Devils GM Lou Lamoriello searches for answers amid the team’s second worst 20-game start ever

It’s not just a cute quip. Instead, it’s the sad reality: things haven’t been this bad for the New Jersey Devils since Wayne Gretzky called the team a “Mickey Mouse franchise.”

In fact, in some ways, the team’s second worst 20-game start (only the 1983-84 season began in a more bleak way) is their most painful because expectations were so high. Even people who have been critical of the Ilya Kovalchuk signing (myself included) didn’t expect things to be this dismal.

Such miseries aren’t lost on Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, who faces a tougher-than-ever thought process during his annual 20-game assessment of this team’s condition. When asked what is ailing the Devils, Lamoriello wasn’t totally certain, but he seemed adamant that the main issue was with the players, not coach John MacLean.

Here are a few select comments via Tom Gulitti.

“Right now, my feeling is our best players have to be our best players every night and we have not seen that,” he said. “We’ve seen some nights where we’ve got a couple and other nights (when they don’t) and I’ve got to find out why.”

When I asked if coaching could influence that inconsistency, Lamoriello repeated, “It’s within the players.”

“I’ve got to find out why one night it’s one and one night the other,” he said. “I don’t understand that.”

That said, it seems all possible solutions – including changing the coach – remain on the table. Making a trade to shake up the team is another option, but might not be an easy thing to do considering the team’s salary cap problems and the high number of players on the roster with no-trade clauses.

Here is my assessment, as a total outsider.

The Devils’ defensive group kept declining year after year with the losses of Scott Stevens via retirement and Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski and Paul Martin thanks to free agency. The team was able to camouflage those blemishes for years because of excellent coaching, by my guess. (I’m more confident that defensive mastermind Jacques Lemaire covered up mistakes than Brent Sutter, but they’re both solid taskmasters.)

The problem isn’t necessarily that John MacLean is a bad coach, but rather that he’s not a brilliant coach. Perhaps a superlative, detail-oriented guy like Lemaire could make lemonade out of their blueline lemons, but MacLean cannot?

In other words, if I were to point to one person for the Devils’ problems – and really, it’s a “team effort” to be this bad – it would be Lamoriello. He boxed himself into a corner by sacrificing salary cap space for a one-dimensional scorer, leans too heavily on an aging star in net and trusted a veteran-heavy (and maybe fickle) lineup to a first year head coach when Ken Hitchcock and other coaches were available.

With little monetary wiggle room and a dim light at the end of the tunnel, Lamoriello will likely have to lay in the uncomfortable bed he made. Only a fool would deny the fact that he’s one of the game’s greatest general managers, but it’s getting difficult to wonder if he’s lost a front office step or two.

The West’s next round is now set (and wide-open)

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Saturday was a great day for fans of brevity and revenge.

Three of a possible three series ended on this day, with the Rangers dispatching the Canadiens, the Blues eliminating the “better” Wild, and the Oilers knocking off the Sharks in six.

The Rangers await either the Bruins or Senators and the Penguins face the winner of the Leafs – Capitals series out East, but we now know how the West shakes out.

St. Louis Blues vs. Nashville Predators

Both teams provided some of the upsets of this young postseason. Each features a red-hot goalie in Jake Allen and Pekka Rinne. Interesting.

Anaheim Ducks vs. Edmonton Oilers

There will be a lot of orange. We may also see a ton of goals with Ryan Getzlaf on fire, Oscar Klefbom headlining the list of unhealthy players and Connor McDavid possibly able to really take off against a Ducks defense that is beat up in its own right.

It’s already been a strange season out West, with the Kings missing the playoffs and first-round exits for the Sharks and Blackhawks. Get ready – and giddy – for things to get even weirder as the postseason goes along.

Oilers win first series since 2006 after Sharks fall crossbar short of overtime

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After making the playoffs for the first time since 2006, the Edmonton Oilers weren’t just “happy to be there.” They confirmed as much by eliminating the San Jose Sharks with a 3-1 victory in Game 6, winning the series 4-2.

Yes, those young Oilers just eliminated the team that represented the West in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. Wow.

Ultimately, winning the breakaway battle in the second period indeed made the difference. Leon Draisaitl and Anton Slepyshev scored on their chances in the middle frame while Patrick Marleau could not; Slepyshev’s 2-0 goal ultimately became the series-clincher.

Now, that’s not to say that Marleau was a drag on San Jose. If this is it for one of the faces of the franchise, he had a great 2016-17, including generating the Sharks’ final goal of the postseason.

The Shark Tank was alive after Marleau reduced the Oilers’ lead to 2-1, and more than a few blood pressures rose – both in Edmonton and San Jose – after the Sharks got this close to tying things up.

Wow.

With this result, the West is set. The St. Louis Blues will take on the Nashville Predators while the Oilers face the Anaheim Ducks.

As much as people try to put the training wheels on Connor McDavid & Co., the West is wide-open enough that it’s not so outrageous to imagine a big run for Edmonton.

Beating the Sharks is a pretty nice way of adding an exclamation point to that statement win. And hey … they beat the Sharks last time around, too.

Canadiens sound a lot like Wild after playoff exit (without ‘better team’ talk)

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Much like the Minnesota Wild earlier on Saturday, the Montreal Canadiens are stunned to approach the golf courses so rapidly.

Many of the responses after the New York Rangers eliminated them in Game 6 sound a lot like what the Wild uttered, though there’s no potential bulletin board material like Bruce Boudreau’s line about the better team failing to win four games.

Max Pacioretty viewed this early exit as a “missed opportunity” and never really believed that an elimination was coming.

Claude Julien provided parallel comments to Bruce Boudreau, believing that Montreal generated chances but lacked “finish.”

Brendan Gallagher? He worries that this might have been the Canadiens’ best chance, something the Wild must also worry about with a difficult offseason ahead.

Now, it’s likely that most teams speak about being shocked and expecting better after being booted from the postseason.

Still, these reactions do shine a light on the staggering nature of some of these exits. Will the likes of the Blackhawks, Canadiens and Wild struggle to be in such prime positions in the future? With the Sharks needing a comeback against the Oilers, could the trend continue on Saturday?

The bottom line is that, instead of preparing for a Game 7 after winning the Atlantic Division, the Canadiens are packing up their stuff and worrying about re-signing Carey Price. That’s a pretty stunning turnaround, regardless of the soundbytes available.

Video: Draisaitl, Slepyshev score on breakaways, Talbot spurns Marleau

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Some playoff games or even series come down to something as stupidly simple as one team taking advantage of their opportunities while the other fails to capitalize on chances.

If Game 6 of the Oilers – Sharks series follows the story of the second period, then San Jose may join Saturday’s stream of eliminated teams.

It’s not fair to boil it down to three breakaways, but some might feel that way.

Leon Draisaitl looked like a gritty, strong veteran during his first career playoff goal, bulling his way to the net for 1-0 breakaway tally. About a minute later, Anton Slepyshev was even more alone against Martin Jones, and he scored his first postseason goal to make it 2-0.

That stings for the Sharks, and it doesn’t help that they had a similar chance not long after. This time around, Patrick Marleau couldn’t beat Cam Talbot, so it remained 2-0 for Edmonton.

That’s the same score as the game enters the third period, even with some dangerous late chances for the Sharks.

If the Sharks don’t score at least two goals in the third, their push to return to the Stanley Cup Final could end in the first round.