The last time Lou Lamoriello went looking for a coach, there is little doubt he went outside his comfort zone. Two summers ago, he hired The Next Great Thing™ to go behind his team’s bench when he plucked Brent Sutter out of the junior ranks.
And we all know how that worked out. Sutter failed to get the Devils beyond the first round of the playoffs and left after two years, claiming to be homesick and needing to tend to a junior hockey franchise that had fallen on hard times. (How he’s going to do that while holding down a full-time NHL coaching job an hour-and-a-half down the road is anyone’s guess, but we’ll take his word for it.)
So it was met with little surprise from this corner Monday afternoon when Lamoriello named Jacques Lemaire coach of the Devils…again. Lemaire was certainly not the sexiest choice, nor was he one who would shake up a franchise that might just have become a little too predictable, but he fits the Devils template to perfection.
It would certainly be a whole lot easier to rip the Devils for this one if not for one thing – Lemaire just happens to be an outstanding coach, arguably the best coach in the NHL, in fact. Ask any player for whom Lemaire has played and he will almost certainly tell you that Lemaire has made him a much better, much more complete player. Scott Niedermayer was all offense when he came to the NHL and bucked against Lemaire’s methods as a young player, but finally learned how to play in his own end and is regarded as one of the best defensemen of his generation.
Will the Devils present a boring, plodding product that will be the scourge of the game? You bet they will. But Lemaire has the pedigree, tenure and record of success that suggests he won’t care about that one bit. You see, coaches are judged on wins and losses and how much their teams improve. Almost every coach that has been fired in the history of the game has been because of his team’s record. Not a single one comes to mind who was fired solely for the style of game his team played.
If boring wins, boring generally stays.
And make no mistake, the Devils will be as dull as dishwater. In fact, the hiring of Lemaire simply makes them a little bit better at what they’ve been really good at for the better part of the past decade. In a recent lawsuit with the company that manufactured the seats at the Prudential Center, the Devils claimed a “substantial number” of seats fail to meet specification. One wonders how they would know, since so many seats in New Jersey usually go unoccupied.
Since the game was opened up after the lockout, Lemaire’s Minnesota Wild teams have given up a league-low 824 goals in four seasons. Take a wild (or Wild) guess which team is second. The Devils are tied with the Detroit Red Wings with only 12 more goals against over the four seasons.
Now do you want eerie? Since the lockout, only the Columbus Blue Jackets (843), St. Louis Blues (849), New York Islanders (873) and Phoenix Coyotes (884) have scored fewer goals than the Wild’s 908. And how many goals have the Devils scored since then? Glad you asked – the number is 908.
So those of you looking for the Devils to spice up their game and make it more exciting – and you know who you are, Adam Proteau – will be terribly disappointed. Lemaire certainly doesn’t intend to change and he’ll bring the same attitude, defensive philosophy and demand for accountability he has had since he began coaching. Remember, this is the guy who essentially drove Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur into his first retirement because playing him was hurting the Canadiens.
“It’s not my way or the highway,” Lemaire once said when he was coach of the Wild, “it’s my way. It’s the team’s way. It’s for the benefit of the team.”
This will undoubtedly be music to Lamoriello’s ears. They have a way of doing things in New Jersey that dictates that no player, no coach, no executive, comes before what is best for the collective effort. They have never wavered and have lost some pretty talented players because of it. But they also have three Stanley Cups – the first of which was won by Lemaire – as evidence that their way of doing things works.
It may not be very exciting, but you can’t argue with the results.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.