New Jersey Devils Bear Striking Similarities to 1996 Yankees Team

On the surface, comparing hockey and baseball is like comparing apples and oranges. Setting aside the obvious differences in the two games, comparing teams and their make up, personnel, character and heart isn’t much of a stretch. Any group of athletes who play a team sport, be it hockey, baseball, football or a host of others, must contain various ingredients if they are to succeed: Dedication. Commitment. Selflessness. Sacrifice. Knowing and embracing your role. Toughness.

In the spring of 1996, the New York Yankees were mired in a period of rare mediocrity. They hadn’t won a World Series in almost 20 years and had been bounced from the playoffs the previous fall by the Seattle Mariners in their first postseason appearance in 15 years. It was a bleak time in the Bronx. Joe Torre, newly hired to replace the popular Buck Showalter, was referred to as “Clueless Joe” by the New York media because of his less-than-stellar career managerial record. Torre came to New York fresh out of the broadcast booth after spending 15 years as a manager with three separate organizations, leading those teams to .500 or better records only five times. The Yankee brass, led as always by the Boss himself, had finally lost their collective marbles. Why the hell would they hire this guy? was a popular refrain in the New York area after Torre was named manager following the 1995 season.

In the early summer of 2011, the New Jersey Devils found themselves in the uncharacteristic position of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After a string of 13 straight appearances going back to 1996-97, the Devils were perennial contenders. The John MacLean disaster of 2010-11 snapped that streak and sent the organization into a tailspin, with former head coach Jacques Lemaire coming out of retirement to steady the team, only to re-retire after the season. General Manager Lou Lamoriello, long considered a genius of team-building and talent-evaluation, was left to scour the hockey universe for someone to lead the once-proud franchise back to respectability. Ken Hitchcock, Kirk Muller, Michel Therrien, Bob Hartley and Mike Haviland emerged as the candidates for the job. On July 19, 2011, Lamoriello surprised everyone and hired Peter DeBoer, former head coach of the Florida Panthers, who never guided Florida to better than a third-place finish in his three-year tenure in Sunrise, missing the playoffs each season. The refrain from fans and media alike in Jersey: why the hell would they hire this guy?

devil's bench
Peter DeBoer has coached the Devils with "Torre-like" calm this season. (Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE)

In both instances, the Torre hiring and the selection of DeBoer, the reasoning was the same: he’s the right guy at the right time.

“I watched him coach in Florida,” GM Lou Lamoriello said after DeBoer’s introduction. “I feel that, technically, he’s as sound as anybody…his teams were hard to play against.”

Hard to play against? Technically sound? DeBoer’s teams in Florida posted a combined record of 103-107-36 during his tenure, including a 72-point season in his final year. Not exactly stellar numbers.

But, much like Yankees GM Bob Watson, Steinbrenner, and the Yankee brain trust in October of 1996, Lamoriello is having the last laugh now, as DeBoer has shepherded the Devils all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals with a combination of patience, guile, and- as Lamoriello put it- technically sound coaching. His calming presence has been credited by everyone from Martin Brodeur to Zach Parise to Ilya Kovalchuk for giving this team it’s identity on this Stanley Cup run.

The management leadership is just the beginning of the similarities between the two incarnations of the Yankees and Devils, though. As anyone knows, it’s the players on the field/ice that ultimately decide things, and having the right pieces in place is critical.

During the 1996 season, the Yankees roster contained established stars like Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill and Wade Boggs, young sensations like Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, along with a contingent of solid role players like Tim Raines and Mariano Duncan. A pretty good team on paper, but GM Watson continued to tinker, making key acquisitions during the season. He plucked former superstar Darryl Strawberry from the purgatory of an independent league and acquired slugger Cecil Fielder, infielders Charlie Hayes and Luis Sojo, and pitchers David Weathers and Graeme Lloyd, all of whom became key components of the team and all of whom were obtained for virtually nothing.

This season, the Devils looked strong coming out of the gate, with Zach Parise back from a devastating knee injury and rookie defenseman Adam Larsson making the team out of training camp. Lamoriello also gave NHL cast-off Petr Sykora a shot to make the team, which he did, and elevated rookie Adam Henrique to the big club to replace the injured Travis Zajac. The team played well, but Lamoriello, like all good GM’s, wasn’t satisfied. He claimed Ryan Carter off waivers in October and traded for Kurtis Foster in December. Foster was later traded for Marek Zidlicky,  giving the Devils the elusive puck-moving defenseman they had been searching for. Forward Steve Bernier was promoted from the AHL in January, after sitting out the first month of the season because no one wanted him. Finally, Lamoriello promoted Stephen Gionta from Albany on the last day of the season. Lamoriello was slowly, and cost-effectively, assembling the pieces that, when put together under the right leadership, would result in something special.

The 1996 Yankees began the post season against the Texas Rangers, a team known for its offensive prowess. New York won the best-of-five series in four games after significant contributions from Fielder, Hayes, and veteran role player Mariano Duncan, and advanced to the American League Championship against the rival Baltimore Orioles. Many believed the Yankees dream of their first title in almost twenty years was destined to end at the hands of a Cal Ripken-led Orioles squad that set a new record for home runs in a season (257), but the Yankees prevailed in five games, as rookie Derek Jeter emerged as a big-game player, punching their ticket to the World Series for the first time since 1981. The celebration was short-lived, though, as they would be facing the mighty Atlanta Braves, the defending World Champions and the most dominant team of the decade. Atlanta had breezed through the regular season, swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Division Series, and beaten the Cardinals in the NLCS. They looked like a lock to repeat as world champs.

This year, the New Jersey Devils entered the Stanley Cup playoffs under the radar, with Eastern Conference powerhouses like the Penguins, Flyers and Rangers getting all the attention. They outlasted the Florida Panthers in the first round, with rookie Adam Henrique clinching the series with a Game 7 overtime goal. They dispatched the Flyers in the second round, and grinded out a tough series win over the Rangers for the Eastern Conference title, with Henrique again clinching the series with a goal. Just as the ’96 Yankees rode the play of veteran role players (Duncan, Fielder, Hayes), sensational youngsters (Jeter, Pettitte, Rivera) and established stars (Paul O’Neill, David Cone) through the playoffs, the Devils have done the same this season. Veterans like Zidlicky and Bryce Salvador have made significant contributions,  Adam Henrique, already considered a top NHL rookie, has stepped his play up in the postseason, and the established stars like Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise have turned in solid performances. The contributions of the 4th line, consisting of Carter, Bernier and Gionta, three players who were plucked from obscurity by Lamoriello, have been unprecedented. But that’s not where the similarities between the two teams ends.

The ’96 Yankees had a habit of getting themselves into tight positions, often having to stage comebacks to win games. This year’s Devils team has habitually coughed up leads, both in games and series, and then come back to win. In the Florida series, they blew a 3-0 lead in Game 3, eventually losing 4-3 and falling behind in the series 2 games to 1. The Devils have also famously lost the first game of three of the four postseason series this season, their competitive fire fueling them to come back time after time.

In ’96, the Yankees faced the Atlanta Braves, a heavily favored juggernaut, and were quickly down two games to none after getting beaten soundly at home in games 1 and 2. As New Jersey heads to Los Angeles for Game 3 on Monday night, they find themselves in the same 0-2 hole. That Yankee team eventually rallied to win four straight, pulling together as a team like few have ever seen in the history of baseball. It’s gut-check time for this New Jersey Devils team, and Game 3 will reveal a lot about whether the similarities between these two teams just make sense on paper, or become legitimate in the form of a Stanley Cup Championship.