As the NHL playoffs start tonight below the Canadian border, one of the things I miss about seeing the Devils participate in them is the possibility of an unexpected big game, big series or big playoffs from unlikely sources. One of the charms of the postseason is that anyone can be a hero – whether stars, role players, stay-at-home defensemen or previously unheralded goalies. I still remember who John Druce is for example, because of a random big postseason for the Capitals. Fernando Pisani coming out of nowhere to go on a playoff scoring binge got the #8 seed Oilers to within a game of a Cup in 2006. More recently, Jordan Binnington’s breakout 2019 led the Blues to their first title, although because he’s had a solid career since he doesn’t really qualify as a one-hit wonder anymore, even if his run that year from an AHL backup to starter for a Cup winner is still among the most surprising in history.
Sometimes you can even have entire seasons come out of nowhere unlike anything before or since in a player’s career, although that’s even rarer than a playoff run. I have seen a few of those type of seasons as a Devil fan however, as well as some unexpected playoff surges. Disclaimer being that my frame of reference for the Devils at large more or less begins with 1993, so for the purposes of this blog I’m not going to cite anything from the 80’s or Alexander Semak’s big 1992-93 season, which would certainly be in the top five if I was including that. It deserves mentioning in this space though, considering Semak had 37 goals and 79 points that year, and never before or since got above 20 goals and 34 points in a season. I’m also not including something like Taylor Hall’s Hart Trophy season, even though it was obviously a one-off in his Devils career he had other big seasons before, so it wasn’t totally out of nowhere. It’s kinda tough to rank this list (especially given that I’m comparing seasons to playoff series), so I’ll start out going in chronological order and then try to rank a top five of Devils one-hit wonders at the end.
-Larry Robinson’s 2000-2001 season(s) – a bit of an outlier for a variety of reasons. For one he’s the only non-player I’m citing. For another, I’m combining the 2000 playoffs with the 2001 regular season so this is technically bending the rules, but considering Larry did take over just before the postseason in 2000 and led the team to their best regular season in history following that unexpected Cup run I wanted to combine them as one season. Although Larry’s various tenures as head coaches preceded my time on this blog, anyone that knows me knows I’ve always been a huge fan of him personally. You hardly ever see players as great as he was (and as hard-nosed) be as modest and unassuming as the man known as Big Bird.
As big a fan as I was of his though, his coaching record wasn’t particularly outstanding aside from 2000-2001. He made the playoffs once in four seasons in LA, getting swept out of the first round that year and was an afterthought when he came back to the Devils for a second tenure as an assistant…until coach Robbie Ftorek got fired late in the regular season and Larry took over a rocky ship going into the postseason. He got the ship back on course, leading the Devils through four 100-point teams and three tough series in the playoffs on the way to his one and only Cup as a head coach. That positive momentum carried into next season where the Devils led the conference with 111 points and the league with 295 goals scored. After a postseason that started bumpy before coming up just short of a second straight Cup, that’s when things really hit the skids for Larry as a head coach – fired just 51 games into the next season, then his second tenure also ended prematurely in 2005 when he resigned due to health reasons after 32 rocky games.
-Jeff Friesen’s 2003 playoffs – really this should be the last two rounds of the 2003 playoffs. Friesen had what I’d term a decent NHL career, lasted over a decade and had several 20+ goal and 50+ point seasons while topping 30 and 60 once, respectively. He was an okay second-line type of player but hardly someone you would normally remember twenty years later (outside of being part of a trade for fan favorite Petr Sykora), especially considering he had just 8 goals and 19 points in 55 playoff games outside of New Jersey. And in the first two rounds of the playoffs in 2003, he was still just another guy with two goals and an assist in ten games.
Then the last two rounds of the playoffs happened. Goals in Game 2 and 4 against Ottawa foreshadowed his memorable winner late in Game 7 (above). He kept up his scoring binge in the Finals with three goals in the first two games against Anaheim, and another pair in the decisive Game 7 – all 3-0 wins. Friesen was the toast of New Jersey for a short period of time but a meh 2003-04 followed by a scoreless postseason foreshadowed a quick end to his career post-lockout. Maybe he was just one of those guys that once he won the Cup, subsequently lost his motivation to play. I’m just glad he found top form long enough to help us get our most recent Cup.
-Brian Gionta’s 2005-2006 season – part of me wanted to include Scott Gomez as well, given he hit 33 goals (and never even got to 20 in another season) in what was a bit of a fluky offensive season league-wide. Gionta’s season deserved more notice though. And make no mistake, although he did have a long, solid career overall he never came close to hitting the 48-goal, 89-point heights he reached in 2006. I don’t think he even led the team in goalscoring or points again, overall he never got to 30 goals and only hit 60 points once after 2006 – barely at that.
But for one shining season he was the go-to guy when you needed a big goal, whether it was an OT winner, shootout winner or crunchtime goals. When the Devils needed to come from behind in the division race late in the season, Gionta provided the spark with nine goals in the team’s eleven straight wins down the stretch, including two in the team’s big comeback from three goals down in Montreal on the last day of the regular season, stealing the division title from the Rangers and Flyers at the last possible moment. He kept up his scoring binge against the Rangers in the first round, as his two goals and four assists helped the Devils pull off a memorable sweep of their bitter rivals and provided a nice punctuation to a feel-good 2006.
-Scott Clemmensen’s 2008-09 season – given that franchise legend Martin Brodeur played for two decades with unreal durability it’s hard for any goalie to make this list, but the season of Brodeur’s first major injury as a Devil saw an unlikely savior. With Brodeur missing nearly four months, it seemed as if the Devils’ long playoff streak (in the postseason every year since 1995-96) would come to an end. Clemmensen wasn’t even supposed to be the next man up so to speak, since the team had veteran goalie Kevin Weekes on the roster. However Weekes never really gained the full confidence of coach Brent Sutter, so when Clemmensen got his chance, the AHL goalie with only 28 unimpressive games at the NHL level before 2008-09 got hot early and rolled with it on his way to 25 of the Devils’ 51 wins that year. Clemmensen helped keep the team afloat till Brodeur’s return and gave the team a much-needed spark towards their unlikeliest division title ever.
-David Clarkson’s 2011-12 season – it’s actually hard to pick just one from 2011-12, as there were a multitude of surprises that year. I could go with the CBGB lines of Ryan Carter, Steve Bernier and Steven Gionta who had some big goals during our playoff run but really their overall numbers were less impressive than the folk hero status they earned during that postseason would have you think. I could go with Bryce Salvador’s playoff binge, as the stay-at-home defenseman with exactly zero goals (and nine points) in an 82-game season suddenly put up four goals and fourteen points in a 24-game postseason, but as inspiring as it was there just wasn’t any big, defining moment to punctuate it other than his goal in Game 5 against the Kings of a game we won but a series we lost. I can’t really qualify Adam Henrique as a one-hit wonder since he actually had a 30-goal season in the NHL, although he clearly never got as much attention for that as he did for his two series-winning goals in his rookie season.
I kinda think Clarkson was the biggest outlier anyway, as a no-talent grinder who somehow put up a 30-goal season around trips to the penalty box (138 PIM), and dubious wild wraparounds attempts on goal that Devil fans used to snicker and call Clarkarounds. Needless to say, he never even came close to 30 again (his previous career high was 17), though a fast start in 2013 helped cement his reputation as a ‘gritty goalscorer’ and earned him an insane contract from the Maple Leafs. More power to him, especially considering injury ended his career too early.
-Keith Kinkaid’s 2017-18 season – really this should just be 2018 because Kinkaid’s 2017 part of the season was miserable and his career hung in the balance in late December after a string of bad performances. However, when starting goalie Cory Schneider got hurt and subsequently lost his game, Kinkaid’s nine-week hot streak at the end of the season was fortuitously timed. Hall may have led the team to the playoffs, but they wouldn’t have gotten there without Kinkaid saving their bacon time and again down the stretch, with 18 of his team-leading 26 wins culminating in a 10-2-1 surge where he started every game and won a bunch of them with no margin for error (seven of them were either one-goal or SO wins). Before 2018 he was just a nice little story, an undrafted FA who had a nondescript few years as a backup on some bad Devils teams and after 2018 he reverted back into a pumpkin but for two crucial months, Kinkaid gave them their most important minutes between the pipes since Brodeur’s swan song in the 2012 playoffs.
I’ll leave out Larry from my top five, which had iffy qualification anyway and just rank the five players:
- Friesen (’03 playoffs) – probably a bit of winner’s bias here, since his is the only one that contributed to a Cup but so be it.
- Gionta (’05-06) – my favorite non-Cup surprise run, Gionta was just a likeable, hardworking guy whose season-long star turn provided a feel-good story to a season that started out real sour in the first couple months, juiced puck or not.
- Kinkaid (’17-18) – gave him the nod over Clemmensen just for the sheer importance of the stretch-run games he played. Didn’t put him over Gionta since his run didn’t last as long.
- Clemmensen (’08-09) – arguably an even bigger out-of-nowhere story than Kinkaid but while Kinkaid got to see his run through to the playoffs, Clemmensen got rooked of his chance. Maybe our dubious playoff series with the Canes was karmic payback for returning him to the AHL after he saved our season?
- Clarkson (’11-12) – I can’t put it any higher, especially given the sheer amount of surprises during that season which overshadowed Clarkson at different points.