TORONTO – The New Jersey Devils are buying into Jacques Lemaire’s system, and it’s paying big dividends.
That’s not too surprising, considering Lemaire has used that same system to rack up 600 career wins.
Lemaire reached the milestone Thursday as the Devils beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 in overtime. Only seven other coaches in NHL history have managed to reach the 600-win mark.
Lemaire played down the achievement in his post-game scrum.
“Not really,” he answered when asked if he’s proud of the mark. “I’m only as good as the players are and I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of good people around me. I thank them.”
The 65-year-old Lemaire knows something about good players, he was one himself. He spent 12 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1960s and ’70s, winning eight Stanley Cups. His 835 career points are seventh in Montreal history and helped him get inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1984.
If he hadn’t made it as a player, he likely would have as a coach.
Lemaire is a two-time Jack Adams Award-winner as NHL coach of the year and has another Cup as a coach under his belt, during his first go-around with New Jersey in 1995.
His success has come by stressing strong team play and puck control, something the Devils have excelled at during their recent 8-1-1 streak. The team is 12-8-2 overall under Lemaire this season.
“It’s a system that every one of the guys are trying to follow,” said long-time Devil Patrik Elias, who has played under Lemaire three times now. “He gives the guys confidence to play as a unit and play with the puck and it’s been working.”
Lemaire replaced John MacLean behind the bench Dec. 23 after New Jersey began the season with a 9-22-2 record. The native of LaSalle, Que., has become a go-to for Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello.
He pulled Lemaire out of the executive suite in Montreal, where he was part of two other Cup winners, to coach New Jersey the first time in 1993, then hired him again last season after Lemaire had spent seven leading the expansion Minnesota Wild.
He left the team prior to this season with the intention of retiring for good, but was coaxed back by Lamoriello to help right a sinking ship.
“I didn’t know I was that close to (600), maybe I would have come back sooner,”Lemaire joked after the game Thursday.
Some have questioned the wisdom of bringing Lemaire back, wondering if New Jersey should be trying to find someone who can be successful long term. But the players don’t feel that way.
“I think he’s the best coach I’ve ever played for,”said Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey’s marquee star and game-winning goal scorer Thursday.“It’s a pleasure to play for him. We really hope he’s going to stay next year.”