Monday, April 26, 2010

Lemaire all class till end

So much for Jacques Lemaire still wanting to coach. A few days removed from the first round disappointment to the Flyers after a great season, the soon to be 65 year-old Hall Of Famer abruptly retired earlier today. Maybe the passion was really gone despite indications he still enjoyed being behind the bench.

The two-time Jack Adams winner ('94, '03) who guided the New Jersey Devils to their first Stanley Cup finishes with a 588-441-124-60 career record. Over 16 seasons with Montreal, the Devils and expansion Wild, Lemaire did outstanding work getting his teams to buy into his defensive oriented system. While he did win Lord Stanley in 1995, perhaps his best job came in St. Paul when he took the '02-03 Wild to the Conference Finals before losing to the Mighty Ducks. In the franchise's first postseason, they came back to upset both Colorado and Vancouver, each time rallying from 3-1 deficits.

Built around Marian Gaborik, the sum was greater than the parts with the quirky gum chewing affable coach getting them to buy in. Under Lemaire, journeymen such as Sergei Zholtok, Wes Walz, Richard Park, Jim Dowd, Jason Marshall, Antti Laaksonen and Darby Hendrickson shined while turning Willie Mitchell and Nick Schultz into shutdown defenders- earning them millions. He also revived Dwayne Roloson's career effectively teaming him with nephew Manny Fernandez. Would Rollie have gone onto the success with Edmonton nearly winning a Cup post-lockout? Probably not. Instead, the 40 year-old undrafted netminder remains in the league doing stellar work for the Islanders. Blueliner Filip Kuba also developed well morphing into a solid puckmoving D who contributes offensively.

A little over a decade later, Lemaire returned to the team he helped turn into a powerhouse. Re-teaming with Devil architect Lou Lamoriello, he looked to duplicate early success where familiar franchise piece Martin Brodeur was still in Jersey shattering goalie records. Former pupil Patrik Elias had become the franchise's all-time leading scorer. Even if his early days with Jacques weren't that great. There also was favorite Devil/Wild student Brian Rolston welcoming him back. Scott Stevens, John MacLean and Ken Daneyko were still in the organization and there was familiar friendly broadcast tandem Doc Emrick and Chico Resch. Plus Larry Robinson. It's how Lou operates, opting to run his organization like a tight knit family where you're always welcomed back.

For much of 2009-10, it almost worked. Despite injuries to Elias, Paul Martin, David Clarkson and Dainius Zubrus, Lemaire had a team some figured would take a step back atop the Atlantic getting standout performances from Andy Greene, Colin White, Bryce Salvador, Rob Niedermayer and Dean McAmmond. His best players also did their part with Brodeur, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner instrumental in a tremendous first half that saw them win 30 of 48 games before things turned.

Ironically as Hasan's alluded to plenty, inconsistencies showed once the club got healthier. Perhaps Jacques worked better with less talent because of his Wild experience. The constant line shuffling didn't help. Even Ilya Kovalchuk, who gave it everything, never seemed to fit in. You wonder why Lemaire went away from ZZ Popp or Triple Z's (Zubrus-Zajac-Zach) but part of it was to help Kovalchuk, who didn't have much chemistry with Elias. One combo he didn't try was Kovalchuk-Zajac-Parise, instead opting to stick Zach on the second line. Might such a dynamic line have changed the outcome or was it doomed once Langenbrunner tuned out?

Breaking up Paul Martin and Martin Skoula for the slow and slower pair of Skoula and Salvador was a debacle. By sticking Martin with Greene, it hurt the rest of the D. There also was the odd continued dressing of Pierre Luc Letourneau-Leblond, who barely saw the ice. Might Lemaire have been better off using PK extraordinaire Jay Pandolfo? Especially in Games 4-5. Special teams hurt them all series. So, wouldn't it have made sense to insert the vet who's been through the wars with the team a la Dano in Game Seven vs Anaheim SCF '03? Experience matters. Pando could've provided a lift.

Whatever the real reason (likely PR), Lemaire will no longer coach the Devils. Looks like this really is it.
"It's a game I have been in a long time," he said. "I really have a thing for it and I still do. There is no doubt if I had the energy I would keep going because I love it.'

"It's not the team, it is not the result or the lack of result we had in the playoffs. It's not that at all. It's the end of the line. I'll be 65. It's just time."

But how could there not be a correlation? You know it had to kill Lemaire that it ended so miserably with him taking the team to task with the "playoff hockey" reference. He did go a little soft in his second Devil stint, opting not to throw players under the bus. Perhaps the fire was out. After that bizarre question about whether coaching was still where he wanted to go (talk about disrespect), he handled it with class. The man is too nice and definitely takes losses hard. Our Buffalo contingent can vouch for that referencing the bitter end to '95-96 when he interned for the Devils.

But why such a quick change? He could've taken more time. One thing about the Devs. Not everything is always what it seems. Only two men know the truth. Lou and Jacques. Regardless, congratulations to Lemaire on an outstanding career that totals 11 Cup rings dating back to the Canadien dynasty. He'll at least remain within the Devil organization in some capacity. Who wouldn't want a man with his knowledge and personality? All class till the end.


Hasan said...

Good summation, if this had happened a couple weeks later maybe my piece would have been a little more even-handed. I do have mixed feelings all things considered.

Yeah I would have wanted to see Pando in Game 5, especially since this is probably it for him too, one way or the other. Doubt it would have made much of a difference but we did have a bad PK in the series. His old buddy Madden's doing a good job with that in Chi-town lol.

Derek Felix said...

Yeah he's still busting his ass. Noticed Gionta doing same in Cap series. Just winning so many battles. Any chance the Devs missed a guy like that? Granted. I'd never pay that salary.

Feel for Sambone. His team suffered from the same malaise. They weren't same team down stretch. Got outgritted by hungrier team.

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