Lamoriello is Mr. Fix-It
New Jersey general manager aims to improve Devils, Rats
By MATT GRAVES, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, September 15, 2002
WEST ORANGE, N.J. -- Lou Lamoriello has few peers in any arena among major sports executives, and one of the guiding principles that helped him achieve such status was that the buck stops at his desk.
And while the dynamic president, CEO and general manager of the New Jersey Devils may at times seem less than forthcoming about the internal operation of his organization and unique in his approach to procedure and discipline, he never has been reluctant to accept responsibility for the product on the ice.
Which is why Lamoriello vows to fix what's broken with the Albany River Rats, the Devils' top minor-league franchise.
"What happened?" Lamoriello said, echoing a reporter's question. "You'd need all day. We've gone through it the last year and a half, so to speak, and it's not acceptable. I'll take that responsibility. We thought it was rectified, and when it wasn't, then you have to do something more drastic."
Lamoriello dumped nearly half the players who were in Albany last year, when the River Rats sunk to 14-54-12 and essentially were out of the playoff picture by midseason.
"Unfortunately, when you don't have success you have to take a step back and not accept it, and do what's necessary," he said. "We've revamped our whole Albany team, and yet still have some core young prospects that will still be there. There is an excitement. There better be an excitement. We've been resting a long time."
That might be true of the players, but certainly not the front office. The Devils named new coaches in both New Jersey and Albany, and were as busy as any NHL team in the transactions department since being ousted in the first round of the playoffs by Carolina. The activity would seem to bode well both for New Jersey and Albany.
"You see just the players that we've added to the entire roster," Lamoriello said as the team went through its first weekend of training camp at South Mountain Arena. "They can't all be in New Jersey. I know the Albany team's going to be an exceptional team. All you have to do is look at the players. They're not all rookies there. There are some veterans who are proven."
Still, the question remains: how did a once-proud, former Calder Cup championship franchise suffer such a meltdown?
"You have to understand that what transpired over the last couple of years was a result of (NHL) expansion," Lamoriello said. "Where New Jersey made some decisions to get rather than lose players during waiver drafts or expansion drafts, we made trades and packaged one or two or sometimes three together to get players that could help us win here. As a result, it goes through a little bit of a window where you deplete a little bit. Now ... because there's no more expansion, you'll see us back to where we were before, so that we're not developing our players for somebody else. We're developing them for New Jersey."
Lamoriello said he sees a new environment for growth both in Albany and New Jersey.
"You could go to expansion and protected lists and see what transpired and how we pro-acted to it, and we won here," he said. "That's what we spent all summer doing, is getting that stockpile back, so to speak -- which is a trait of the New Jersey Devils. That's our philosophy."
Lamoriello said he understands the frustration of fans in Albany, who at times over the past two seasons expressed feelings of betrayal by the parent organization. Even Rats owner Walter Robb voiced his concerns about the quality of talent the Devils were providing his team.
"I think there have been some frustrations at different times, and I can understand that because the team hasn't done some things that we expect," Lamoriello said. "That's understandable, and I think it reflects the character and personality of Walter Robb, who I have tremendous respect for. He wants a good team there, and he wants a team that spends time in the community, and I am with him. That's what he's gonna have."
Lamoriello said he is committed to success in both cities.
"We've had a lot of unfortunate, unique situations develop with reference to things you can't control -- expansion and whatever," said the 59-year-old Lamoriello, who is entering his 16th season with the Devils. "This is not excuses, because I don't believe in excuses. These are reasons that we look to, but also that we correct and pro-act to. That's what's transpired over this summer."
Despite Robb's criticisms last season, Lamoriello characterized their relationship as "exceptional," and called Albany "a perfect location for us."
And that's the way rookie Rats coach Dennis Gendron wants to keep it.
"I don't ever want to talk about last year," said Gendron, an assistant in Albany when the Rats were coached by the late John Cunniff. "I wasn't there, and I just want to think about this year. What happened in the past happened in the past. I think there's an awful lot of excitement surrounding this training camp right now."
Robb said he also is optimistic about a return to glory days at Pepsi Arena.
"With a roster of players that is being supplied by the Devils, we're going to make this a year that we will really look forward to," Robb said recently, looking ahead to Albany's 10th anniversary season. "It's gonna be a lot of fun."
Fun is not a word heard often in Albany over the past two seasons. As Lamoriello put it, "Anything other than winning affects me. We have to give Albany a team that everybody is comfortable with."
Scott Clemmensen, who went from an NCAA championship at Boston College in 2001 to goaltending for the worst team in the AHL six months later, said he likes what he has seen so far in camp.
"Basically there's nowhere to go but up," Clemmensen said. "With the new players in here and the new approach they have, I think it's gonna happen."