Jacques Lemaire Should Have Left the Devils Broken

Brian Rolston, New Jersey Devils
Photo by Francisco Diez

You have to be impressed by the New Jersey Devils’ turnaround under new-old coach Jacques Lemaire.

When he left at the end of last season, it seemed more like a mutual decision than Lemaire deciding to retire.

As some of you may recall, Lemaire didn’t do a great job in the playoffs last season.

But the playoffs seemed to be a number of coaching issues coming to a head and finally presenting as a horrible playoff performance.

But now, Lemaire is riding high again based upon two key facts:

  1. The Devils are playing better under his supervision.
  2. He’s not former Devils’ coach John MacLean.

The Devils were 1-3 under Lemaire in December. They’re 6-5-1 for January, but had points in their last seven games, prior to last night’s loss to Detroit.

Around the league, people can’t say enough complimentary things about Lemaire.

It’s hard to say what exactly it is Lemaire has done. The Devils seem to be playing harder, but is that Lemaire?

The turnaround coincides with the trading of captain Jamie Langenbrunner, but Langenbrunner is way too respected and beloved to have been the source of this season’s horrible slide.

Red Wings’ coach Mike Babcock says Lemaire brought confidence back to the Devils.

He’s certainly got Ilya Kovalchuk playing better, if not up to the expectations outlined by his huge contract. Kovalchuk has six goals in 16 games under Lemaire this season. Kovalchuk had eight in 33 games under MacLean.

Kovalchuk has been seeing more ice time under Lemaire. He’s averaging 23:28 per game, with 5:04 on the powerplay, while under MacLean, he averaged 21:28 per game, with 4:01 on the powerplay. Interestingly, Kovalchuk saw less than 19 minutes per game in his last two games under MacLean. One has to wonder if Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello was willing to tolerate losing, but not the marginalization of his franchise player.

Whatever the reasons, there’s no denying the Devils are a stronger team under Lemaire. Unfortunately, it’s probably too late for the Devils to push themselves into the playoffs. So all of these wins are really just putting the Devils further and further away from the top pick in the draft.

Of course, that’s not really Lemaire’s problem. He insists he won’t return to coaching next season.

So it’s good for the Devils that the ship appears to have been righted, but ultimately, what’s the advantage to being a team that’s not good enough to make the playoffs but not bad enough to get a high draft pick?

Lemaire may have brought pride and confidence back to the Devils but in terms of their longer-term future, they might have been better off losing with MacLean.

As the Jan Brady Principle clearly states, there’s very little advantage to being in the middle.