When the Devils host the Flyers tonight at the Rock, on the brink of elimination, down 3-1 in their playoff series, they will playing with a coaching disadvantage. Devils’ coach, Jacques Lemaire, is a 2 times Jack Adams Award winner, and has won 11 Stanley Cups as a player, coach and executive. He has a career coaching record of 538-415-176 in 14 seasons with Montreal, New Jersey and Minnesota. So how can the Devils be at a disadvantage you ask?
I was one who predicted and wanted Jacques Lemaire to return to coaching the Devils. And for half of this season it seemed like the right move. Lemaire was carefully crafting and manipulating the Devils with all of the key player injuries they had. He saw the game exactly as I saw it and he seemed to be a coaching “genius,” making the right moves, placing the right lines out there and working magic to have the Devils 1st in the NHL with essentially a 1/2 AHL team.
In the press conference after the game 4 loss against Philly, he basically said he needed his “best players to make good plays and score.” He seemed clueless as to how that was going to happen or what strategy to employ to make that happen. He has tried desperately to make the power play work, with 2 of the best forwards in the NHL, Ilya Kovlachuk and Zach Parise, to no avail.
The Devils’ power play strategy is over simplistic with 2 shooting forwards at the point and one shoots with a screen, allowing the other team to crowd the box, preventing quality shots or rebounds. In addition, he continues to play Paul Martin and Brian Rolston ahead of future all-star defender, Andy Greene, who has been a surprise phenom this year. Greene’s speed, game awareness, accurate and deflect-able shot, and ability to keep the puck in the zone make him invaluable on the power play, but he gets little time there. Greene lead all Devil defenders this year with 37 points (more that twice any other Devils’ defender), including 4 power play goals.
Lemaire has juggled the Devils’ forwards lines period to period, game to game throughout the year, much to the dismay of most Devils’ fans (and players). No chemistry has seem to form from his top 6 players. He hasn’t even found how to use Kovlachuk (twice a NHL 50 goal scorer) in an effective way. Right now his top 2 lines are Parise-Elias-Zubrus and Kovlachuk-Zajac-Langenbrunner. Those lines have failed to register an even strength goal in the 2 games in Philadelphia. He even scrambled his defensive parings for the playoffs, pairing his 2 best defenders, Paul Martin and Andy Greene together, leaving a 3rd paring of immobile defensemen, Bryce Salvador and Martin Skoula (acquired at the trade deadline from Pittsburgh and Toronto), who have been brutal at times under the Flyers aggressive forecheck.
There is a story floating around that after the game 4 loss in Philly, Devils’ President/GM/Supreme Leader, Lou Lamoriello threw a fit (and a jelly jar) at his coaches over the poor effort that resulted in an embarrassing 4-1 playoff defeat. It appears his tirade (which I have never heard Lou do before) was directed at the coaches. While many may rightly blame the players, both Lamoriello and I agree, if the Devils lose this one, it is on the head coach.
Lamoriello and I were both wrong about Lemaire being the right coach for this team. If the Devils get ousted in the first playoff round this year (the 3rd straight year), Lemaire will surely not be back. He will quickly find work however, since he will be a perfect fit for a team like Edmonton. He might actually get them into the playoffs!
As for the Devils this year, let’s see whether Lamoriello’s jelly jar tantrum gets us a playoff game 6 or a coach that’s toast.