Remember when the New Jersey Devils were easily the worst team in the league? I do.
Well, the times they are a…er, have changed. Winners of their past four and on an 8-1-1 run, the Devs are the hottest team in the NHL. Of course, the playoffs are almost assuredly out of reach; it took 88 points to make it in the East last season and the Devils would have to win 20 of their final 26 to hit that mark. Anything is possible, but even tougher is that they’d also have to leapfrog five teams to get to the No. 8 spot in the East.
But this is a team with a huge opportunity to play spoiler and create some serious momentum for next season. Trouble is, any good vibes they do garner may be scuttled by a single departure.
Fans of the Senators won’t be happy to hear this, but a new coach really can turn a season around. And that’s exactly what Jacques Lemaire has done in New Jersey. The Hall of Famer – he won eight Cups in 12 seasons as a scoring winger with the Habs in the ’60s and ’70s – seems to be the only man who can coach the Devils, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be back.
Lemaire reached official retirement age in September and had stepped down as New Jersey’s coach after leading the team to 103 points and a division title last season. But when the Devils shocked all by starting out 9-22-2, he was brought back to run their bench after John MacLean was sacked Dec. 23.
The team everyone assumed would be firmly ensconced in the East’s playoff picture – THN picked them to finish fifth in the conference – is again playing like a squad deserving of praise, thanks to Lemaire.
When asked after Thursday’s 2-1 overtime win against the Maple Leafs – Lemaire’s 600th as a coach, something only seven others have managed – one New Jersey veteran told me that the biggest difference between the Devils under MacLean and Lemaire is the system they’re playing.
Most will tell you every NHL team plays basically the same system with a few tweaks depending on personnel. But there really are two coaching philosophies and the Devils have played both this season.
MacLean had his Devils chipping and chasing; dumping the puck in and playing a retrieval game. Lemaire, despite his past as the poster-coach for the Dead Puck Era, has his squad doing the exact opposite. The Devils have morphed into a puck-control team; short, quick passes through the neutral zone and carrying the puck over the blueline.
Rather than giving up possession and attempting to regain it in the offensive zone, New Jersey is now doing its darndest to keep the puck off the opposition’s collective stick. And it’s working.
The Devils simply couldn’t score executing – or, rather, not executing – MacLean’s game plan. Unable to manage two goals per game under their former bench boss, New Jersey has averaged 2.7 since Lemaire took over and have a 13-8-2 overall mark to show for it. And, remember, sniper Zach Parise hasn’t played a game since November after knee surgery.
And while the Devils are also allowing more goals under Lemaire, they’re playing a style much more conducive to happy players. When you’ve got a thoroughbred like Ilya Kovalchuk, you don’t tell him to dump the puck in, you let him create offense. You don’t put the reins on him, you take the bit out and let him run free.
Like it or not, Kovy is the face of this team now. Keeping him happy sets the tone for the entire dressing room. He has 20 points in the 23 games since Lemaire took over (he had only 18 in the 32 previous) and 12 during New Jersey’s run the past 10 contests.
Kovalchuk told reporters Thursday it is a “pleasure” to play for Lemaire and was an “honor” to have scored the goal that gave “the best coach I’ve ever played for” his 600th victory. And despite his usual monotone delivery, you could tell Kovalchuk meant it. He hopes Lemaire decides to return next season and you can bet the rest of the Devils do as well.
For Lemaire’s part, the two-time NHL coach of the year is noncommittal about his intentions next season. But there’s a sparkle in the eyes of New Jersey players now, something that was noticeably missing under MacLean.
So even though New Jersey will miss the post-season come April, it’s looking like this campaign will end on a high note.
The question now is: Will it begin on one in 2011-12 with the return of Lemaire?
John Grigg is the assignment editor with The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his blog appearing on the weekend.
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