His driver's license says he's 27, but Aaron Broten's eyes tell a different story. He has been a New Jersey Devil since the club arrived in East Rutherford back in 1982, and he has experienced five years of disappointment. "Every season got to be like a bad dream," Broten says. "No matter how hard we worked, things would start slipping away from us. Our first year here we started out 2-18. We were out of the playoff race by November."
Suddenly the melancholy lifts. "But those days are gone, at least I hope so," he says. "Now we're a factor in the league."
Indeed, the Devils are 10-5-2, and to the delight of the faithful, they even fashioned a nine-game undefeated streak at home that ended only with last Saturday's 6-4 loss to the Detroit Red Wings. A new general manager, a commitment to defense and a sprinkling of enforcement types—not to mention troubles in other Patrick Division cities—have made the difference.
At the end of the week New Jersey was second behind the Islanders in the Patrick, nine points ahead of the swooning Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers, whom they beat 3-2 on Tuesday. Goaltender Alain Chevrier, a free agent out of Miami (Ohio) whom Devils coach Doug Carpenter had cut twice when he was in the juniors, was NHL player of the month for October. New Jersey was six games over .500. If Jeane Dixon had predicted any of this last August, she would have been laughed out of astrology.
The Devils had come to exemplify futility. As the Kansas City Scouts from 1974 to '76 and the Colorado Rockies until '82, the franchise never knew a winning season, and the situation was the same in New Jersey. Since moving east the Devils have vied with Pittsburgh to be the NHL's losingest team. Even their uniforms were—and are—ugly, an unfortunate combination of barn red on algae green.
When the Devils finished last season with a 29-45-6 record, worst in the NHL, the club's management said enough already. Three weeks after the end of the season Lou Lamoriello, fresh from Providence College, was hired as general manager. Lamoriello had coached Friars hockey for 15 years before becoming athletic director in 1982. A boxing speed bag has hung in the Devils' clubhouse in West Orange, N.J., for several years, and Lamoriello's first move was to land a few guys who knew how to hit one. Enter left wing Jim Korn, 6'4", 220 pounds, from Buffalo; left wing David Maley, 6'2", 210, from Montreal; defenseman Jack O'Callahan (who earlier this month served a three-game suspension for an intent-to-injure match penalty); and former Ranger left wing George McPhee.
There is no more combative a Devil than four-season veteran right wing Pat Verbeek, who was whistled for three high-sticking penalties in a 1-1 game against Winnipeg last Thursday. But the Devils cannot afford to have Verbeek, their leading scorer (14 goals, 7 assists), spending too much of his career in the penalty box. Here is where Korn, O'Callahan and the others come in handy.
In his first couple of years with the Devils, Verbeek attracted the interest of other clubs; they offered New Jersey immediate respectability in the form of proven players in exchange for unrealized talent and draft choices. "We got calls pretty much daily," says Max McNab, who moved from G.M. to executive vice-president on Lamoriello's arrival. "But we had this plan written down, and we stuck to it."
"When you're as low as we were, there is no quick fix," says Carpenter, a realist who is in his fourth season as coach.
The Devils even waited out a serious scare when Verbeek's left thumb was severed in an accident in 1985. While he was working with a grinder on a farm in Forest, Ont., he tried to dislodge a piece of paper, and his thumb was sheared off. "My father emptied three buckets of fertilizer on the ground, sifted through it all and finally found my thumb," says Verbeek. "I guess it was just lying there, looking up at him."
"In manure," interjects teammate John MacLean, gleefully.
"No, chemical fertilizer," corrects Verbeek. "You probably don't even know the difference."
Doctors reattached the finger, and Verbeek scored 25 goals the next season.
New Jersey also held on to its draft picks. It spent them wisely, except for the uninspired 1982 first-round selection of New York Islander star Bryan Trot-tier's younger brother, Rocky, who has since left the NHL. Between 1982 and '85 a core group was drafted and rushed into NHL action. But that bunch—forwards Verbeek, MacLean and Kirk Muller, now the Devils' 21-year-old captain, and defensemen Craig Wolanin and Ken Daneyko—were underexperienced and overwhelmed. They lost often and big, leading the league in lopsided defeats and acne.
"We got beat a lot," says MacLean, "but we also got a reputation for working hard." And although it was discernible to no one but themselves, the Devils made strides each season. Starting with 1983-84, their point totals have been 41, 54, 59, 64.
"This year we're working hard and accomplishing something," says MacLean, who broke a third-period 1-1 deadlock against the Rangers on Nov. 10 by beating two defensemen, then wristing the puck over John Vanbiesbrouck's glove. Nine minutes later Brendan Shanahan, the No. 2 overall pick in the 1987 entry draft, also scored, and the Devils won 3-2. To celebrate, the demonstrative rookie planted a wet kiss on the cheek of center Claude Loiselle, who got one of the assists. (Three days later the NHL suspended MacLean and Shanahan for one game for trying to climb out of the penalty box to get at some abusive fans during a 5-4 win at Pittsburgh on Oct. 21.)
The Devils have been working especially hard on defense. Last season their goals-against average of 4.56 was the worst in the league. "These guys are stars in juniors because they can put the puck in the net," says Carpenter. "When they get here, they aren't exactly defensive specialists." But the team made a commitment the first day of training camp, and Lamoriello's acquisition of center Patrik Sundstrom from Vancouver helped. Evidently, someone forgot to tell Sundstrom that he doesn't have to throw his body in front of slap shots, because Sundstrom absorbs a few every game. He plays defense as well as he scores, he backchecks, and he's an able penalty killer, usually; on Saturday New Jersey handed the Red Wings an inexcusable five power-play goals.
After 17 games the Devils had given up 52 goals—second fewest in the NHL—compared with 78 at the same time last season. "Defense has been a hard sell, but they finally bought it," says Carpenter.
Carpenter has never been surprised by the Devils' bumbling. "We just didn't have the horses," he says of the lean years. Now, with his team among the division leaders, he says, "This is a different team from last year." So much so that he has admitted he wouldn't be surprised if he were canned if New Jersey fails to make the playoffs this season. As skeptics and Ranger fans point out, the season is young, and the Devils have a bad habit of collapsing by January.
Speaking of the patience required to build anything worthwhile, Carpenter's favorite saw is: "It takes nine months to make a baby." Team Gestation may or may not be ready for delivery this season. Regardless, it's funny how much more becoming those uniforms look on a contender.