One of the larger issues surrounding the New Jersey Devils throughout this tumultuous 2010-11 season has been the performance of the players themselves. As many mistakes MacLean has made as head coach and as many things have blown up in Lou's face, only the players can control what they do on the ice. How can a team that brought back 8 forwards, 4 defensemen, acquired 2 veteran forwards, and signed 2 veteran defensemen routinely make critical mistakes on the ice? How is it that a team of mostly veteran hockey player continue to suffer at simple tasks like passing the puck or how to cover a player on defense?
It's one thing to have a few bad games and it's another to just have a slump (Mattias Tedenby is now the only forward shooting above 10% for the season, Lemaire will reap the eventual regression to the mean, FYI), but for most of the 34 games the Devils have played so far, it gets ridiculous that we see the same mistakes, the same lack of adjustments, and the same results over and over.
John MacLean and the coaching staff couldn't figure it out. Therefore, he was fired. While the assistants remain with interim head coach Jacques Lemaire, the reaction to firing by some of the players along with Thursday's 5-1 loss to the Islanders is especially eye-opening. One of the first ones I read came from Martin Brodeur in this post by Dave Hutchinson of the Star-Ledger:
"Hey, we just had a guy who communicated with the players and everybody liked and we won nine games," said veteran goalie Martin Brodeur.
Everyone liked MacLean and they only won 9 games. I don't know about you, but says volumes about this team.
Along with some of other quotes by the players makes me want to ask the larger question: If MacLean was liked so much, why in the world did the team play so poorly on most nights? Wouldn't one want to step up their game in spite of whatever MacLean does since they liked him so much? It makes no sense to me, and it probably made less to Lou. Which had to have factored into the decision to make Jacques Lemaire the interim head coach instead of anyone else. That decision sent a clear message to the players, especially Jamie Langenbrunner; this is the boss for the rest of the season, learn to deal with it or else.
Brodeur expanded on that quote from before the jump in the Star-Ledger's first post, by Hutchinson and Steve Politi:
"When there's change, there's always an excitement level but when you look back ... it's unfortunate something had to happen," Brodeur said. "We never gave him a chance to be his own man. I've been through this 12 times. They're all the same. It's nothing anybody wanted. We all have to take responsibility. We're looking forward to having Jacques back and to see if we can get better."
"He has been here before. He knows what we can do. I don't blame John MacLean. You feel like you let him down."
Ilya Kovalchuk was a little more terse, as he told Tom Gulitti the following:
"He is a nice guy," Kovalchuk said. "It’s unfortunate, but something has to happen when the team is struggling."
Notice the general sentiment of resignation. It's "unfortunate." It's "our responsiblity." We "let him down."
So why in the hell did no one speak up in any of the 33 games he was head coach to play for the guy they liked?
I probably won't get an answer to that question, but I just had to ask it. Either way, it leads me to this key takeaway from this decision: the players liked MacLean but clearly not enough to play competent hockey for him. This is a locker room that needs someone who will be not be their friends, but be their boss.
The most interesting quote, to me, came from the team captain Jamie Langenbrunner. He was quoted in the Star Ledger's initial report by Hutchinson and Steve Politi:
"Whenever a coach is fired, he's the one taking the fall but it's really on us," captain Jamie Langenbrunner said. "Not just me -- we all should've done more. I guess when you get over the failure part, you feel like you have a new start, a new beginning.
This isn't the first time Langenbrunner has stood up for MacLean. He's done so after the 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh, reported here by Rich Chere. That quote is of interest also because it was a repeated sentiment, having given a similar response after a 5-2 loss against San Jose back on October 27, reported here by Chere. In both of those quotes, Langenbrunner hoped MacLean wouldn't take the fall for the team's awful performances while claiming the problem is in the room. It's just about 2 months after the San Jose game and, well, the problem apparently hasn't been found despite the possibility that it's as large as an elephant.
Langenbrunner has been the subject of frustration by many Devils fans. He dogged it in the 2010 playoffs. It came out after the first round loss in May, thanks to this article by Rich Chere, that he and some other players had problems with Lemaire starting from the end of 2009 through the rest of the season. (Aside: Here was my take on it, and here's Lemaire's response to Chere's original article.) Some have not forgotten that story, as it was an in a few initial reactions to the announcement of Lemaire as an interim head coach per Kevin's post. Therefore, Langenbrunner can claim that there's no issue as much as he wants to the press, he needs to show it. And giving Josh Bailey a perfect pass in the Devils' end of the rink is a terrible first step.
Besides, who honestly can listen to Langenbrunner? While Langenbrunner is the captain, I had to question whether anyone was listening to him well over a month ago. Given the team's 9-23-2 record, it only serves to strengthen my skepticism. I don't know if he's even trying to spark his own game, much less anyone else's game. With Lemaire's retirement, Langenbrunner and his crew got what they wanted. Now look at them. It's one thing to talk, but the results lead me to the same conclusion many came with MacLean: whatever he's doing ain't working.
Personally, I think the decision to make Lemaire the interim head coach was the right one, and one of those reasons is that it is a sign that more change for the Devils will come. After all, Lou Lamoriello replaced John MacLean, who was an assistant for a long time with the Devils but proven to be in over his head as a NHL head coach, with Lemaire, a coach with experience and will demand accountability. Lemaire isn't what one would call a player's coach, and his return alone certainly didn't lead to an immediate inspiration by the players.
All it does is give more reason for Lou to make some changes. Lou has been patient to a fault in making a coaching change, and it's pretty clear to me that Lemaire has Lou's full backing. Should Lemaire get this team to play smarter and sharper hockey, then you can be sure that the next head coach for 2011-12 will be more similar to Lemaire in terms of systems and philosophy.
That was the other key takeaway from this move with respect to the players. Lou's played his hand: Lemaire-style coaching is going to be the way forward unless it crashes and burns like MacLean. There will be accountability, there will be more complete efforts from all involved. Lemaire doesn't really care if he's liked, he wants competitive play regardless of how meaningless it may seem. I take that to mean the days of relying on one player or one line or a few breaks to succeed are over. That the players need to collectively believe - not say, but truly understand in their hearts and minds - that the games aren't easy, that if something bad happens you work through it instead of sulk, and you get burnt when you make mistakes. It sounds silly to say that for a veteran heavy lineup, but their collective play this season seriously requires it.
As for Langenbrunner and those devoted to him, if they want to stay in New Jersey, then they have but one choice:
For some of the Devils in the locker room, it's going to be quite difficult for them to deal with it. They will likely be the ones moved in some manner. Anyone who isn't willing to be held accountable for making a dumb mistake will not be happy with this and not likely last. Anyone who's rather have a manager as their friend instead of a manager will not be pleased. Anyone who flopped on Thursday night better be ready to play like they are on fire on Sunday. The players, Langenbrunner especially, must learn to deal with Lemaire or they will be gone sooner (if they have no clauses blocking a move) or later (if they do).
The holiday roster freeze ends at midnight on December 27. I look forward as to whether Lou does in the coming week or so to start cleaning out a locker room that apparently and sorely needs it. Perhaps we'll see something that hasn't been done before in New Jersey.