as likely that he'd similarly be part of a new problem for his new team. Simply put, people are either ignoring the facts…or maybe just lazily assuming that a captain/ex-captain must by definition provide a positive contribution to the leadership of a team. That ain't so.

As I stated in Hockey Prospectus 2010-11:

"Let's face it…A few injuries and the blueline's scoring woes don't explain the up and down season and the quick playoff exit…So what was it? Leadership in the locker room. As quotes from both head coach Jacques Lemaire and captain Jamie Langenbrunner substantiate, there was a major rift in the Devils' locker room from late December onwards, with head coach and captain on opposite sides of the chasm. Whatever the disputed issues, they became secondary to the fact that the coach and the on-ice leadership did not see eye-to-eye, that certain players were frustrated and underperforming and that the issues were allowed to fester all the way through New Jersey's lackluster second half and cameo playoff appearance. There's no doubt that the Devils' leadership, from general manager to head coach to the assistant coaches to the captain to the assistant captains all should have strived to find a solution to right their ship. Ultimately, though, it was Langenbrunner's perceived postseason no-show that drew the ire of the New Jersey faithful. And you wondered why Jacques Lemaire retired? Whatever the situation was with Lemaire, the fact of the matter is that Langenbrunner's captaincy has been a constant during the recent playoff disappointments."

My recent conversations with John Fischer of In Lou We Trust (here and here) presaged New Jersey's moves with both the MacLean dismissal

"I personally felt John MacLean was in trouble when he actually went to the media after a loss—I want to say that it was the 5-1 loss to Montreal—and he told the press "I don't know why we weren't prepared". At that point, for me, it was basically: 'This guy's a dead man walking; this is just inexcusable.'" (me, quoting Fischer, at Hockey Prospectus)

and the Langenbrunner trade:

"I was talking with Timo Seppa…during the second intermission [of the December 11 loss to Detroit] and he remains mystified that the Devils are playing this bad regularly, regardless of how good Detroit is. In discussing what could be done, I feel he phrased it the best. Yes, changing the coach or the captain or making a trade alone will not solve all of these problems. But if they aren't going to be part of the solution - emphasis on the solution - then they need to be jettisoned. Be it MacLean, his staff, Jamie Langenbrunner, whoever. A move now would not be out of panic, but in determining what could be done going forward to salvage part of this season and getting ready for next season. I happen to agree with Mr. Seppa and I hope Lou will realize that while he may be in a no-win situation regarding what he can do, current inaction has led the Devils to get, well, no wins." (Fischer, quoting me, In Lou We Trust)

Lamoriello's moves indicated that MacLean and Langenbrunner were not seen as part of the solution, and hence part of the problem. And in announcing the Langenbrunner trade, GM Lou Lamoriello used quite similar language:

"New Jersey Devils President Lou Lamoriello put the present state of the sorry team succinctly as 'we have to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.'" (Wishynski, Puck Daddy)

While it'll be interesting to see if Langenbrunner helps Dallas—he might—my focus is to see what will happen to New Jersey now that two big wrongs have been righted: with Lemaire and not MacLean at the helm, and with the player-coach tension gone from the locker room now.

So what's left to fix for New Jersey? I still stand by my summary from the annual:

"To break the 'bad karma', Lou Lamoriello [and the head coach] simply need to: bring order back to their house, turn over their roster a bit to address issues of age and leadership, pick up that offensive defenseman they need, let their talented youngsters develop into contributors and make sure that cornerstones Zach Parise and Travis Zajac are signed long term. No big deal, right?"

The Devils have dug themselves a deep, deep hole and it's a heck of a climb out of it, especially with an underperforming Martin Brodeur and an IRed Zach Parise to compound their issues. But at the very least, we should begin to see improvement soon. There's no way that New Jersey should be anywhere near the worst team in the league.

Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Timo by clicking here or click here to see Timo's other articles.

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