"In manure," interjects teammate John MacLean, gleefully.
"No, chemical fertilizer," corrects Verbeek. "You probably don't even know the difference."
Doctors reattached the finger, and Verbeek scored 25 goals the next season.
New Jersey also held on to its draft picks. It spent them wisely, except for the uninspired 1982 first-round selection of New York Islander star Bryan Trot-tier's younger brother, Rocky, who has since left the NHL. Between 1982 and '85 a core group was drafted and rushed into NHL action. But that bunch—forwards Verbeek, MacLean and Kirk Muller, now the Devils' 21-year-old captain, and defensemen Craig Wolanin and Ken Daneyko—were underexperienced and overwhelmed. They lost often and big, leading the league in lopsided defeats and acne.
"We got beat a lot," says MacLean, "but we also got a reputation for working hard." And although it was discernible to no one but themselves, the Devils made strides each season. Starting with 1983-84, their point totals have been 41, 54, 59, 64.
"This year we're working hard and accomplishing something," says MacLean, who broke a third-period 1-1 deadlock against the Rangers on Nov. 10 by beating two defensemen, then wristing the puck over John Vanbiesbrouck's glove. Nine minutes later Brendan Shanahan, the No. 2 overall pick in the 1987 entry draft, also scored, and the Devils won 3-2. To celebrate, the demonstrative rookie planted a wet kiss on the cheek of center Claude Loiselle, who got one of the assists. (Three days later the NHL suspended MacLean and Shanahan for one game for trying to climb out of the penalty box to get at some abusive fans during a 5-4 win at Pittsburgh on Oct. 21.)
The Devils have been working especially hard on defense. Last season their goals-against average of 4.56 was the worst in the league. "These guys are stars in juniors because they can put the puck in the net," says Carpenter. "When they get here, they aren't exactly defensive specialists." But the team made a commitment the first day of training camp, and Lamoriello's acquisition of center Patrik Sundstrom from Vancouver helped. Evidently, someone forgot to tell Sundstrom that he doesn't have to throw his body in front of slap shots, because Sundstrom absorbs a few every game. He plays defense as well as he scores, he backchecks, and he's an able penalty killer, usually; on Saturday New Jersey handed the Red Wings an inexcusable five power-play goals.
After 17 games the Devils had given up 52 goals—second fewest in the NHL—compared with 78 at the same time last season. "Defense has been a hard sell, but they finally bought it," says Carpenter.
Carpenter has never been surprised by the Devils' bumbling. "We just didn't have the horses," he says of the lean years. Now, with his team among the division leaders, he says, "This is a different team from last year." So much so that he has admitted he wouldn't be surprised if he were canned if New Jersey fails to make the playoffs this season. As skeptics and Ranger fans point out, the season is young, and the Devils have a bad habit of collapsing by January.
Speaking of the patience required to build anything worthwhile, Carpenter's favorite saw is: "It takes nine months to make a baby." Team Gestation may or may not be ready for delivery this season. Regardless, it's funny how much more becoming those uniforms look on a contender.