Jacques Lemaire Defends Coaching Decisions of 09-10 New Jersey Devils, Hits Back at Critics

Back on May 11, Rich Chere came out with an article featuring plenty of input from players, notably Jamie Langenbrunner, about the apparent locker room issues that undercut the 2009-10 New Jersey Devils.  It was a great article, but three quotes from it stuck out to me that I wrote about at length on that day. Honestly, they rubbed me the wrong way and, perhaps still colored by my distaste for Jamie Langenbrunner's disappearance in April, I wasn't really convinced in taking the player's side on this one.

I didn't write it then, but I wondered if the proverbial other shoe was going to drop.  Now that Jacques Lemaire is now retired and will take a different role within the Devils organization, I had my doubts that he'd say anything.  Well, Rich Chere did it again with this follow-up today; Lemaire definitely hit back at some of the criticism.  Even if he didn't intend to.

I'd like to juxtapose the three quotes from the article from Langenbrunner and the players that I pointed out with some quotes from Lemaire - and they are quotes - in response.   More, after the jump.

Quote #1: From Langenbrunner:

There were some differences of opinion when it came to dealing with a few issues," Langenbrunner said. "There were some things that were done that probably didn’t help the situation. For most of the season it was fine, up until Christmas."

It's never directly addressed in response in the Lemaire article since Langenbrunner was intentionally vague. But Quote #2 from the Langenbrunner article seems to mesh well with this. 

Quote #2: From Langenbrunner/Chere:

"There were a few things that happened, a few issues that were tough for me to let go. I probably didn’t handle them correctly. Not all personalities completely mesh, but they are able to work together. I had no problems with the way he treated me. It was more about team issues that we would never agree on."

Lemaire’s need to constantly juggle line combinations was questioned by some players and Ilya Kovalchuk’s freewheeling individual freedom and quarterbacking on the power play did not sit well with others.

In retrospect, I can't help but think these are at least some of "the issues" that led to "differences of opinion." The "things that were done that probably didn't help the situation."    Here's how Lemaire reacted to these questions:

"I look at the teams still in the playoffs right now. They match lines. I don’t see why we would be so special that we don’t have to match lines," Lemaire said.
   
"As far as switching the players on lines, Scotty Bowman has been known as a great coach and he moved players around a lot. There are a lot of coaches who move players around when things aren’t going well or playing against certain teams. I’ve done it my whole career. I don’t think it’s an issue. It could be an issue if you’re not good enough and you need to play with certain guys to get better. Then, for that particular guy, it would be an issue."

First off, let me elaborate on Lemaire's first statement: most teams at high levels of hockey match lines.  The 2010 Memorial Cup Final viewers were treated to eventual champions Windsor rolling their lines like machines in response to Brandon's changes.  Even when it was 9-1, the match-ups stayed constant.  The NHL teams in the playoffs who do line matching is even picked up by fans who do scoring chance analysis of teams they don't necessarily follow.   Junior teams line-match.  International teams line-match.  NHL teams both in the playoffs and otherwise line-match.

If the players had a beef with the line-matching, and the "I don't see why we would be so special" comment suggests that some did, then they really need to wise up.    I really, really hope that a veteran didn't have a problem with line-matching.

As far as the lineup changes go, Lemaire's point of view is clear.  He's been a part of it in his own career, he's witnessed over coaches, and he's done it throughout his own coaching career.  Of course, he's not going to see it as a problem.  Here, the player's (and fan's) complaints have some validity, since Lemaire's point boils down to, "This is what I've done, I don't see a need to change."

That said, his closing line was definitely a smack at a few players.  Come to think of it, a With Or Without You analysis may highlight who may fit that description of players who need to play with certain players to be successful. I know Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Paul Martin don't fit.  Granted, Kovalchuk didn't shine, but for some forwards the other option when not playing with Kovalchuk was Parise, who was the team's Corsi machine in 09-10. Maybe doing one for Langenbrunner or, say, Brian Rolston would yield some results?

Of course, even if it shows that Langenbrunner, for example, does so much better with Zajac and Parise than away from him, then that would mean all three should be kept together.  After all, some players have "it" with each other and some don't - nothing to do with talent or anything like that.

Oh, as for Kovalchuk, Lemaire had this response:

"He played different than the other guys because of his talent. I have no problem with that," Lemaire said. "He had 6-7 chances a game. You think I’m going to tell him to play defense? Come on. We’re looking to score goals here. Give me a break.
   
"I let him play as much as I could as long as it didn’t disturb the whole team: ‘Play the way you want, but be responsible when it’s time to come back and when it’s time to do the job in your zone.’ Which he was."

No one as far as I know does any scoring chance analysis for the New Jersey Devils, so I can't substantiate the 6-7 chances per game part. 

However, he's on point about his talent.  Gabe Desjardens noted how Ilya Kovalchuk's shooting is in a class of it's own in this post last Thursday and in this post today.  Kovalchuk's PDO from the last three seasons shows a player who can help maintain a relatively high team on-ice shooting percentage.  A quick look at Kovalchuk's GVT showed that, yes, Kovalchuk was responsible in his own zone when necessary while being an offensive contributor.  Granted, he wasn't as big of a contributor in NJ as he was in Atlanta on offense; but he still put up a point per game average.   Kovalchuk doesn't play like most of the other Devils and to cram him into that style and only have him play like that takes away from what makes Kovalchuk a great player.   

If other Devils don't like that, well, they should have taken it up with Lou; he's the one who made the move for him and precisely because of how he plays - and how he scores from that style.

So of course he was going to be given more of a "free role."  I get the decision and if it wasn't for his shooting percentage regressing to the mean like Wile E. Coyote off a cliff (17.3% with Atlanta, 9.0% with New Jersey), the decision would have been more visibly justified.

Quote #3: From Chere/Colin White:

Langenbrunner was unhappy about being a healthy scratch for the April 3 game in Raleigh, N.C., and remained silent on the matter for the next four days. He still will not discuss the incident in detail, but two other members of the organization suggested Lemaire disrespected Langenbrunner by trying to give the "C" to defenseman Colin White for that one game.

White wouldn’t wear it.

"I look up to Jamie. He is our leader," White said. "I’ve always looked up to him and I’ve told him that. I don’t think our (team’s) leadership can be challenged."

Oh, this leads to my favorite quote from Lemaire in this article.  Emphasis mine:

"That’s not a big deal. It could be a big deal for certain guys. It wasn’t big for me," Lemaire said. "Since I’ve been coaching, except for the first five years here, I’ve been switching captains every month and sometimes every two months. The ‘C’ went to different guys.

"I know that Scotty (Stevens) didn’t miss a lot of games, but I think I gave the ‘C’ to another guy when he missed some games. It was so we had a guy to represent the team in that particular game. I don’t like several guys having an ‘A.’ Then, who is the boss? Who is the leader, the man you’re going to refer to?
   
"That’s my philosophy. Obviously Jamie has a different philosophy and that’s OK. It’s the way I do things. Maybe you don’t (like) it, but I’m the one coaching. This is how I do things."

My first thought was, "POW! Lemaire doesn't play around when it's time to condense some nonsense." I can't help but feel that last line should be read out loud by Lou and whoever the new head coach will be at the beginning of the season and at intervals during the 2010-11 season.  It'll send a message as to who really is in control and perhaps quell any future "locker room issues."

My second thought was that Lemaire knew full well about Langenbrunner's complaint and just lowered the boom.   Bringing up Scott Stevens as an example was fantastic. Maybe Stevens didn't like it so much, but unless it was lost in the annals of history or victory, Stevens got his 'C' back when he was available again and didn't give any public sign of there being a problem. 

You know, like a captain, Jamie.

This all said, I'm glad Lemaire made his argument defending his actions, and I'm even more glad Chere followed up with Lemaire by referencing some of the issues raised in the earlier article from Langenbrunner and the players. It's great that both sides of the story came out.  I only quoted part of it, I highly recommend that you read it if nothing else.

It may seem like I'm totally in Lemaire's corner because I think he's in the right on some of these; but I do think the coach and his staff does share a good amount of the blame for how 2009-10 ended for New Jersey.  I'm not so sold on the "lines change because that's how I did it" argument, and I think good chunk of what I wrote about the coaching the right after Game 5 still applies. (Pointless Aside: That recap may be the most popular post in ILWT history.)  Again, even if everyone was happy and harmonious in the locker room, I don't think it's right to say that the Devils would have beaten Philadelphia in the first round.   I don't really agree that the Devils could have been in the Flyers' position now unless they at least started shooting at a rate they were expected to given their shot location, for starters.

Just as I said at the end of my own response to Chere's article with Langenbrunner and the players presenting their side of the story, we know there will be a new head coach.  Lou's making a change there.  Maybe he'll be "better" for the players; but it'll be up to the players themselves - and especially Langenbrunner - to ensure that relations go much better on their end in 2010-11.  Otherwise, another shoe is definitely going to drop.

That's my take on Chere's article about Lemaire. Thanks for reading, but now it's your turn.  Assuming you read the article, what's your take?  Do you have a different opinion - better or worse - on how Lemaire coached the Devils given what he told Chere today?  Do you have a different opinion of some of the players?  Maybe your opinion didn't change at all?  Let me know of what you think about this article, Lemaire, and the players relationship with Lemaire in the comments.

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