April 12, 2009
He's one of the smartest hockey men alive; he demands excellence; and with the right mix of personnel and chemistry, he's taken teams to greater heights than anyone could have predicted they'd soar. (And from a selfish journalistic point of view, he was a hell of a quote.)
Yet it's to Lemaire's credit and also to his detriment that his defense-first coaching philosophy has a transformative effect on the franchises that employ him.
The New Jersey Devils found their identity under Lemaire -- and with a backbone of Stevens, Niedermayer and Brodeur -- but by 1997 they needed a personality transplant. The franchise would find its footing again in 2000 with a very non-Jacques-like offense that ranked second in the NHL.
Eight seasons into their existence, it's time for the Wild to craft their own personality, absent Lemaire's ideology. Save the arguments about entertainment value and the hockey aesthetics of Lemaire's teams for the fan boards; Minnesota's task is to figure out whether to simply modify and build on a philosophy that's produced three playoff teams in eight seasons, or to sharply turn the franchise in another direction in search of loftier success.
Michael Russo of the Star Tribune offered several candidates for Le Heir to Lemaire: Houston Aeros coach Kevin Constantine has been considered the frontrunner, but names like Wild assistants Mario Tremblay and Mike Ramsey and deposed coaches like Peter Laviolette to Guy Carbonneau to Tom Renney are also mentioned.
(Flipping Jacques Lemaire for Tom Renney is a bit like replacing William Hurt in a movie with Ben Stein.)
Constantine spoke about the vacancy last night, according to The Third Intermission:
Constantine -- "My life is such a one-day-at-a-time thing, and that is really not a concern of mine right now. That is a concern for other people. My job right now is to get this team (Aeros) ready to play every day, and I have never had a problem staying on task, so I will just stay on task."
Russo's best work in the article is in explaining why Lemaire's time may have needed to end:
In recent days, players stood up to Lemaire in the locker room. At one point during a practice huddle Thursday, one veteran actually cursed at him in front of his teammates.
Players were disenchanted he didn't use Marian Gaborik on a 4-on-3 overtime power play in a must-win vs. Vancouver on March 31. In Dallas in March, players were furious the coaching staff took the bus back to the hotel while a dozen of them were left at the arena.
He has been in a rift with 20-year-old James Sheppard, one that came to a head in February when Sheppard asked Lemaire to loosen his grip.
After eight seasons in lock-step with one man's coaching doctrine, it's both an exciting and completely frightening time to be a Wild fan. They're a franchise that just woke up in the nest and discovered the eagle has flown away. It's up to them what direction they follow.