Lemaire steps aside as Devils coach

If you took Lou Lamoriello and Jacques Lemaire‘s statements immediately after last Thursday’s playoff drubbing by the Flyers at face value, you would have believed that Lemaire would be back for the final year on his two-year contract in spite of the horrific results of the last three months. Common sense however, told a different story. After the reported Game 4 jelly-throwing incident where Lamoriello showed his frustration towards the coaches in the postgame, the writing was on the wall following the Devils’ Game 5 loss.

Sure enough, four days after the team’s desultory end to the 2009-10 season, the Devils are indeed looking for a new coach after Lemaire’s reported ‘retirement’. Make no mistake about it though, he was dismissed and for cause. You don’t keep a guy on salary if he quits and there’s no other way to reconcile Lemaire’s contradictory statements on Thursday about how he’d be back and loves coaching to today where he claimed he was too tired for the NHL grind.

Whatever the case, the Devils are now looking for their sixth coach since last winning the Stanley Cup in 2003. Granted only two of them you could call actual firings, with the others having extenuating circumstances from Pat Burns‘ health to Larry Robinson‘s stress and Brent Sutter‘s cows at home in Alberta. Anyone who blames the GM entirely for the instability at coach is missing the boat a little, he’s fired (including Lemaire) exactly two coaches since 2002 – well three if you want to count replacing himself as coach twice.

That said, Lamoriello clearly made the wrong choice here in bringing back his friend Lemaire. Most of the issues I had with his hiring came to fruition…he was too defensive as evidenced by being finishing in the bottom third in the league scoring-wise and only stopped matching lines once the GM brought in Ilya Kovalchuk and gave us two terrific (on paper) scoring lines. Our version of an ‘offensive’ system was the stretch pass which surprised everyone including me during the first half of the year but as teams adjusted and our players proved incapable of executing it consistently the coach never changed that up – although he changed the lines almost literally every shift. Although a supposed strength was his ability to coach special teams and even that failed dramatically in the second half.

All that combined with the players’ spectacular dissapearing act down the stretch made today sadly inevitable. I say sadly partly from a personal standpoint, in spite of my professional differences with the man I’ll always hold him in high regard for what he did with the franchise in the ’90’s and for being a likeable person who was a HOF’er as a player and a fine coach in his day. Clearly that day’s passed, and he did term this a retirement as opposed to stepping aside, so it’s unlikely we’ll see the 64-year old Lemaire behind another NHL bench. Especially after being too emotional to address his team (who were cleaning out their lockers).
Make no mistake though, this team’s needs don’t stop with today. First off, Lamoriello has to pick the right coach for this team, one who’s not going to quit and certainly one who’s more in tune with the modern game. As I stated in my prior blog Chicago assistant Mike Haviland and current Lowell coach John MacLean are two people I’d consider front-runners for the job. As much as I like Johnny Mac and respect the job he did in Lowell this year, while he does have the qualifications to be an NHL coach maybe he isn’t the right fit for this particular team, a team who still has at least four players on it that actually played with him including Jamie Langenbrunner in Dallas. That said, I’d still support his appointment now that he’s pretty much paid his dues. Another year in Lowell would have been nice but maybe circumstances won’t dictate it, and he did have a pretty good power play down there which helps.
Whatever Lou does though, please not another out-of-touch retread – the last thing I want to hear is Ken Hitchcock returning or god forbid Mario Tremblay being promoted to keep the seat warm until Johnny Mac is ready. I want the next coach to have a chance to be able to stick around, preferably someone who’s good working with kids since there should be a lot of them coming up in the next couple years as we start phasing some vets like a Langenbrunner or Colin White out.
And also let’s not kid ourselves, this locker room needs to be cleaned out too. Maybe it’ll take a year but you can’t let the players slide completely for this el foldo. Basically everyone knows the handful of players who did show up in the playoffs, they should be kept. A la 2002, I do see one major trade happening this offseason among other things but I’m not sure who, probably someone (meaning Langenbrunner or Brian Rolston) will have to waive a no-trade and have some say in where they go. Perhaps who says and who goes will be partially determined by what happens after July 1, when Kovalchuk and defenseman Paul Martin hit UFA.
Either way, it’ll be interesting to see the next shoe that drops.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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