PHILADELPHIA -- Let's get one thing straight: what has happened to the New Jersey Devils this season is about much more than the shortcomings of a rookie head coach.
Still, when the Devils fired John MacLean on Thursday morning just 33 games into his first NHL head coaching job, it should have come as no surprise to anybody who follows hockey. After all, New Jersey has become accustomed to a certain level of success and a 9-22-2 start to a season is simply unacceptable for a franchise that won three Stanley Cup titles from 1995-2003.
Although the Devils have made it past the first round of the playoffs just twice since winning their last Cup in '03, the team has qualified for the postseason in each of the last 13 seasons and it's still too early to give up on the playoffs this year.
By firing MacLean and bringing back Jacques Lemaire to lead the team on an interim basis, the Devils hope to at least give themselves a chance to make a run at the playoffs. But first, Lemaire, who coached Jersey to the first of its three Cup titles, needs to find a way for his Devils to get their confidence back.
Of course, some folks will make the argument that the Devils waited too long to axe MacLean. After all, calls for his head began even before the first month of the season was through. But, Lou Lamoriello -- the Devils' CEO, president and GM -- had been grooming MacLean, a former Devils player under Lemaire, to be the club's bench boss for quite some time and felt the rookie head coach deserved more time to try and right the ship.
"I take responsibility for waiting to try and get it to where it should," Lamoriello said. "Under no set of circumstances should all this responsibility be on the coach. The responsibility lies on the players, and myself, for what couldn't be done. Unfortunately, we just weren't getting it done."
This season began with promise after the signing of superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk to a 15-year, $100 million contract over the summer. But, the Russian sniper has struggled in his first full season in New Jersey, notching just eight goals and 18 points in 32 games. He had 10 goals and 27 points while skating in 27 regular-season games for Lemaire and the Devils after coming over in a trade with Atlanta last year.
It will be interesting to see how Kovalchuk fares the rest of this season under Lemaire, who is known as a defensive-minded coach. Kovalchuk has been criticized throughout his career for not showing a great deal of interest in playing defense and he has a dreadful minus-22 rating this season.
However, Kovalchuk's deficiencies alone cannot be blamed for New Jersey's poor play this season either. The Devils have also had to contend with injuries to several key players, including playmaking forward Zach Parise, who has been sidelined since late October following surgery for a torn meniscus in his knee. Superstar goaltender Martin Brodeur also missed significant time while dealing with an elbow problem.
The combination of injuries and Kovalchuk's hefty contract have led to salary- cap problems and that situation forced the Devils to play with a shortened roster on certain nights earlier this season. Those issues were certainly not caused by MacLean and the large portion of the blame for Jersey's cap dilemma should be placed at Lamoriello's feet.
Now, Lemaire is left to pick up the pieces until the Devils find a more permanent replacement for MacLean. Lemaire is back for his third stint as New Jersey's head coach after his second tour of duty with the Devils lasted just one season. He led the Devils to the postseason last year, but announced his retirement after the team bowed out to Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs.
Lemaire's first order of business will be to restore the team's confidence and he will most likely try to achieve that by playing to his strengths as a coach, which is to get the team to play better defense. New Jersey has allowed an average of 3.09 goals per night and was outscored by a 15-3 margin in MacLean's last three games behind the bench.
Getting this team to win consistently and getting back into the playoff race will eventually be a goal, but for now Lemaire needs to focus on making the Devils competitive once again.
But, the biggest problem for New Jersey this year has been scoring, and with Lemaire's legacy as a defensive coach that issue should be considerably harder to fix. New Jersey is dead last in the NHL in scoring with 59 goals, or an average of just 1.73 per game, and the Devils have scored two goals or fewer 25 times in 33 games this season.
Getting New Jersey to generate more offense could get even harder if the Devils start unloading veterans to create cap space. Considering the fact that the club is tied with the Islanders for last in the NHL with just 20 points, Lamoriello will probably deal some of New Jersey's veterans before this year's trade deadline. Unless, of course, Lemaire pulls of a minor miracle and gets the Devils back into the playoff race.
Lemaire will get his first chance to lead this year's Devils Thursday night against the visiting Islanders. The next few weeks will be critical for New Jersey, which is 18 points out of the eighth and final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. With 49 games left, there is certainly time for the Devils to get back into the postseason mix, but Lemaire is left with a very small margin for error.
It would be unfortunate if this turns out to be MacLean's last shot as a head coach in the NHL. This nightmare of a season is the result of many factors, some of which were MacLean's fault, but most of the reasons for the team's failures were out of his control.
The Devils waited a long time to make MacLean a head coach and in retrospect they couldn't have picked a worse year to finally give him his big shot.