MINNEAPOLIS – Jacques Lemaire has 11 Stanley Cup championship rings, 500 victories as a coach and is widely considered one of the best coaches in the NHL.
Yet despite all he has done as a player, executive and coach, Lemaire still needed a little reassurance from Minnesota general manager Doug Risebrough before deciding to return for an eighth season behind the Wild bench.
“I wanted to talk to Doug and see what he thought,” Lemaire said during a teleconference Saturday to announce he will be back next season. “I got a good response.”
For the first time in his seven seasons with the Wild, Lemaire seriously considered stepping down. He called last season, in which the Wild won their first Northwest Division title but struggled at times to play as a team, his toughest as a coach.
“We went for a little while there where we were not playing as a team,” Lemaire said. “That really affected me because I feel my forte is to get them to play as a team. … I felt I’m not doing my job. This is my job to get them to play good and make my boss happy with how his team is playing also. I didn’t have that satisfaction.”
So at his annual meeting with Risebrough in Florida, Lemaire needed to hear that Risebrough still wanted him around.
“I go back and I want to know what he thinks of me,” Lemaire said. “I want to know if he’s satisfied. I want to know what I can improve in the tough times. Give me some ideas. Give me some feedback on what he sees.”
Lemaire has a career record of 500-381-168 over 14 years, including 60-52 in the playoffs.
But with the Wild, he’s 11-18 in the post-season. The Wild were ousted in the first round last month by the Colorado Avalanche.
“I had no doubt he was the best coach to coach this team,” Risebrough said. “I told him, ‘You’ve got us this far and you’re the best coach to take us to the next level.”‘
Lemaire called this off-season meeting with Risebrough the best he’s had in the seven years he’s been in Minnesota and the 62-year-old coach sounded invigorated as he talked about coming back.
“Really after the meetings I had with Doug, I do really feel comfortable,” he said. “And I do really feel excited to come back and coach.”
The coach’s status was the first of several big questions the Wild will need to answer this off-season.
Star winger Marian Gaborik is entering the final year of his contract and will likely be looking for a significant raise after scoring a franchise-record 42 goals last season. So Risebrough has to decide this summer whether to sign him to a big-money, long-term deal or trade him.
The team also has 10 unrestricted free agents, including veteran leader Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra, one of Gaborik’s best friends.
With all that uncertainty hanging over the team, Lemaire’s decision to return and provide some continuity and stability is a big one for the Wild. He is the only coach this franchise has employed and is a beloved figure in this hockey-crazed state.
“This is a sport where there’s more potential for change than ever before,” Risebrough said. “You need that stability. It’s hard to find continuity now. There’s so many variables out there.”
Now the two of them have to figure out how to get the Wild out of the first round of the playoffs after two straight early exits.
Lemaire wouldn’t speculate on how long he will continue coaching, but he said it would be a dream to win the Stanley Cup with the franchise he helped start.
“You look at it, when I was in Montreal, we won a few cups there,” Lemaire said. “I went to Jersey and we won a cup there. For us it would be great to start with a brand new team and bring it there. It would be a great, great achievement that any person would dream of.”