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Ex-Devils say Lemaire will be good for team

Monday, 07.13.2009 / 3:26 PM / 2009 NHL Offseason News

By John McGourty - Staff Writer

Jacques Lemaire won't have an easy challenge in his second go-round as coach of the New Jersey Devils.

He'll be trying to lift the 2009 Atlantic Division winners to the 2010 Stanley Cup. Lemaire also will be trying to overcome the popular belief that he is so defense-oriented his team won't score enough and will be boring to watch.

Two members of his 1995 Stanley Cup-winning team, however, think this team will be even more exciting. Defenseman Bruce Driver and center Jim Dowd each said Lemaire, who coached the Devils from 1993-98, will strengthen the Devils in all areas.

Dowd was asked what impact Lemaire's arrival will have on Zach Parise, the Devils' leading scorer with 45 goals. Will he be asked to play a more defensive role this season at the sacrifice of some goals?

"Take a look at the best offensive players who have played for Lemaire, they all had their best offensive years while playing for him," Dowd said. "Guys like Brian Rolston, Andrew Brunette and myself. The Devils' offensive players will be fine. They should be fired up because they are going to win. I think they have a better chance of winning the Stanley Cup than they did last year -- and Brent Sutter did a fine job.

"But as soon as Jacques gets here, the players will have it in their mind that they can beat anybody. Jacques tells you that when you have the puck, try to score, and when you don't, get in position."

Driver echoed his former teammate's thoughts.

"I certainly think Jacques is a great coach," Driver said. "I played for a number of coaches in my pro career, in college, the Olympics and youth hockey and Jacques was definitely up there with the top coaches that I played for. He is extremely knowledgeable and he has a great track record with the Devils. He knows the expectations with that organization.

"I'm not surprised that he's returning as the coach, and I don't think too many other people will be surprised. I think he will be good for the players that they have now. Jacques understands their needs, what they have to do to get better."

Lemaire got a strong recommendation from his former boss, Doug Risebrough, the former general manager of the Minnesota Wild, who hired Lemaire in 2000 and worked with him for eight seasons.

"I think Jacques is a very, very flexible coach," Risebrough said of his former Montreal teammate. "Jacques's greatest strength is his ability to adapt. He has sound principles about work ethic that he wants people to follow.

"As far as the New Jersey Devils, his thinking is in line with what that defensive organization is all about. The personnel has completely changed since he was last there and that will be good for Jacques. He's the right person to deal with that type of change."

Driver and Dowd said Lemaire was untiring in repeating drills and verbal instructions until his players' execution met his expectations.

"Jacques puts a lot of emphasis on repeating things at practice that have you ready when you see them in games," Driver said. "He makes a commitment to having the team be more defensively responsible and able to recognize situations that arise when you are working in your own end. He'll practice that, working together in your own end, a couple of times a week. It's a repetitive process that becomes second nature during games.

"He put a lot of hard work into his coaching, and he was very good at teaching."

The Devils had enjoyed little success before Lemaire's arrival in 1993. The franchise's entire outlook quickly changed after he took over behind the bench.

"He just changed the thinking as far as accountability," Dowd said. "He taught us to play the game the right way, to play our positions. It wasn't anything complicated, just fundamentals and hard work. But day in and day out, we would do the same things over and over again. Everyone has a spot they're supposed to be in -- play your position, buy time and try to run around as little as possible.

"It was the same thing in Minnesota, not one thing changed. He was more understanding as a coach, realizing the early Wild players were not as talented and they were younger."

Driver feels Lemaire's coaching style has been mischaracterized. For him it's not a defensive system; it's an overall approach that leads to victory.

"People talked so much back then about the trap or the Devils having no offense," Driver said. "The critics tried to dissect everything down to moment-by-moment positioning, but we just laughed as players.

"We knew what we were being taught and what the critics were saying. … From a defensive standpoint, the Devils are in good hands. So is their offense. He will have a lot of good offensive players to work with. Our team back then was never one that had a ton of offensive talent -- not enough to compete with the top offensive teams, but we were a well-rounded team and we were successful.

"You have to be good defensively to win. Look at this year's Stanley Cup winners, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Nobody thought they were a good defensive team, just all offense, but they played pretty darn good defense to beat a team as good as the Detroit Red Wings. They had a nice balance of offense and defense."

Dowd agreed that Lemaire is supremely confident in his abilities, based on a career in which he won eight Stanley Cups as a player, two as the assistant general manager of the Montreal Canadiens and another as coach of the Devils. He's not a man filled with doubts.

"He knows what he wants and he's not second-guessing himself," Dowd said. "He has a plan and he executes it. Look at his reputation, what he's accomplished. When someone like that comes along, you listen.

"The biggest misconception about Jacques is that people think 'defense first' means you are not going to be scoring -- and nothing could be further from the truth."

Risebrough feels the Devils will benefit from having a coach and general manager who see eye-to-eye. The Devils have prescribed ways of doing things -- and Lemaire not only knows those ways, he had a hand in shaping them.

"Jacques has a very high regard for (GM) Lou Lamoriello and Lou has high regard for Jacques," Risebrough said. "All coaches need a good manager and all managers need a coach. In this case, it's a good fit."

While it's Lemaire's second time around with the Devils, there's enough time elapsed and so many roster changes in the interim that it will feel like new to all involved, Driver said.

"Looking at the Devils' roster, it's a short list of players who have played for him, so this is going to be good for the team," Driver said.
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