February 10, 2011
Lemaire has (yawn!) 600 wins
By STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency
TORONTO - New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire reached a significant milestone on Thursday in the Devils’ 2-1 win over the Maple Leafs. And thousands of hockey fans celebrated by doing a face plant on their coffee tables.
With the victory, Lemaire became the eighth coach in NHL history to reach the 600-win milestone. The former Montreal Canadiens great currently sits five wins behind Leafs coach Ron Wilson.
“Coaches are as good as the players are,” said Lemaire, following his milestone victory at the Air Canada Centre. “And I’ve been fortunate to work with good people around me all through my career. And I thank them because they were a part of this. And all the players played hard.”
There’s no doubt about that. Lemaire’s players always play hard — particularly in the opposition end. That’s his key. He gets his players to buy into his system. And since he returned to the Devils on Dec.23 after John MacLean was fired, he’s largely managed to get the one-dimensional Ilya Kovalchuk, who scored the winning goal in OT Thursday night, to play at both ends of the ice.
“He’s a very experienced guy,” Kovalchuk said earlier. “He knows what button he should push to make a guy play the way he can play. Everybody thinks he’s a defensive coach, but he changes a lot and we have more offence now.”
That’s all well and good, but I’ve never been a big fan of the way Lemaire coaches.
And that’s not a personal attack, because he is a consummate gentleman and is highly respected in hockey.
But to me, Lemaire’s style of coaching is everything that’s wrong with the NHL game today.
The league and the players have taken steps to open up the game and increase goal scoring with some key rule changes, such as the two-line pass. But the neutral zone trap — which Lemaire perfected and used to his advantage during his salad days in Jersey and Minnesota — remains a big part of the game and continues to suck the life out of the game.
Yes, Lemaire’s teams often score — in fact they’ve led the NHL in scoring. Despite that, they’ve historically been a dull, boring outfit to watch.
They work like demons in the opposition end and then fall back into their trap.
The Devils have been one of the most successful franchises in years, particularly under Lemaire, but the attendance in Jersey has always been poor.
And you can’t blame the fans.
Even when Jersey wins, the games are boring, particularly during Lemaire’s heyday.
This is a franchise that won the Stanley Cup three times from 1995 to 2003, once with Lemaire, but still didn’t sell out all their playoff games, and ranked in the bottom half in regular season attendance.
Lemaire had a pretty good run in Minnesota, but near the end of his tenure there, even the loyal fans in the Hockey State were getting impatient watching the Wild trap.
He was blamed for putting a muzzle on Marian Gaborik’s play.
Do you think Wild fans would have liked to seen the explosive Gaborik let loose and play an entertaining style of hockey?
I don’t deny that Lemaire’s coaching statistics are impressive.
He’s a two-time Jack Adams Award winner as coach of the year and is a Stanley Cup winner and he has the previously floundering Devils playing very well. They now won three straight and 11 of their last 14.
But hockey is a game that should be played with flow and explosiveness. If it’s ever going to convert new fans outside of Canada, the NHL has to find a way to let that happen.
Lemaire can’t be blamed for the trap.
He’s certainly not the only coach who’s employed it.
But he proved during his years in Jersey that it works well, especially in the playoffs, and it became increasingly popular in the league because of that.
Lemaire joked after Thursday’s game that he had no idea prior to this the season that he was that close to 600 wins.
“Maybe if I had known that, I would have come back before,” he said.
Well, he’s back, and caffeine sales are going through roof.