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Greg Wyshynski

The smothering defense of Minnesota coach Jacques Lemaire

Greg Wyshynski
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The most unintentionally hilarious thing you'll read today can be found in a terrific Michael Russo feature on Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire. You see, one of the reasons Lemaire decided to return to the bench this season was the uninhibited joy his players exhibit ... when scoring a goal.

"See, this is why I coach. I want the guys to be like this." Jacques Lemaire, the man who has more experience with traps than the totality of Batman and Robin's rouges gallery, is never happier than watching a celebrating of offensive success. Goodness.

Like I said in the Wild preview earlier this week: I've seen the best and worst of Lemaire hockey while he was coaching the New Jersey Devils. But I never heard the Devils so defiantly defend his style of coaching as much as the Wild management has over the years.

Perhaps because he's the only coach in franchise history, and hence this is the style of hockey with which the Wild are synonymous; if it's the only platform you can run on, better defend the platform. Fans who recalled North Stars seasons in which they'd consistently score above the league average for goals have no doubt struggled with this franchise-wide Lemaire Doctrine. (Just a guess, but Neal Broten probably isn't having a 105-point season on the 2008 Minnesota Wild.)

But GM Doug Risebrough really doth protest too much about criticism of Lemaire's coaching style. Way, way too much.

From Russo in the Star Tribune:

Risebrough blows a gasket when asked such questions. "I've never had anybody tell me ever they don't want to play for Jacques Lemaire," Risebrough said. "In fact, players tell me all the time, 'Jacques Lemaire made me the player I am today, Jacques Lemaire resurrected my career.'"

Risebrough said Lemaire's defensive reputation is unfair when one considers most NHL teams play the same way.

"I mean, look at the results," Risebrough said. "Our best player [Marian Gaborik] is in the top of the league as best players in the league. Our youngest players are getting through the system faster than most players are in their systems and coming out as accomplished players. Players that are coming in from organizations are having their best years here. Brian Rolston had his best years in the NHL here.

"When people are making comments about Jacques Lemaire, they're making very ill-informed comments because they don't know or don't spend time looking at what they see."

Let's start with the claim that Brian Rolston had his best years in the NHL with the Wild. Statistically, this claim is factual: Rolston's best offensive season (79 points) was his first in Minnesota, as was his second best (64). Was it Lemaire's coaching? How about this wacky theory: Rolston was given more offensive responsibility than he was with the Boston Bruins playing behind Glen Murray and Joe Thornton. Hence, better stats.

But getting back to Rolston: Wild Puck Banter's 2006 list of the top free agent signings in Minnesota Wild history is nearly still valid today. Clearly, someone out there doesn't want to play for Lemaire. Just because old soldiers like Jim Dowd and Willie Mitchell vouch for him doesn't change that.

This team can't attract top flight offensive players on the open market, and has had to work its collective ass off to convince Marian Gaborik not to leave; dazzling him with pie charts and bar graphs that show Lemaire hasn't sucked all the creativity out of him.

Here are the facts: The Minnesota Wild have made the postseason three times since joining the NHL with Lemaire as coach in 2000-01. They have one conference finals appearance, and two first-round losses. Since joining the NHL, the Wild have been below the league average in goals scored every season. Even the offense-challenged Devils can't make that claim over the last seven seasons.

Is that record good enough for today's NHL? Is it good enough for Wild fans?

What's clear is that Lemaire will never be fired. He'll have to resign, and it's conceivable that his departure could be a reality after losing his smile last season.

Will the next coach be a defensive disciple of Lemaire hockey, or someone with a fresh approach who could give this franchise an offensive identity?

And will Risebrough's defense of Lemaire's coaching style be forever undermined if his successor has a contradictory philosophy?

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