After today's 3-2 win over the Boston Bruins (my recap of the game is here), interim head coach of the New Jersey Devils, Jacques Lemaire, announced his retirement. As reported by Tom Gulitti after the game, Lemaire will go back to being a Special Assignment Coach with the Devils organization. He's leaving on his own terms and fully deserves it. No matter what others say, Lemaire will leave the coaching position with every reason to hold his head high and all other observers to give him the respect they deserve.
To that extent, Lemaire deserves a proper sending off; and for that, an overview of the situation he came into and what he accomplished. All of this will come, after the jump.
The First Retirement
When Lemaire last retired, it came shortly after the Devils' first round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. His coaching in that series was certainly a point of criticism, something I went on at length after Game 5 of that series. It wouldn't be long for change. The announcement was made on April 26. Not long after his exit, Rich Chere reported that there was friction in the back between Jamie Langenbrunner (among others) and Lemaire on May 11. Between the locker room issues and the 2010 playoffs, Lemaire left the coaching game with more of a whimper than a bang. John MacLean was hired and it was seen as a good thing back in June 2010.
As we know now, the 2010-11 season went all kinds of awry under MacLean. The team flailing through the first three months of the season. To say that John MacLean, Lemaire's replacement, had struggled would be an understatement. I tried to be fair as possible, arguing that there's only so much MacLean and his staff can do - the first half woes were as much on the players and uncontrollable factors as it was on him. Yet, as the losses mounted, it became clear that MacLean was at least part of the problem and sticking with him would be not lead to a solution. At 9-22-2 (20 points), John MacLean got the axe on December 23. He was replaced by Lemaire, of all people.
You can get a taste of the initial reaction in this post by Kevin on the day of the announcement from Devils fans and abroad. The media was mixed on the "retreading" of Lemaire, with the most stupid article coming from Scott Burnside of ESPN - something I responded to on Christmas here. As for my opinion at the time, I had two thoughts. First, after his first loss as a interim head coach, Lemaire emphasized that his goal was to get the team to be competitive once again, per this post of his first press conference by Tom Gulitti. At the time, I felt that alone justified the decision to name him as the replacement. Second, I felt this was a message sent to the players. A message most eventually got but one that Jamie Langenbrunner ultimately didn't get which had something to do with dealing him to Dallas on January 8 in retrospect.
As far as the goal of getting the team to be competitive, we can say Lemaire certainly accomplished this task. However, let us not forget that it didn't happen overnight. Under Lemaire, the Devils went 1-7, allowing a total of 27 goals while scoring only 13. Defensive gaffes were rife and the offense still stalled. The struggles continued at first. It didn't immediately look like there would be change. But after January 9, the Devils started turning things around. The defensive errors were reduced. The Devils had some streaks of scoring and managed to not finish below 6% at evens like they were flirting with at the end of December. They strung wins together. They won close game after close game. The Devils finally got some breaks and the players looked more like the players many expected to see.
This is not to say Lemaire did nothing and just benefited from some better luck. Lemaire got the players' attention and made sure they'd listen to his instruction. He called out the players for being out of shape. He got on players' cases in games. He benched some players - notably Mattias Tedenby - so they can understand what they need to be doing on the ice. He would shout at guys in practice as instruction. Lemaire didn't always play nice or come across as sensible. We all had our gripes at one point or another about what he did or didn't do (see: the power play), but the Devils respected and responded to him. And they have every reason to miss him.
All of this translated to far better performances en route to a final record of 38-39-5. That's 61 points (29-17-3) earned in 49 games, a point percentage of 62.2%. A far sight better than the 30.3% under MacLean. It coalesced to a point in February and early March where a Devils fan could think about the playoffs, while still a long shot, without being totally delusional. The playoff dreams practically ended in late March and mathematically so on April 2. Remember: this team was dead last with only nine wins at Christmas. They kept faint hopes alive for three whole months and clawed themselves to a far-more-respectable 23rd place in the league. Opponents stopped regarding the Devils as doormats and only blind fools in the media and hockey fanbases felt otherwise. Pride was restored, even without a trip to the postseason.
Above all else, Lemaire did at least help make sure the Devils became a competitive team. Guys would support each other in their own end. The defense made the effort to keep pucks in play while not losing their position. Lines and pairings were kept together as the forwards and defensemen did their job more effectively, with changes only coming in as needed. When mistakes and bad breaks happened, they didn't always sulk. They re-asserted themselves and tried to make the most of it. I'm not saying this happened in every game; but it happened a lot more often and, unsurprisingly, it led to better games and better results. Given that was Lemaire's main goal after that first defeat to the Islanders on December 23, I would say he certainly accomplished it.
This team was incredibly difficult to watch under MacLean. Under Lemaire, they could hang with any team in the league - from an incredibly-hot San Jose squad to Our Hated Rivals to a road game in Columbus to a home game against Toronto that doesn't mean anything for either side a week from the game. As a fan and a ticket-buying one at that, I cannot fully put into words how important that was.
And now he's gone. When Lemaire was announced as MacLean's replacement back in December, Lou did say Lemaire would be the interim head coach only for this season, as reported by Rich Chere. Now that it's actually happening, I would be lying to say that I wish this wasn't the case. I would be more than happy to see Lemaire coach another season. While I don't think the Devils would go 23-3-2 at any point under Lemaire again, they certainly wouldn't go 9-22-2 in their first 33 games either. Still, this day would eventually come and now is as good as time as any. Lemaire can retire for good knowing he turned around a team that was as close to dead as you could get in December to be respectable by the end of April.
What I'll miss most is his wisdom. Lemaire has forgotten more about hockey and I could ever learn and this final quote from him is particularly heartening for the future. As reported here by Gulitti:
"They’re [the players] the ones that makes it happen," Lemaire said. "It’s not us. It’s not me. It’s not the other guy. It’s not the guy before. It’s not the guy after. It’s them. And they have to take care of business."
This is too true. To you and me, it may be clear that this is a team that needs someone who will be difficult with them, who will challenge them, who will ride them when they make errors, and most of all, someone who will command their respect instead of being a "player's guy." Those are qualities I will hope the next head coach of this team will have. Qualities MacLean didn't really have, as far as we know.
Yet, Lemaire's quote argues differently - it's up to the players to follow what the coach says and get it done on the ice. Per Gulitti, Patrik Elias may hope the next coach will be someone they'll want to play for next season. Elias and the rest of the Devils would be wise to commit this quote from Lemaire to memory. It's all up to them. Like anything else in life, either you want to be successful and will put in the effort or you don't and you won't. We shall see if that happens or not in 2011-12. Lemaire will be in the organization; but I doubt he'll make a fourth return to the Devils' bench if things go awry again. I do hope he does offer his input if requested, though.
In any case, the now-former head coach played an important role in salvaging the season and restoring the Devils' dignity. On the behalf of all Devils fans, thank you Jacques Lemaire.