By the time Lou Lamoriello reached out for Jacques Lemaire to help straighten out a miserable first-half showing, Devils followers, and I count myself among them, had lost faith in Lou and the entire team. Mired in last place overall and playing without any resemblance to Devils teams of the past, the club looked beyond repair. Welcome back Jacques and lots of luck.
We were all wrong. Lemaire has engineered a turnaround seldom seen in any sport. On December 23 he took over the reins of a team that had a 9-22-2 record, rolled up his sleeves and went to work. Though losing six of the first seven games in his new stint, he never wavered from his belief in “the guys” and the players have finally delivered on an entirely new level. With Saturday’s win over Florida, the Devils have gone 6-0-1 in their last seven games, beating Tampa Bay twice, losing to Florida, then winning four straight against the Islanders, the Penguins, the Flyers and the Panthers.
Post-game interviews with veteran players on Saturday shed some light on how Lemaire has turned the team around since his return:
Jason Arnott: “In the last few weeks Jacques has taken over and he set a tone for us. He put in a system that works for our team and you can tell when we do it to a T we create goals and we win hockey games. It’s helped us out a lot. Jacques has changed the mentality of the team. He puts confidence into the players. I don’t know how he does it but he really gets involved behind the bench, he comes out one-on-one in practice and teaches us things, even me. I have been in the league a long time and I am still learning. He still teaches me things and when you get a coach like that you can tell the difference in the hockey club. We have more confidence in what we are doing on the ice and we are having more fun. He came in and told us we had to get back into shape, and start working harder. Then he implemented a system and it has been working great ever since.”
That system was described by ex-Devil great Ken Daneyko: “Jacques started in the back end with the defense. He cleaned up their play in their own zone, working on the premise that you let the goaltender make the first save and take care of the rebounds. That makes their breakouts so much better because the forwards are back defending their zone and the offense can then move up the ice as a unit, the players are not strung out, the defensemen have targets for their breakout passes and the scoring chances are so much improved. Jacques came in and had to treat it like a rookie team despite the fact they are laden with experienced veterans.”
With four wins in the Eastern Conference this week, the team is red hot, picking up thirteen out of a possible fourteen points in their last seven games.
Marty Brodeur, who benched himself for a week, has started playing like Marty Brodeur. Johan Hedberg, who was pulled two weeks ago in Philadelphia after two bad games, redeemed himself this week with a 3-1 win in Philly. Patrik Elias is scoring again. Ilya Kovalchuk has relaxed under Lemaire and has returned to form. Brian Rolston, who thrived in Minnesota under the coach’s mentoring, has started to blast shots through the opposing goalies, like the old days.
The best example of the new work ethic is the line of Pelley-Testito-Clarkson that has been chosen over and over to start games and set the pace. Their furious fore-checking means they spend a high percentage of their shifts in the opposing team’s zone. Their hard work has been rewarded with frequent ice-time and they have become an important part of the offense.
Most improved however is the defensive corps. Anton Volchenkov, hurt early and sidelined for weeks has returned to form, throwing rock-solid body checks and clearing the space in front of Brodeur. The return of Mark Frazer has added grit to the defense and more toughness around the net. Perhaps most improved is Henrik Tallinder. Looking much more comfortable carrying the puck, the six-five rearguard with his tremendous stride, is showing the speed and finesse the management expected when they signed him off free agency last summer. Andy Greene’s horrendous start is behind him, outshone by his re-acquired ability to move the puck and make scoring plays on the power play. Mark Fayne, fresh out of Providence College this year, has been called up again and has played like a veteran.
The Devils are back and all is well in Newark. If the judging for the Coach-of-the Year awards started in January, Jacques Lemaire would be a shoo-in.
Good work Lou.
Photos: KRH, Gosh@/flickr and James Teterenko/GNU.