-- In his first game back as coach, Jacques Lemaire
sensed something he had never before experienced behind the New Jersey Devils
' bench -- a feeling of defeat.
Needless to say, it bothered Lemaire, who returned Thursday for a third stint as coach of the team he has led to five postseason appearances and a Stanley Cup in 1995.
"I saw so many things," Lemaire told the media following his team's 5-1 loss to the New York Islanders
"When I was first behind the bench, I was looking at the players trying … not working as hard as I thought they would," he said. "They were trying and they looked like they lost their ability to play the game, which is very strange. I have never seen this in the past, never."
Never mind the fact Lemaire, who replaced John MacLean
, was taking over a team that had won just nine games in 33 tries this season. But watching a New Jersey team struggle so mightily to build confidence was unfamiliar territory.
"I can understand when the team isn't winning and you're trying hard and things are going bad," Lemaire said. "Guys call that squeezing the sticks, but this is worse than that. This looks like they've been doing this for a little while."
So what can Lemaire possibly do to right a sinking ship?
"There's one thing we can take care of and that's how we work," he said. "It was hard for them. They had something else in mind … that defeat. I'm not a psychologist, but I could sense things and I could feel it."
Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello is holding out hope that Lemaire can re-establish that winning atmosphere. It's the sole reason he reached out to Lemaire on Wednesday, asking him for help in salvaging what has become perhaps the most disappointing season in his 24-year tenure with the organization.
"Let's say that I was having a nice retirement," Lemaire said. "I was playing golf four days a week and was with grandkids at the cottage. We were having a ball and then I get a phone call from my buddy Lou -- I still call him that. He said, 'I need your help.'
"I couldn't say no to him," Lemaire continued. "I know Lou's been working so hard for this organization for years and he's been good, not only to me, but a lot of the players. But what he's done for me and my family, I had no choice."
After spending nine seasons as coach of the Minnesota Wild
, where he compiled a 293-255-108 record, Lemaire rejoined the Devils on July 13, 2009. He resigned following New Jersey's five-game setback to the Philadelphia Flyers
in the first round of the Stanley Cup last spring.
But now he's back, with renewed vigor and, by his own admission, plenty of energy.
"What I want to do, after what I seen today, is I want this team to be competitive," he said. "This is what I want. I want to get this team to play against anyone and be competitive."
The Montreal native previously coached New Jersey from 1993-94 through 1997-98 and guided the club to a 199-122-57 record, five postseason appearances and the 1995 Stanley Cup.
Lemaire admitted to watching plenty of hockey in retirement, including almost every Devils' game.
"This organization has had success for a long time and have been on top for a long time," he said. "Looking at it from the outside (and not as a coach), the team was not getting worse, but losing confidence. It was painful. That's why we have to change this -- and the players will."
When asked if qualifying for the playoffs was a realistic expectation, Lemaire shrugged.
"Let's start by winning a game … winning a game is possible," he said.
The Devils have lost four straight games, in fact, while being outscored 20-4. After yielding three goals in the opening 11 minutes of the game against the Islanders, Lemaire called a timeout. He wasn't agitated; rather, just wanted the team to play harder and with confidence.
"I told them to try to forget the score and I wanted them to work," he said. "Work and play together. Something I didn't see that all year. I was also thinking, 'it's going to be rougher than I thought.'
Still, Lemaire feels the talent is there for a turnaround. It's just up to the players to make it happen. Under Lemaire, New Jersey began the 2009-10 campaign with two straight losses, but finished 48-27-7. His team currently sits last in the NHL through 34 games.
"The offense is as good if not better (than last year)," Lemaire said. "The defense … I haven't looked closely at yet, but I don't think we're that far off."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale