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Lemaire too late to save these poor Devils

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It remains to be seen how struggling sniper Ilya Kovalchuk will play better for a coach whose defense-first system has become an anachronism since the 2004-05 lockout. (Rich Kane/Icon SMI)

By Stu Hackel

Merry Christmas, John MacLean. You’re fired. And down the Devils’ chimney once again comes Jacques Lemaire who, depending on your perspective, is either hockey’s smartest coach since Scotty Bowman or the evil genius who ruined the NHL. But if the purpose of this change is to get New Jersey into the playoffs, it may be too late.

The Devils take the ice tonight (Thursday) against the Islanders — yes, the red hot Islanders, who have grabbed five of six points in their last three games — and will be trying to escape the NHL’s basement. Just writing that seems bizarre, but in a season where nearly everything that could possibly go wrong for the Devs has gone wrong, that’s where they sit, tied with the Isles at 20 points each but actually behind them based on having played two more games. New Jersey’s 22 losses are the most in the league.

How much of this coal lump of a season can be attributed to MacLean’s coaching is debatable. “Under no set of circumstances should all of this responsibility be placed on (MacLean),” Devils president/GM Lou Lamoriello said today at Devils practice after he made the change (quoted by Tom Gulitti blogging for The Bergen Record). “The responsibility lies on the players and myself for what couldn’t be done. Unfortunately, we just weren’t getting it done.”

And that’s because the Devils have had some serious injury problems (Zach Parise, Bryce Salvador, Brian Rolston, and Martin Broduer for a while) and some seriously under-performing stars — and here you can name them all, from Arnott to Zajac.

But the major disappointments begin with Ilya Kovalchuk, who has been a huge bust so far — a productive Kovalchuk would have changed the entire picture — and extend to Brodeur, who may or may not be showing his age and mileage, but hasn’t been the goaltender who normally gives New Jersey a chance to win every game. More on Marty in a moment.

So, we trot out all the clichés — that the NHL is a results-oriented business, that it’s easier to fire a coach than it is to fire 23 players, and so on — and the fact is that a lot of this is on the players.

Lamoriello is also right to put some of it on himself. We can perhaps excuse him for the Kovalchuk contract because — while we’ll probably never know for sure — it’s very possible that ownership had much to do with either the trade that brought him from Atlanta or the gargantuan deal that eats up so much cap space for so long, if not both.

But Lamoriello cannot be excused for what has happened to the talent level on Devils’ defense corps, which has gone from a collection of All-Stars and stalwarts to one of bumbling veterans and jejune rookies. The forwards may not be producing, but the defensemen haven’t been particularly good at getting them the puck and have too often wilted in the face of opposition pressure.

Which returns us to Brodeur, whose awful .893 save percentage reflects a couple of things: On one hand, he’s facing more quality chances than he ever has before. On the other, he also does seem less fluid in the crease, his movements and reactions slower. But since he’s never had so little help in front of him, it’s hard to judge if age has overtaken him or if he’s still got something left.

And that’s why it’s Lemaire who will be behind the bench in New Jersey when the Devils meet the Islanders. He said he was finished coaching after he left the Minnesota Wild in 2009, and repeated that when he left the Devils for a second time after last season. But if there ever was a coach whose profession was in his blood, it’s Lemaire. Hockey’s tactics and strategies are his passion, to the extent that his longtime teammate, coaching associate and close friend Larry Robinson, once said  that Lemaire would be happiest if NHL games were played in empty arenas.

Yes, it was Lemaire who popularized the neutral zone trap, extracting the defensive part of the system he played in Montreal under Toe Blake, Claude Ruel, Al McNeil and his coaching mentor Bowman and elevating it into the game’s central feature. It transformed an offensively challenged Devils team with a great defense corps and a talented young goalie into a champion and made the trap the scourge of hockey for those who love thrilling, creative offense and a free-flowing wide open game.

But in 2010, five years and more after new rules designed to transport the NHL away from the dark ages of the trap, here comes Lemaire yet again. To some extent, his hiring makes no sense at all. MacLean was brought in by Lamoriello (reluctantly, some believe, given that he could have hired him years earlier and delayed doing so after Lemaire left last spring) to finally bring the Devils into the new era. Lemarie’s influence on the Devils remained pronounced even after he left to coach Minnesota. The coaches who succeeded him in New Jersey played defense-first hockey. But no club has had more problems recapturing its pre-lockout success than the Devils, and with weapons like Kovalchuck at MacLean’s disposal, a new era of exciting winning hockey was expected.

It didn’t happen. And a return to winning, boring hockey may not happen, either. But as the losses mounted and Jason Arnott said  three weeks ago the playoffs looked like a lost cause, Lamoriello had to know a change was needed. The losses had to stop, not only to keep from ruining the attitudes of the many young players he’s been forced to rush into the NHL, but also to get paying customers into the building and keep the loyalists from turning hostile.

Bringing back Lemaire will mean a return to the familiar structure of Devils hockey. The forwards will have to be more cautious, the defensemen will take fewer chances, the length of time spent in their own zone and the number of second shots on goal should decrease, and we’ll get a better sense of whether Brodeur, the face of the franchise for nearly two decades, can still be an elite goalie in a more secure setting.

But an aging Lemaire and his stabilizing approach may not be a long-term solution. He didn’t pull off any magic last year with this team, so why should this year be any different? Even if he can coax better play from this roster than MacLean did, the rules won’t be rolled back to fit his style. The defense is suspect regardless of who is behind the bench.

And Lemaire must now try to solve the mystery of Kovalchuk, the guy who was brought in to succeed Brodeur as franchise cornerstone and new era hero. He’s already cost them Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier, a first- and a second-round draft choice in the trade, millions upon millions in salary cap space until 2025, another first-round pick and third-round pick plus $3 million as penalty for circumventing the salary cap with his original new contract, and now — with eight goals, 10 assists and a mind-blowing minus-22 rating (second worst in the league to teammate Andy Greene’s minus-23) in 32 games — he’s had a big hand in costing John MacLean his job.

As we wrote months ago — and it is increasingly so — Kovalchuk is the gift that keeps on taking. It may be more blessed to give than to receive, but none of this is the kind of holiday spirit the Devils had in mind.

Merry Christmas.

  • Published On Dec 23, 2010
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