Scott Gomez Looks to Rejoin Devils Fold

Scott Gomez left the Devils in 2007 for the team’s biggest rivals, now the Devils are giving Gomez a chance to prove he can still play in the National Hockey League seven years later. Gomez has been invited to the Devils training camp, which opens on September 18 at AmeriHealth Pavilion. He is currently sixth in franchise history in career assists (with 334) and points (450).

The man affectionately known by his teammates as “Gomer” was born on December 23, 1979 in Anchorage, Alaska. Gomez played his junior hockey with the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League and made the WHL’s All-Rookie team in 1998. During the 1998-99 season, he scored 108 points in 58 games and made the WHL West First All-Star team. He was chosen by the Devils 27th overall in the first-round of the 1998 NHL Draft and burst on to the scene in 1999-2000, scoring 19 goals and 70 points in his rookie campaign. This performance would net him the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year and a spot on the NHL All-Rookie Team, in a season where the Devils also won the Stanley Cup. Gomez became just the fifth native of Alaska to suit up for a NHL team in league history that season. Gomez followed that performance up with 14 goals and 63 points in 2000-01 as the Devils reached the Stanley Cup finals, only to lose to the Colorado Avalanche in seven games. Gomez and the Devils had reached the last round of the playoffs in his first two seasons in the league. He would go on to win one more Stanley Cup with the Devils in 2003.

Gomez had two of his best seasons with the Devils in 2003-04 and 2005-06 (he played for his hometown Alaska Aces of the ECHL during the lockout-canceled 2004-05 season). In 2003-04, he had 14 goals and 70 points (equaling his 70 point total in his rookie year); his 56 assists that season tied Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the league lead. In 2005-06, he had a NHL-career best 84 points (33 goals and 51 assists). During his time with the Devils, Gomez would also represent the United States at the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino, where the US finished eighth. He also played in the 2000 NHL All-Star Game in Toronto. During the lockout-canceled season where he played for the Aces, he won the Most Valuable Player award in the ECHL and was named to the ECHL First All-Star Team.

But all of this success would lead to his downfall in the eyes of Devils fans. Gomez had gone to arbitration in the summer of 2006 and the Devils and General Manager Lou Lamoriello would agree to a $5 million, one-year contract for him for the 2006-07 season. The following year, he would become an unrestricted free agent. On the first day of free agency, July 1, 2007, Gomez signed a $51.5 million, seven-year contract eight miles away in Manhattan. Scott Gomez was now a New York Ranger.

Gomez would remain productive for the Rangers in the first year of his contract, again totaling 70 points (16 goals and 54 assists) in that maiden season, but fell off in his second year (his last in New York) to 58 points (16 goals again and 42 assists). During the 2009 offseason, he was traded to the Montreal Canadiens along with Tom Pyatt and Michael Busto for Christopher Higgins, Doug Janik, Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko. In three seasons with the Habs, Gomez never scored more than 59 points (12 goals and 47 assists in his first season in Montreal). His output would trail off and he would only play 38 games in his last season with the Canadiens (2011-12). After the new collective bargaining agreement was reached following the 2012-13 lockout, Gomez was placed on unconditional waivers and bought out by the Habs, making him a free agent in January of 2013. Gomez would spend the rest of that shortened season with the San Jose Sharks on a one-year contract. He signed the next July with the Florida Panthers on a one-year contract for the 2013-14 season. He would appear in only 46 games for the Panthers, scoring 12 points, including two goals.

When the opportunity came up for free agency again this offseason, Gomez told that he had received several offers, including doing some TV work. However, Gomez feels that he still has “a lot to prove.” He mentioned that he went to the Devils, not vice versa. He said “I had some other teams call, but we went to [general manager] Lou [Lamoriello] and I just said, ‘Give me the opportunity to make the team.’” Lamoriello stated that he would give “every opportunity” to Gomez to make the team.

The real question is whether or not Devils fans will accept Gomez back. While there will be some who will be happy to see him “come home,” there are others within the fanbase who would surely have longer memories. Gomez left for the Rangers, not the Minnesota Wild or the Toronto Maple Leafs. There is only one sin equal to signing with New York as a free agent in Devils fan’s eyes, and that is signing with the Flyers. True others have done it (Bruce Driver and Bobby Holik signed with the Rangers as well – and Holik would make a return to the Devils in 2008) the difference is that Gomez was not at the tail end of his career like those two players were. He was a beloved superstar who was just coming in to his prime when he chose to take his talents to Manhattan. Will fans forgive him for these transgressions should he make the team?

All of that aside, it shows how, when it comes to Lou Lamoriello, there are really no final farewells with the Devils. If Gomez returns, he would join Holik, Brian Rolston, Brendan Shanahan, Petr Sykora and others who have left the Devils only to return in the waning days of their careers.

How will all of this play out? Can Scott Gomez resurrect a NHL career many thought was on life support? Will the Devils celebrate a return of a former star that made a choice to go elsewhere for a huge contract? We will get to watch all of this play out in a little more than three weeks as training camp gets under way.

Devils Owners Named Tops on ‘Most Influential’ List

One year to the month after buying the financially struggling Devils from Jeff Vanderbeek, new owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer have been named the most influential people in New Jersey sports by Star-Ledger columnist Steve Politi. The duo bought the team and its arena, Prudential Center, in August of 2013 and have worked to make a team that has had success on the ice, but not in its finances, work in a crowded sports market.

The New York market has plenty of options for hockey fans. Being the youngest of New York’s three teams (not to mention the Flyers, since New Jersey fans can be torn between two metropolitan areas often times) the Devils have always had an uphill battle to face to grab fans from the established teams. Consider that when New Jersey entered the NHL, the Islanders were already in the middle of their run of four Stanley Cup victories, the Flyers would reach the Finals two years before the Devils came to New Jersey (losing to the Islanders in 1980) and three years after (losing to Edmonton in 1985) and the Rangers were the long-established Original Six club. The Blueshirts are hockey bluebloods and their fans were long established, Ranger fandom was often passed down from parent to child.

But the Devils did things the old-fashioned way; they dug in and won hockey games in order to gain new fans and converts alike. But not even Stanley Cup victories in 1995, 2000 and 2003 and Finals appearances in 2001 and 2012, plus a run of playoff appearances that stretched from 1988 to 2009 with only one missed year, a record that easily makes them the most successful of the area’s NHL franchises in the last twenty years, could stave off the tide of financial woes. By 2013, the Devils were in bad shape. Even the roof of their new $325-million arena was leaking. As Politi recounts in his article, the roof of the Prudential Center was damaged during Hurricane Sandy and was never repaired correctly. This meant that during heavy rains, the team needed to lay out buckets to collect the water. Politi points out the metaphor that is clearly present regarding the Devils financial situation.

Enter Harris and Blitzer, owners of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. Harris alone is worth about $2.5-billion, making $397-million last year with his Apollo Global Management; according to Politi (he mentions that similar numbers were not available for Blitzer). The two men have overhauled the way the Devils do things off the ice and have even pushed for a few changes for how they do things on the ice. Politi says that they have, along with CEO (of the team and the arena) Scott O’Neil and Business Operations President, Hugh Weber, “hired 80 new employees to bolster sales, boosting season tickets to 9,000.” On the arena front, they have changed how the fans experience the game by upgrading food options and in-game entertainment and bringing in Ritz-Carlton to provide customer service training for employees of “the Rock.” They have also helped to smooth things over with Newark officials (there was a fall-out between city government and the Devils during Vanderbeek’s ownership) that has brought renewed talk “of a NJ Transit substation and a park outside the arena entrance.” In addition, Politi mentions that the two have put efforts into revitalizing Newark. Harris provided capital for the city “to finish the Indigo Hotel project on Broad Street.” Part of the reason the men made the investment in the Devils (many of their business partners had advised against it) was because they believe in the New Jersey market as a viable sports market and are dedicated to helping rebuild New Jersey’s beleaguered cities. They have also committed to build a practice facility for the Sixers in Camden. In a separate column in The Star-Ledger, Politi mentioned that the owners want to see a better fan experience outside of the Prudential Center. Blitzer told Politi: “There should be more restaurants. There should be more places for people to go before a game or after a game.”

On the ice performance-wise, Politi says that they have convinced Lou Lamoriello “to create an analytics division within the hockey operations department.” The department is being spearheaded by former professional poker player Sunny Mehta. A New Jersey native, Mehta has done statistical analysis of NHL games and has been published on the topic. But beyond that, they have allowed for the Devils to compete with other teams for top free agents and keep players in a Devils uniform. Evidence of this is the locking up of Cory Schneider and Andy Greene to long-term contracts. Overall, though, they tend to leave the hockey stuff to Lamoriello. As Blitzer told Politi, “Lou is fantastic at what he does.” Although Politi does bring up the question of what would happen to Lou should the team miss the playoffs for a third straight year.

The Devils have rarely had trouble getting it done on the ice, but when the new ownership came in, as Harris told Politi, “The team was living literally hand to mouth and barely staving the creditors off.” The team was in dire financial straits and in just one year, Josh Harris and David Blitzer have done so much to turn things around. They are dedicated to New Jersey and utilizing their sports properties to help the state and it the residents of its hardest-hit cities. To top it off, the two men are about one main thing when it comes to the Devils: winning. Harris summed it up best when he told Politi: “[Last year] was a disappointing season, I was unhappy. I didn’t like being home watching the playoffs on TV. I wanted to be in the playoffs. It’s not lost on me. At the same time, good people and good systems can have disappointing years, and we’re focused on making this a successful franchise over the long term.”

Time will tell, but when the Devils take the ice next month for the preseason we just might get a little bit of a glimpse into the future.