-- Devils coach Jacques Lemaire
quietly uttered the words, and then he coughed. After a quick pause, he looked right in the reporter's eye again, and as if he were spelling it out in big capital letters used the same words to answer the same question:
Is this the biggest challenge of your coaching career?
"BY…A…MILE," Lemaire answered, pausing between each word, "and a plus."
He has coached in Montreal. He has won a Stanley Cup with the Devils and then failed to make the playoffs the following season. He has taken control of an expansion franchise in Minnesota in 2000 and three years later had it in the Western Conference Finals. He was an associate coach to Mike Babcock for Team Canada in the Olympics last February.
But, not until now had Lemaire jumped on board to coach a team that roughly halfway through its season was so so down on its luck that winning a simple game felt like an obstacle nearly impossible to overcome.
Welcome to the Devils season. Glad to be here?
On Dec. 23, Lemaire was summoned back to New Jersey by Lou Lamoriello because the Devils' general manager was still hopeful that this abysmal season -- which until that morning had taken place under the direction of first-year coach John MacLean
's watch -- could get turned around and Lemaire was just the guy who could do it.
He's seven games into his third tenure as the Devils coach and, well, let's just say things aren't going all that well.
New Jersey's 4-2 loss Thursday to the Philadelphia Flyers
is already its sixth in two weeks with Lemaire. He's dealing with a Hall of Fame goalie going through the worst slump in his life, a world-class scorer going through the worst season of his life, a core of young players who may not be ready for the big time and a group of veterans who just haven't clicked all season.
The Devils are 10-28-2 this season. Their 22 points are by far the fewest in the League. They trail the eighth-place Montreal Canadiens
by more points (25) than they've earned this season.
Friday morning they traded their captain, Jamie Langenbrunner
, to Dallas for a conditional third-round draft pick and Lamoriello said more moves could be coming.
"There are so many things," Lemaire said of what he's got to do here now. "We've got young guys that don't know the game. We've got guys that have to get in shape. We've got the whole team that's got to play together. There's a lot of stuff there."
He wasn't done.
"We've got goalies we've got to get back. We've got scorers that we've got to get them to score. We've got the checkers that we have to get them to check. It's a lot of stuff."
Wait, there's more.
"You have the power play you have to work on so we can get goals, and we have the penalty kill to work on so they don't get goals," he said. "And, we have to be better 5-on-5."
He could have probably gone on further.
So, what do you do?
Well, if you're Lemaire, you try to simplify everything and, as Devils goalie Johan Hedberg
said, "take away the thinking part and just go back to reacting as soon as possible."
So far, it doesn't appear to be working.
The Devils are still struggling to score, or stick with any kind of offensive scheme at all. They can't buy a win.
They're 1-6 under Lemaire. Their power play is 1-for-20 since he took charge.
"As a coach when you come in and your team doesn't have success you're trying to find what's going on, what is the problem, what can you fix?" Lemaire said. "Then the team keeps losing and you run into a time when you say, 'I don't know what to do anymore.' I'm not at that point. I don't come in and say, 'I don't know what to do.' I have a lot of stuff to do, I tell you. I got a lot of things to do."
Lemaire might have to empty his bag of tricks to get these Devils on track this season, but now comes the question of motivation.
Certainly making the playoffs doesn't seem like a realistic goal at this point.
"As a coach when you come in and your team doesn't have success you're trying to find what's going on, what is the problem, what can you fix?" Lemaire said. "Then the team keeps losing and you run into a time when you say, 'I don't know what to do anymore.' I'm not at that point. I don't come in and say, 'I don't know what to do.' I have a lot of stuff to do, I tell you. I got a lot of things to do playoffs doesn't seem, at least at this point, like a realistic goal.
"Motivation is getting back on track, simple as that," Lemaire said. "Just getting back on track and being a little proud that at least we're trying, working as a group, working as a team and looking like a team."
"We've got goalies we've got to get back. We've got scorers that we've got to get them to score. We've got the checkers that we have to get them to check. It's a lot of stuff." -- Jacques Lemaire
There's only so much Lemaire can do to make it happen.
"You're a professional athlete. If you go out there and just give up you're not going to be one for a long time," Devils forward David Clarkson
told NHL.com. "So, it comes down to your pride and the front of that Devils jersey. We all have big hearts in here. We want to be successful. We want to win. That's what we've got to do."
That's the challenge, and it's the biggest that Lemaire has faced since he first stepped behind a bench more than 26 years ago.
"He's a very smart man, one of the smartest hockey people around, but we have to find a way to win," Clarkson said. "It's unacceptable to keep rolling through this and after the game say well, 'We lost again but we did this good.' It's to the point where it's hard to keep saying that. You don't want to hear that when you're losing like this."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl