Mon Jul 13 04:05pm EDT
What images do the phrases "Jacques Lemaire" and "New Jersey Devils" immediately conjure when uttered in close proximity, besides the 1995 Stanley Cup?
How about sweaters pulled to hinder movement? Or bear hugs, for the same effect? Or one guy fore-checking with four guys stacked back at the blue line? Aw, heck, let's just say it; once more, with feeling: "IT'S A TRAP!"
Yet Lemaire, hired today officially for his unpredictable second stint with New Jersey as head coach, believes he's a different coach at 63 (to be 64 on Sept. 7) than he was at 52, when he left the Devils after five seasons and one championship.
Will this Devils team be more offensively oriented than Lemaire's previous teams, which were at times the hockey equivalent of NyQuil?
"The teams I used to have? Probably," he said on a conference call, with a chuckle.
For Devils fans who witnessed the slow march to oblivion that was the end of Lemaire's first stint, hearing him talk today about being a players' coach and -- Gasp! Swoon! -- someone with the fans' entertainment value in mind was downright surreal.
"I talk more and more with the players. In the old days, I guess, you were giving the restrictions to the players; right now, the players need the coaching staff to be close to them to perform at their best," he said.
"That's a thing that changed in me. [So has] the game. At the time, we had more of a defensive crew. You're going on, and you're teaching more defense than offense because you feel you can win games. Now, with the type of players that we have, there's a look for offense. There's a look for trying to create more.
"All coaches are the same. We're trying to get the best action game possible for the fans."
The last time Jacques Lemaire was behind a New Jersey Devils bench was May 2, 1998 in Ottawa. They were a first-place team with 107 points, boasting Doug Gilmour and Patrik Elias(notes) and a newly acquired Jason Arnott(notes); and they were bounced in the first round by an Ottawa Senators team with Damian Rhodes between the pipes.
Looking back at those six playoff games, it's easy to remember why Lemaire wore out his welcome: three games in which the Devils scored three goals, three losses in which they mustered only one tally against the aforementioned goaltending legend Mr. Rhodes.
From 1995-98, no Devils player scored 30 goals or cracked 70 points. Lemaire's philosophy had become stale for the fans and the players. His time was done.
Which is how things ended last season for his time with the Minnesota Wild, too.
"My time in Minnesota is over. It [was] time to move on and do something else," he said. "I heard a lot of ex-coaches say often that it's really hard to get out of this. ... When Lou called me, I was excited."
Devils President Lou Lamoriello called Lemaire before the NHL Draft about the team's vacancy, following Brent Sutter's decision not to honor his contract. His name was connected to the job for weeks because he was the only guy talking about being connected to the job.
Now that he has the gig, what can be expected of Lemaire behind the Devils bench?
First of all, he wants to coach beyond one season. He made that clear today, and barring a Lamoriellian hasty coaching decision, one imagines Lemaire will be given that opportunity.
He also steadfastly rejected the notion that his arrival portends a statistic decline for Devils star Zach Parise(notes), who is one of the best offensive standouts the organization has ever produced.
"I don't know what I'm going to put in [as a coach] that would stop any of the players from performing at their best," said Lemaire.
For those wondering how that philosophy jibes with Lemaire's system stifling a player like Marian Gaborik(notes) with the Wild, know this: He believes Parise and other Devils on this team to be outstanding two-way players. So overstressing defense, smothering an offensive game for the sake of the system ... it's not something Lemaire sees happening with Parise.
(A former Devils player told me the same thing at the Draft, claiming that Parise's numbers could actually improve with Lemaire behind the pine.)
One area where Lemaire could help the team is on the blue line, where assistant coach Mario Tremblay joins the Devils as the man in charge of the defense on the bench. They got the most out of Wild defenseman who might be considered journeymen on other teams; the Devils defense isn't the star-studded collection Lemaire had during his first stint, but it's a solid enough group that could be even better than what Sutter squeezed out of them.
Lemaire is back in New Jersey because he still has the itch and wants to win another ring:
"You want to have a chance to win the Cup. In my situation, this would be a great thing, to have a chance."
One gets the same vibe from Lamoriello in bringing back Lemaire, bringing back Brian Rolston(notes), bringing back Brendan Shanahan(notes) and the others. Time's running short for all of these veterans who have dedicated themselves to The Game and to the franchise. When Marty Brodeur is 37 and the next name on the potential starting goalie chart is Jeff Frazee(notes), there's a win-now vibe in place.
Like the others, Lemaire is a name from the past, if not from the glory years (they occurred post-Lemaire). Like the others, he's in New Jersey for one last push for glory before the franchise dramatically transitions into a new era over the next several years.
A few notes from today's coaching news ...
• Question: How does one market this team exactly, with the most notoriously conservative coach returning to a place where the fans are all too familiar with his philosophy? Or market it to young fans who, if they are 20 years old, were six when Lemaire won the Cup in Jersey?
• Tremblay, and Tommy Albelin will be Lemaire's assistants. Tremblay, the former Montreal Canadiens coach famous for chasing Patrick Roy to Colorado, was put over by Lemaire as a quality lieutenant: "I've been nine years with him, and I think he's a great compliment with myself. He's very determined, works hard and he's fun for the players. He knows how to deal with them in practices."
In other words, Lemaire is still a head coach who needs a conduit to the players through an assistant.
• Longtime Devils-coach-in-waiting John MacLean is the new head coach at Lowell, with Kevin Dean as his assistant and Chris Terreri as goaltending coach. Jacques Caron and Terreri are "organizational" keepers coaches, which is another way of saying that Terreri is being groomed for the gig when Caron retires and/or moves on.
• Finally, Scott Stevens will have an ever-increasing role as a special advisor coach or some such. If this eventually leads to the greatest captain in Devils history becoming a Devils head coach down the line, more than a few fans are going to be pleased.