Jacques Lemaire is pretty certain about one change in his second tour of duty behind the New Jersey Devils' bench.
"Yeah, I'm 64 now when I used to be 50," Lemaire said in his usual playful tone prior to a recent game at Prudential Center.
Lemaire isn't getting older, he's getting better, especially if you judge him by the Devils' performance this season. Playing without key players like defenseman Paul Martin, wingers Patrik Elias, Jay Pandolfo and David Clarkson, the Devils reached the halfway point in the season with a 30-10-1 record, tops in the Eastern Conference. Their 61 points is the highest 41-game total in team history.
After Tuesday's 4-0 win over Dallas, Lemaire told reporters he would have taken 30 wins and 61 points "right away" if someone told him before the season that they would be his team's totals after 41 games.
See, the man's smart.
"He's a great teacher," said Devils wing Brian Rolston, who has played for Lemaire in both Minnesota and New Jersey. "He can really teach offensive and defensive things and I think it's good to get back to a lot of the things that we need as players -- that's his greatest asset as a teacher. He explains why we're doing things; it's not just 'This is what we're doing,' but, instead, 'this is why we're doing it.'"
Is there any question Lemaire has defied the odds in doing what he does best this season?
Logically, the Devils should not be where they are when you consider the players who missed considerable time during the first half. Elias missed the first month of the season. Martin, the team's best defenseman is out for another month. Plus Clarkson, Pandolfo, Rob Niedermayer and Dainius Zubrus have missed considerable time.
So, replacements are summoned from the AHL Lowell Devils, and then never seem to miss an assignment.
"We don't play a lot different than last year; maybe a couple of things," Lemaire said. "The penalty kill is a little different, but the rest of it is … the game is forecheck and backcheck, so you got to make them do that. You make them do that, they'll have success."
As head coach of the Devils for five seasons from 1993-94 through 1997-98, Lemaire guided the team to a 199-122-57 record in the regular season and a 34-22 mark in the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- winning a Cup in '95 -- before stepping down May 8, 1998. After nine seasons as head coach in Minnesota, Lemaire returned to New Jersey in July.
"It's been great for me," Lemaire admitted. "Most of the people that worked here in the '90s were still here and that means a lot. It means they're good people and good workers. Lou (Lamoriello) hasn't changed -- he's only getter better. He's tough, but not as tough as he was, so it's good."
Devils goalie Martin Brodeur took a break from rewriting the NHL record book to talk about Lemaire.
"I still remember being pulled out of games when we were losing 2-1 and you shake your head," Brodeur said. "Sometimes he saw something in the morning skate that he didn't like and then I lost my start. It was just things like how to prepare yourself, how to be a professional and how to treat your teammates.
"If someone hit me in the head when I was younger, I'd say something to somebody, but you can't do that," Brodeur said. "It took a couple of years, but Jacques really helped me out and helped in different areas that maybe some people didn't see, but that I felt."
While the 2009-10 Devils may not resemble those clubs of the mid-90's, Lemaire has certainly played a major part in helping the team adapt to today's style -- with the same winning results. In his previous five-year tenure, Lemaire's team yielded 2.35 goals per game. In 2009-10, his team has allowed 89 goals through 41 games or 2.15 per contest.
"I think every coach does change," Lemaire said. "We learn and we try to follow the trend that is going on and we're aware that in the '90s, the defensive game, and only a defensive game, could win you a lot of games. Now you need more than this to win games."
But deep down, Lemaire still believes in solidifying his end of the ice.
"We believed that even in Montreal with all the Cups we had, we were talking about defense in the room," Lemaire said. "When Edmonton started to win (in the early '80s), everyone went offensive and forgot a little bit about defense. In our minds, we always believed that defense was a big key and that's what we taught to the other players. You can't have 400 goals against and figure you're going to win."
Rolston is a witness to a few little tweaks in Lemaire's teachings.
"A lot of the things are similar, but he's changed a few things too," Rolston admitted. "I think he realizes we have a different team here than what he had in Minnesota and it seems like he's given us a little more offensive free reign.
"He's still very passionate about the game and everyone knows he's still the boss and I think that, fundamentally, he's also growing with the game. He's been coaching for a long time and the game changes and he's done a great job because he's a smart guy."
Pandolfo, who played for Lemaire during his first term in New Jersey, thought bringing the old coach back into the fold was a boon for everyone within the organization.
"He was a great two-way player and I think, as a coach, he understands how to play all three zones and that's one thing he's really stressed," Pandolfo said. "We need to play well in all three zones -- defensive, neutral and offensive. I think that's the biggest thing he'll stress all year -- it's what needs to be done in order to be successful."
Niedermayer is also a believer in Lemaire's ways.
"He's good at explaining things and making sure you understand, so you're not taking a split second to think out there," Niedermayer said. "You're going over things and able to see everything so you understand it. Then, in game situations, you can react instead of think."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com