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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.

Shocking: Tortorella emphasizes ‘mental toughness’

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 15:  Team USA head coach John Tortorella answers questions during Media day at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 at Air Canada Centre on September 15, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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Without any clues, if you had to pick one word to describe what John Tortorella might be looking for, what would it be?

There’s a strong chance many would pick “toughness” (or, OK, maybe a variation such as “grit”) and you’d be right.

After a World Cup of Hockey in which Team USA’s pursuit of toughness bordered, at times, on the comical, Tortorella kept the same themes going with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“I think that’s the fine line of winning and losing,” Tortorella told the Columbus Dispatch. “How do you handle yourself in those little situations where it’s, ‘Man, what do (I) give? Or, do (I) give in?’

“I’ve said it from day one, our mental toughness needs to be changed and this is part of the process.”

Specifically, Tortorella was talking about the Blue Jackets going through what the Columbus Dispatch describes as an especially “grueling” practice early on in training camp. But, honestly, it feels like it can be Torts’ request for just about anything hockey-related.

(It would be a refreshing bit of trolling if Tortorella decided to talk about finesse for an entire press conference.)

To some extent, talk of toughness can probably be chalked up to “coach-speak.”

Still, it’s tough not to wonder if the 2016-17 season might serve as a litmus test for Torts’ way of thinking and how it may influence the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Even when it’s not Torts making the decisions or at least dishing out the soundbytes, the Blue Jackets seem fixated on intangibles. Consider how GM Jarmo Kekalainen spoke about character while elaborating on the divisive decision to select Pierre-Luc Dubois over, say, Jesse Puljujärvi.

For all the blue collar talk, the Blue Jackets aren’t exactly a cheap team, with the 2016-17 version coming in at a cap hit of about $69 million.

In a multitude of ways, Columbus is paying a premium for intangibles and toughness, with Torts carrying that focus to an extreme. It should be fascinating to see how this all shakes out … even if Sergei Bobrovsky‘s play could ultimately be the real make-or-break factor for the Blue Jackets.

Predators give Laviolette a two-year extension

NASHVILLE, TN - MAY 09:  Head coach Peter Laviolette speaks to referee Kelly Sutherland #11 during the third period of Game Six of the Western Conference Second Round against the San Jose Sharks during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bridgestone Arena on May 9, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
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The Nashville Predators have been on a roll lately, and keeping Peter Laviolette around seems like it keeps things going in a positive direction.

The team announced a two-year contract extension for Laviolette during Saturday’s State of the Union event.

During his first two seasons behind the bench in Nashville, the Predators have managed two playoff berths, beating the Anaheim Ducks in the first round during this last postseason trip. The Predators have managed to stay competitive in the Central Division, which is no small task.

With P.K. Subban added to the mix, it makes great sense to retain Laviolette’s services. You never know how a situation will work until it plays out, yet on paper, his system seems like a seamless fit for the star defender.

Nashville’s shown some promise already under Laviolette’s watch, particularly in quietly putting up some promising possession stats. At this moment in time, the future looks even brighter.

It can’t hurt that the guy has a Stanley Cup on his resume, either.

Goalie mask tour: Seinfeld references, tributes and more

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 23:  Actor Patrick Warburton attends The Apartment VIP Party on June 23, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Hulu)
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As difficult as it is to believe, it’s October already. You know what that means*; hockey season is rapidly approaching.

Along with stories about guys who might still be a little injured claiming they’re “100 percent” and teams carrying in optimism that will eventually look foolish, we also get fun stuff like new goalie masks.

We’d already seen Petr Mrazek pay tribute to Joe Louis Arena a month ago, but with the preseason in high gear, we’re seeing more masks.

While there will likely be some other fun entries before the games start to count in 2016-17, PHT is kindly saving your delicate fingers a few extra clicks by collecting a few choice masks in one post.

To start things off, Michal Neuvirth paid tribute to late Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider:

Michal Neuvirth knew what he wanted on his new Philadelphia Flyers mask. He wanted it transformed into an epic tribute to the one and only, Mr Flyers himself, Ed Snider🙏🏻. Michal and I we brainstormed together and a plan emerged how to create the painting. I just love to create Storyteller masks📕. I wanted this to be truly special❤️. Put a lot of thoughts into every detail. We wanted it to be subtle and clean design that live and breath Flyers in the core. It was an honor to create this piece. On the side is also the wonderful logo of Ed Snider created by fellow artist David E. Wilkinson. In the design you will also just as always find a painting of the castle from Michal's hometown. Thank you Michal, we have worked together for so many years and it always a joy to create your mask paintings😊🎨 Thank you! #neuvirth @philadelphiaflyers #nhl #DaveArt @nhl #DaveArtCreativity #aflyerforever

A photo posted by David Gunnarsson (@davidofdaveart) on

This Miami Herald video shares Roberto Luongo‘s very-cool concept: the old Panthers cat on one side, the new one on the other. Here’s a shot from George Richards:

(Anyone else get a little John Vanbiesbrouck nostalgia from that lid?)

Thankfully, no birds were harmed in the making of Louis Domingue‘s mask, which features Arizona sports figures from Randy Johnson to more obvious Coyotes choices:

Nitpick: Steve Nash’s hair could have been floppier. Just saying.

Finally, hockey and Seinfeld once again mix better than a black-and-white cookie in Scott Wedgewood’s mask, which features a Puddy reference:

If you want more goalie masks, DaveArt.com’s list should keep you entertained for some time.

* – Barring all-too-frequent lockouts.

Malkin is ‘not happy’ with the way he’s been playing lately

CALGARY, AB - NOVEMBER 7: Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates against the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on November 7, 2015 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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Evgeni Malkin is back in Penguins training camp after a stint with Team Russia at the World Cup.

Malkin and his team reached the tournament’s semifinal before being knocked out by the eventual champions, Team Canada.

The Pens forward collected three points in four games, but he wasn’t satisfied by his overall performance.

“I need to start now,” Malkin said on Saturday, per the Tribune. “I’m not playing great. I’m not happy with my game at the World Cup. I will play better here and now.”

When he’s at his best, Malkin is fully capable of taking over games. That’s easier said than done in a best-on-best tournament, but those are the standards he’s set for himself.

So, what does he have to do to get back to that elite level?

“Play more with the puck. That’s my game always, if I have the puck and I spend more time with the puck. The last four, five games in the World Cup, I tried to use my partners, but my confidence when I play with the puck.”

The 30-year-old dealt with some injuries last year, but still managed to produce 58 points in 57 games during the regular season and 18 points in 23 games during Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup playoff run.