Wednesday, May 21, 2008

'94 Devils = '08 Hornets (?)

Nothing sucks more than seeing your team get dumped after having a commanding playoff series lead. After this happened to my Hornets, I sat back and thought about how oddly similar this whole situation is to what my New Jersey Devils went through 14 years ago. Yes, I agree with you, this is an interesting attempt at correlation here. Two different sports, 14 years apart. Despite that, I feel that there are some interesting similarities. They're not exact, but there are some things that just make you think. Let's start with the Devils.

Heading into the '93-'94 season, the Devils really had not done anything of note. Since the franchise's inception back in 1974 as the Kansas City Scouts, they had only made it past the first round of the playoffs once (losing to Boston in the conference finals 4-3 in 1988). While they routinely made it to the playoffs, it was just barely as they were typically the #4 seed in the Patrick Division (equivalent of a 7/8 seed today). After cycling through 7+ coaches in 7 years (the late Herb Brooks being the most recent), the Devils decided to give a shot to Jacques Lemaire. At the time of his hire, he was the assistant GM (and former coach) of the Montreal Canadiens. He was also a winner of 8 Stanley Cups during his time playing in Montreal. This was a move the Devils would not come to regret.

Lemaire inherited a relatively young team. He had a nice nucleus with Claude Lemieux, Scott Stevens, and John MacLean as well as a nice batch of young talent in the form of a 22-year old Bobby Holik, 22-year old Bill Guerin, 20-year old Scott Niedermayer, and 21-year old Martin Brodeur. Brodeur had been drafted 4 years earlier in the 1st round with hopes that he could he the cornerstone goalie the team had lacked for many years. Lemaire also installed the trap defense, which immediately worked wonders in New Jersey. With the core being in place for some time already, he quickly put everything together and in his first year as coach, the Devils experienced their best regular season in franchise history. The upstart Devils then eeked out of the first couple rounds of the playoffs before meeting up with the #1 seed Rangers. While they weren't the defending champs, they easily had the best record in the NHL (Devils having the second best) and blitzed through their first two series (though they were against the #8 and #7 seeds).

This was an epic matchup between two bitter rivals. Through 5 games, the Devils held a commanding 3-2 series lead. At that point, Mark Messier guaranteed victory in Game 6, held up that guarantee, and iced up a 4-2 victory with a hat trick. The Devils totally choked in that game as they led following two periods. Unfortunately, my 8-year old self was there to witness this all unfold. Game 7 was a close one, but a heartbreaker in the end. Valeri Zelepukin of the Devils tied up the game with less than a minute to go in regulation but they fell in double overtime to a wraparound goal by Stephane Matteau. I'll never be able to erase the memory of that goal. I can still play the video of it in my head. Not only that, but I remember the audio as well: "MATTEAU, MATTEAU, STEPHANE MATTEAU!!!" That was not a fun night. As you can see, it still scars me to this day.

However, much to my delight, that was likely the turning point for the franchise. Those Devils knew what it felt like to experience a crushing defeat. One person that I'm sure felt the pain was rookie of the year Martin Brodeur. He was only 22 years old at the time and got so close before falling in the end. In all, it was a great season with a disappointing ending.

Now, let's check out the Hornets. In Charlotte, they had some good teams with Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson but never really panned out. They made it to the playoffs but could never get over that 2nd round hump. After many seasons of disappointment and distrust between the ownership and fans, the Hornets moved to New Orleans. After they moved to New Orleans, they did decent when they were still in the Eastern Conference, making the playoffs in their first two seasons. However, they were knocked out of the playoffs in the 1st round each time and subsequently fired head coach Tim Floyd after the ’03-’04 season.

After canning their second coach in as many years, the Hornets struck gold with Byron Scott. Scott, a 3-time NBA Champ as a player, had been fired in the middle of the previous season, despite the New Jersey Nets being in first place (something the New Jersey Devils seem to do often as well). Byron had led the Nets to 2 NBA Finals yet got booted because Jason Kidd is a little baby…but that’s neither here nor there. The first year for Scott ('04-‘05) was pretty rough as New Orleans started 2-29 and only won 18 games, a franchise record for inferiority. Not only that, but that season saw them deal away their franchise point guard in Baron Davis as well as mainstay Jamal Mashburn. To add insult to injury, they fell out of a lottery pick, grabbing the #4 slot. Lucky for them, Chris Paul was available there. The Hornets grabbed out him of Wake Forest with hopes that he would be that big-time franchise point guard the team desperately needed.

As we all know, Hurricane Katrina tore through the city of New Orleans a couple of months before the ’05-’06 NBA Season, causing the Hornets to relocate to Oklahoma City. Even though they effectively played their entire season on the road, the Hornets made a 20 game improvement, led by their Rookie of the Year, Chris Paul. After that season, the Hornets made 2 huge, key deals in acquiring Tyson Chandler for the disgruntled J.R. Smith (and P.J. Brown) as well as signing sharpshooter Peja Stojakovic. Unfortunately, they didn’t see many results the following season, finishing only one game better than the season prior. Much of that was due to the fact that Peja, David West, and Chris Paul all missed significant amounts of time due to injury.

The next year, those injuries fortunately did not occur. With a healthy team led by a young core of Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler and David West, they finished with the best record in Hornets history. Heading into the playoffs, many teams didn’t give them a chance due to lack of experience, but that didn’t stop them from blitzing through the first round and taking the first 2 against the defending champion Spurs. Unfortunately, we all know how that story ends, with the Spurs defeating the Hornets in 7 games after the Hornets held a 3-2 series lead. Now, that is where the story currently sits with the Hornets. Let us now pick up where we left off with the Devils.

Despite failing to reach the finals in a devastating manner, they bounced back for the '94-'95 strike shortened season. While their regular season wasn't terribly impressive, they made it to the playoffs as a #5 seed, and then flipped a switch. They easily dispatched the Bruins and Penguins in the first two rounds (respectively) 4-1. This set up an Eastern Conference final against the Flyers who they too defeated fairly easily, winning that series 4-2. In the Finals, the Devils were going up against the big, bad Detroit Red Wings. The Wings sailed to the best record in the NHL and went 12-2 in the Western Conference Playoffs. Nobody gave the Devils a chance. They were too young and too inexperienced. Well, the critics should have given them a chance. New Jersey stunned the world by blowing out Detroit, sweeping the Wings and outscoring them 16-7 in the series.

Does this mean that the Hornets are destined to win the NBA Championship next year? One cannot say for sure but I definitely hope so. Let us recap and look into the similarities a bit more.

  • Both franchises were mediocre, at best, heading into their seasons where they made their first big push. Neither team had accomplished much of anything.
  • In their breakout seasons, the Hornets and Devils both recorded their best regular season records in franchise history while both head coaches won their respective Coach of the Year Awards.
  • Byron Scott and Jacques Lemaire both won multiple championships as players.
  • Both teams had the 2nd best record in their respective conference during their breakout seasons.
  • The Devils and Hornets, while getting eliminated in different rounds, were both up with a commanding 3-2 lead over a heavily favored opponent.
  • While many acknowledged both teams were good, many did not give them a chance to due youth and inexperience.
  • Both teams were anchored by a young, franchise player. Martin Brodeur for the Devils and Chris Paul for the Hornets.
  • Both of those players won Rookie of the Year accolades.
  • The two teams had solid, young cores.
  • Martin Brodeur was 22 when the Devils were eliminated by the Rangers while Chris Paul was 23 when eliminated by the Spurs…and they share the same birthday, May 6th.

Now I don’t know about you, but that kinda creeped me out. Martin Brodeur has and always will be my favorite hockey player ever. I definitely credit him with building my interest in hockey, particularly in 1994. I was always a Hornets fan, but never have followed the NBA like I do now. Chris Paul is easily my favorite player in the game and I credit him for building my interest in the NBA here in 2008. The fact that they share the same birthday is pretty weird.

Say what you will about my comparison, but there are certainly some similarities between the two teams. If there is one thing you must admit, it is that the Hornets are a team on the rise and will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. I can only hope that they have a run of success similar to what the Devils experienced for a decade.

Now wouldn't that be somethin'?

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