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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.

Sidney Crosby named captain of Canada’s World Cup team

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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After leading the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup victory in 2016, Sidney Crosby has been named the captain of team Canada for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Hockey Canada made the announcement on Thursday morning.

Chicago Blackhawks forward Jonathan Toews and Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber, also long-time members of Team Canada in international competition, will serve as the assistant captains.

Crosby has won gold with team Canada at various tournaments, including the 2015 World Championship (where he also served as captain) and the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics.

He is also a two-time Stanley Cup champion in the NHL with the Penguins, serving as captain on their 2009 and 2016 championship teams.

Crosby had a slow start to the 2015-16 season and through the first two months was posting some of the worst numbers of his career. But following the in-season coaching change and a new-look roster around him he quickly climbed the NHL’s scoring leaderboard and finished the season with 85 points in 80 games, good enough for third best in the league. He also won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

In 31 games for Team Canada at the World Championships and Olympics, Crosby has scored 17 goals and recorded 17 assists.

The World Cup of Hockey takes place in Toronto between September 17 and October 1.

Looking to make the leap: Michael Matheson

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 24:  Michael Matheson #56 of the Florida Panthers skates against the New York Islanders in Game Six of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Barclays Center on April 24, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Islanders won the game 2-1 in double overtime to win the series four games to two.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Florida Panthers day at PHT…

The Florida Panthers have been building a pretty impressive roster in recent years, introducing a young core that includes Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad, Vincent Trocheck and Aaron Ekblad into the NHL. They are helping the Panthers not only be a competitive team right now, but also a team that has the potential to do something special in the not-too-distant future.

Looking to join that young core group of talent is 22-year-old defenseman Michael Matheson, the No. 23 overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft.

Other than five games at the AHL level in 2014-15, the 2015-16 season was pretty much Matheson’s first full year of pro hockey after playing his college hockey at Boston College.

He spent most of the year playing for Portland in the AHL where he recorded 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in 54 games, a performance that earned him an opportunity to play three regular season games at the NHL level and five of the Panthers’ six playoff games where he recorded an assist.

He made perhaps his strongest statement after the season ended when he represented Canada at the World Championships and was one of the most productive defensemen in the tournament with six points (two goals, four assists) in 10 games.

The Panthers have done a lot of work to their blue line over the summer, losing Brian Campbell to free agency while also adding veterans Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk. With Ekblad and Alex Petrovic also returning it is definitely going to be a little crowded on the blue line, but Matheson had a promising 2015-16 season and should have an opportunity to crack the lineup and compete for playing time.

Panthers trade Dave Bolland, Lawson Crouse to Coyotes

SUNRISE, FL - OCTOBER 27:  Dave Bolland #63 of the Florida Panthers looks on during a game against the Colorado Avalanche at BB&T Center on October 27, 2015 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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It’s Florida Panthers day at PHT so it’s only fitting that they would start the day by completing a trade, which they did on Thursday morning by sending veteran forward Dave Bolland and 2015 first-round draft pick Lawson Crouse to the Coyotes in exchange for two draft picks.

As part of the deal the Panthers will get a 2017 third-round pick and a conditional 2018 second-round pick. ESPN’s Craig Custance reports that 2018 second-round pick will become a third-round pick if Crouse does not play in Arizona this season.

“We are very pleased to acquire Lawson,” Coyotes general manager John Chayka said in a team statement. “He’s a big, physical, power forward who is a strong skater with good hands. Players of his caliber and profile are extremely hard to find.”

The key to this deal for Florida is, obviously, dumping the remainder of Bolland’s contract and clearing a significant amount of cap space both this year and in the future. Bolland’s deal still has a salary cap hit of $5.5 million per season for another three years. Since signing the five-year, $27 million deal in free agency before the start of the 2014-15 season, Bolland has played in just 78 games for the Panthers and scored only seven goals.

At the time of the contract Bolland was just one year removed from scoring the game-winning goal in the Stanley Cup Final for the Chicago Blackhawks, while his injury the following year was looked at as a costly blow to a Maple Leafs team that fell apart in the second half of the season. So even though his overall production throughout his career didn’t really match the hype or the interest, he was still able to get a huge deal in free agency.

It has been an extremely costly contract for the Panthers, and the price became even steeper on Monday when they had to give up a prospect that was the No. 11 pick (Crouse) in the draft just last year to get rid of it.

And that is what makes the deal worth it for Arizona.

The Coyotes are pretty much buying a top prospect, and adding to an already deep pool of young players, for the price of taking on another contract that has almost no value to anybody else in the league. They picked up a first-round pick from the Detroit Red Wings earlier this summer for taking the final year of Pavel Datsyuk’s contract after he left the NHL to play in Russia, and last year made a deal with the Philadelphia Flyers to take on the remainder of Chris Pronger‘s contract. Because the Coyotes are so far below the league’s salary cap they are able to take on these deals without much of an issue and use them to keep adding young talent to a fast improving team.

It’s Florida Panthers day at PHT

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 20: Nick Bjugstad #27 of the Florida Panthers reacts to the game winning goal by Alex Petrovic #6 against the Florida Panthers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Barclays Center on April 20, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  The Panthers defeated the Islanders 2-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Florida Panthers have a new look, a different general manager and heightened expectations following an ambitious offseason.

After claiming the Atlantic Division with 103 points, the Panthers were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. But with a young, skilled nucleus of players mixed with productive veterans — including 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr, who had 66 points last season — the Panthers have served noticed to the Eastern Conference that they are an emerging force.

Their summer has consisted of re-shaping the front office by promoting Dale Tallon to president of hockey operations and Tom Rowe to general manager. They also fired their director of player personnel Scott Luce, which was a controversial move for the team, as it shifts to a more analytics-based approach. They also completely revamped their scouting staff.

During the height of the playoffs, the Panthers and Vancouver Canucks made a trade, as Florida acquired 20-year-old center Jared McCann — a former first-round pick — and sent defenseman Erik Gudbranson to Vancouver.

The Panthers also freed up a substantial amount of cap space by trading Marc Savard‘s contract, and a draft pick, to New Jersey.

And that’s when things really started to pick up. The Panthers acquired the rights to puck-moving defenseman and pending UFA Keith Yandle — a “risk worth taking,” said Rowe at the time of the deal — and eventually signed him to a seven-year deal. The Panthers also traded defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, while Brian Campbell signed as a free agent in Chicago.

The signings continued from there:

— Stud defenseman Aaron Ekblad signed an eight-year contract extension.

Defenseman Jason Demers signed as a free agent.

— Forward Vincent Trocheck, 23, emerged last season with 25 goals and was rewarded with a six-year deal.

Reilly Smith got a five-year contract extension.

So, yeah, a busy offseason in Florida.

Now, can the Panthers live up to the heightened expectations?