Some of you had asked for my opinion on the Devils bringing back Jacques Lemaire today and I promised I'd get to it before the end of the day, so here it goes.
First of all, to be honest, if Lou Lamoriello had announced today that he had hired Toe Blake's zombie to coach the team, I would have been happy. The coaching search had dragged on forever and, with little news leaking out, it was getting pretty annoying that no one had been hired.
Only one person actually had been talking to the media and it turned out that he was the one who got the job. It's rare that something like that happens with the Devils.
Of course, bringing back someone who had been with the organization previously is nothing new for Lamoriello. He's done it many times with players, including Brian Rolston, Bobby Holik and Brendan Shananhan just last season.
Is bringing back Lemaire the right move?
My initial reaction to the idea more than a month ago was negative because of Lemaire's age -- he'll be 64 in less than two months -- and the idea that he'll probably be out of here in another two or three years. After so many coaching changes in the last decade, I believe this team needs a plan for continuity behind the bench and that was why I was favor in hiring someone younger.
I did say, however, that hiring Lemaire wouldn't be a bad idea if he also was brought in to groom his successor. That's not quite the case here, but there does appear to be a plan in place for the team's future behind the bench with John MacLean taking over as the head coach in Lowell.
MacLean was stuck in his role as an assistant with the Devils without any head coaching experience. He couldn't move up. Now, he can be his own man in Lowell and see if he has what it takes to run a bench by himself and maybe set himself up to be Lemaire's successor.
The increased role that Scott Stevens is willing to take on in 2009-10 will also be a plus for the organization and might be a significant step toward grooming him to be a full-time assistant.
Getting back to New Jersey, Lemaire can be the right choice for the Devils for several reasons.
First, he commands instant respect from a group that has been hard on its share of head coaches over the years. Lemaire's 11 Stanley Cup rings, his history with the Devils and the high regard that Lamoriello clearly has for him leaves no questions about who will be in charge in the locker room and behind the bench.
Second, although the Devils were fourth in the NHL in goals-against average in 2008-09, they do need to make some improvements defensively. One of their glaring weaknesses, which was exposed repeatedly by the Carolina Hurricanes, is protecting a lead late in the game. Whether they tried sitting back or being aggressive under Brent Sutter, it was a problem.
Lemaire's meticulous attention to defensive detail will help them in this area.
Another potential payoff with Lemaire would be getting more out of Brian Rolston. Rolston is to blame for his own struggles last season. His ankle injury contributed and the sometimes-limited role he played didn't help, but the player has to take responsibilty and I think Rolston has done that. At the same time, playing for a coach he clearly respects and knows how good he can be will help him. For some reason, Brent Sutter never gave Rolston a chance to kill penalties last season after he came back from his injury.
I get the feeling that Rolston will feed off getting more responsibilty from Lemaire, but I also think he needs to shift back to wing, where he was very effective in Minnesota. That means that the Devils will need to add a center. I believe one will come via trade eventually. Who ends up leaving will be another story. Some of the young players the Devils are talking about giving a chance this season will probably be headed out. (Some of the talk might be aimed at building up their value while also trying not to look so needy).
And the young players who do get a chance to play in New Jersey will benefit from learning for one of the best teachers in the game.
So, there are positives in bringing back Lemaire, but there is one negative he must avoid. This team cannot go backward.
Yes, they can be responsible defensively, but skilled forwards such as Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Patrik Elias must be given the opportunity to use their skills and skating defensemen such as Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya must get the green light to join the play.
Defensemen must have the freedom to pinch from the point when the opportunity is right. Without help from their defensemen, three forwards rarely win battles for the puck and create chances against five defenders packed down low in their defensive zone.
This team can still be successful pressuring the puck in the offensive zone. They demonstrated that under Sutter.
Lemaire is a smart enough coach to recognize this. He will tinker with some things, but he recognizes the talent he has to work with -- much more than he ever had in Minnesota -- and he will go about making the most of it.
The man knows how to coach. He knows the game as thoroughly as anyone. That's why Steve Yzerman wanted him as an assistant on the Canadian Olympic team. He will prove invaluable to that squad.
Having him behind their bench can be even more beneficial for the Devils. As Sutter had to initially stress to the Devils that pressuring the puck doesn't mean forgetting about defense, Lemaire might have to remind his new players that playing defense doesn't have to mean giving up anything offensively.
There will be another transition period, but bringing back Lemaire can work.
Will it? We'll start finding out in October.