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Lemaire returns to teach Devils all the right ways

by Dave Lozo /
Jacques Lemaire had nothing left to prove in the NHL when he announced his retirement last April. Eight Stanley Cups as a player with the Montreal Canadiens and one as coach of the New Jersey Devils in 1995 speak volumes about his accomplishments.

Yet eight months later, the 65-year-old found himself back in New Jersey coaching a team that was 9-22-2, dead last in the NHL. The Devils were 20 points out of a playoff spot, something that became a given for them during the past 15 seasons.
So when Devils GM Lou Lamoriello made that phone call just days before Christmas, why would Lemaire agree to abandon his retirement and replace John MacLean behind the bench in what was a completely hopeless situation?
"I took it because of Lou," Lemaire said. "There's no doubt that this is the first thing why I took the job. The second one is I feel that it's a top organization and it was hard to look at them play the way they were playing and I know a lot of these guys I coached in the past. I felt sorry for them for what was happening to them. I thought I could help."

He thought right.

The Devils aren't knocking on the door of the playoffs -- far from it -- but they can at least say they aren't the worst team in the League anymore. The 28th-place Devils are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games, a stretch that seemed impossible before Lemaire arrived and instilled his defensive system into a disjointed team that lacked any cohesion.

It was just the sixth game of the season, but the Devils were showing all the signs of a team that wasn't going to be able to get out of its own way.

During a Saturday night home game against the Boston Bruins, a goal by rookie Jordan Caron, who has since been sent to the AHL, epitomized the problems that would send the Devils into an epic tailspin.

Caron's goal started when defenseman Zdeno Chara, with nary a Devil defender near him, joined the rush for a glorious scoring chance that was turned away by goaltender Martin Brodeur. The rebound caromed into the slot and onto the stick of Devils defenseman Henrik Tallinder, who treated the puck like a live hand grenade.

With all the poise of a panicked rookie, the veteran Tallinder chipped the puck right onto the stick of Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk. His blast was stopped, but an uncovered Caron slipped the rebound under Brodeur for the tying goal in what would eventually be a 4-1 Bruins victory.

That type of play became commonplace over the next two months, but was one of the things Lemaire corrected.

"Our defensive zone coverage is by far one of the biggest things," said Devils forward Brian Rolston when asked what Lemaire has improved since taking over. "By playing the way we are in the defensive zone, we're getting the puck and we're not chipping pucks -- we're controlling the puck out through the neutral zone and we have speed through the neutral zone.

"Support. That's the key word. We're supporting each other better than we ever have."

Lemaire didn't show up and wave a magic wand that instantly fixed the Devils, who went 1-7-0 in his first eight games. The Devils were outscored 27-13 during that stretch and appeared to be on a collision course with the first pick in the 2011 Entry Draft.

"There's kind of an adjustment period when he got in, because he kind of had to brainwash us a little bit," Tallinder said. "But once he did that, you see we're winning games."

The turnaround the past three weeks has been nothing short of remarkable. The Devils have outscored opponents 34-16 during this 10-game run, with five of their eight wins coming against teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. And while being mindful of their defensive zone has been paramount in this resurgence, Patrik Elias cautioned that the Devils aren't harkening back to the style of play that brought them success in the late-1990s.

"I don't think we're trapping it up," Elias said. "That's what it was always called, 'Devils hockey' -- play the trap and play very well defensively. We're doing that, but at the same time, we're playing well position-wise and we're controlling the puck a lot more. You look at our defensive zone coverage and the way we make plays in our zone, there's not as much panic. We're making little plays.

"(Lemaire's) done a good job with the guys. He's done a great job to build a system to play that way and we're seeing we can have some fun and we can win some hockey games."

The biggest shakeup Lemaire made after his arrival was the temporary benching of Brodeur, considered by many to be the greatest goaltender in NHL history. The 38-year-old who had his season interrupted by an elbow injury couldn't have kept a beach ball out of the net at times, so Lemaire gave him a few games off to work out his problems with goaltending coach Chris Terreri.

That break coupled with the Devils rediscovering their defensive-zone responsibilities has led to Brodeur going 8-1-1 with a save percentage of .925 since Jan. 9.

Brodeur said the reason why he and the team are winning again isn't so much Lemaire's ability to coach, but his ability to teach.

"Jacques is all about teaching," Brodeur said. "When you have a bunch guys that are going through a season and you're really successful, sometimes that teaching is like, 'Alright, come on.' But now we need it. I think he's just embracing it and the boys are embracing it also. It's paying dividends for us.

"It's been a good transition for us because it's Hockey 101 every time we get a practice. It's always something new and he doesn't miss much. Even though we win, we're not perfect and he wants to be."

Lemaire has also had an effect on the offense of Ilya Kovalchuk, who is in the midst of one of his worst goal-scoring seasons of his career. But Kovalchuk has 7 goals and 6 assists in 16 games under Lemaire after just 8 goals and 10 assists in 34 games under MacLean.

"He knows what buttons to push in every player," Kovalchuk said. "All of us have played much better, more consistent. We play as a unit, five guys. The 'D' jumps into the play and help us offensively and we come back as forwards and help defensively and we've won the games."

Lemaire has said repeatedly that he has no intention of coaching next season. That's the sort of recipe for more disaster for a team that's basically playing out the string and doesn't have to worry about impressing a coach who will decide if they have a job the following year.

Tallinder explained the reason why the Devils are going against the grain in that situation.

"I think it's about pride," he said. "We played really poorly in the first half. Now it comes down to pride as a team as a player. Everybody wants to redeem themselves. We're not that bad."

Not anymore. Not after Lemaire has united what was basically a group of individuals trying to do everything on their own to the detriment of the team.

"I think they're playing as a team," Lemaire said. "You can tell when you look at them. They help each other at the ice, which they didn't do in the past. They were working, but individually. Now they work as a team."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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