ST. PAUL, Minn. – Jacques Lemaire says this off-season is like any other.
He says he will go home to Florida, speak with his wife Mychelle, meet with Minnesota Wild management, and decide whether he wants to return for another year behind the bench.
But as Lemaire discussed Monday what he called his “toughest season as a coach” in his 13-year career – a season in which he struggled at times to get his players to play as a team and watched the Wild get bounced from the playoffs in the first round for the second year in a row – something seems to be different.
“I’m getting older and maybe not as patient as I was when I started to coach,” Lemaire said.
What concerns the 62-year-old most was a swoon in February and March that saw the Wild lose nine of 12 games, playing selfishly on the ice and straining their relationship with their demanding, no-nonsense coach. Yet they rebounded to finish strong and win the first division title in franchise history.
“It’s a season I haven’t seen in all my career,” Lemaire said.
He was as good-natured and cheery as ever on Monday, wondering about what he is going to do with all the free time he has on his hands now and showing plenty of passion and energy for the game.
“It’s going to be a long summer,” he said.
However, Lemaire’s face grew rosy and his voice strained with frustration when he described a conversation he had with an unnamed player about star winger Marian Gaborik’s performance in the playoffs. Gaborik was stifled by the Avalanche, held to one point in six games by the skilled Colorado defence.
The Wild led the series 2-1 after winning Game 3 in Denver, but Lemaire didn’t start to hear the public criticism of Gaborik’s disappearance until Colorado took a 3-2 series lead after Game 5.
The lesson? The only thing that matters is how the team fares as a whole.
“That’s why team is so important. And it’s so discouraging,” Lemaire said, his hands in the air and repeating the word for emphasis, “discouraging for a coach when they don’t play as a team.”
As Lemaire and the Wild head into another off-season sooner than they would have liked, they are enveloped in a fog of uncertainty unlike any other in the franchise’s eight-year history.
Lemaire’s status is the first of many questions facing general manager Doug Risebrough and new owner Craig Leipold.
-Gaborik, fresh off the one-point dud in the playoffs, has one year left on his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent next year if the Wild do not sign him to a big-money extension or trade him this summer.
“It’s a very good summer to have a very good conversation with him, obviously leaning toward what he wants to do and what we want to do about the future of the team,” Risebrough said. “What happens from that, I don’t know, but for sure it has to be talked about.”
-The Wild have 10 unrestricted free agents, something Risebrough blamed for the inconsistent play during the regular season.
“I think the mistake I made as a manager was I had too many players playing in their unrestricted years,” Risebrough said. “Now that doesn’t mean that I’d sign them all, because then I’d lose the flexibility. But I think that created kind of a self-preservation in a team that predominantly is more about team. And I think Jacques’ frustration sometimes came because the team wasn’t playing as a team.”
Veteran leader Brian Rolston, who has scored at least 31 goals all three seasons in Minnesota, is 35 years old. He will get plenty of interest from teams with more cap room.
“Minnesota has been terrific,” Rolston said. “Absolutely I would like to stay here. It’s been good to me. I’ve had my best years here and the fans, everything about it is a good scenario. I would like to stay here, but we’ll see what happens this summer.”
Pavol Demitra, one of Gaborik’s best friends, had a down year offensively and also would like to return. But the 33-year-old missed 14 games because of injury and made US$4.5 million this year.
Keith Carney, Sean Hill, Petteri Nummelin, Chris Simon, Matt Foy and Aaron Voros all could be out the door.
-The Wild also have to decide on restricted free agent Pierre-Marc Bouchard’s future with the club. Bouchard wants a long-term deal. If Risebrough gives him a one-year offer, Bouchard could look at other teams.
Risebrough also would like to add more depth, especially on defence, where injuries doomed them against the experienced Avalanche.
“Oh yeah there will be changes,” Risebrough said. “There’s no doubt. I think that happens. Obviously I think some of the changes will be toward youth.”