Lemaire Defends Decisions This Past Season

After the Devils loss to the Flyers this postseason, the team searched for answers to explain yet another first round exit. Jamie Langenbrunner came out to the media, criticizing former coach Jacques Lemaire for his decisions throughout the season. Even Brian Gionta, a former Devil, weighed in with his opinion.

In an article by Star-Ledger beat reporter Rich Chere, Lemaire defended his decisions during the regular season and playoffs this season. There were many things the coach addressed, but I’d like to take a look at a few quotes relating to several posts I’ve wrote about on the blog the past few weeks.

Issue 1: Line JugglingJacques Lemaire 1

One of the criticisms leveled at Lemaire this past season was his constant line-juggling. I addressed the coach’s decision to break up the ZZ Pops line, but Lemaire juggled more lines than the ZZ Pops line. Lemaire moved several players around, working for the optimal lineup against a given team. As Lemaire said in the article

“I look at the teams still in the playoffs right now. They match lines. I don’t see why we would be so special that we don’t have to match lines,” Lemaire said.

“As far as switching the players on lines, Scotty Bowman has been known as a great coach and he moved players around a lot. There are a lot of coaches who move players around when things aren’t going well or playing against certain teams. I’ve done it my whole career. I don’t think it’s an issue. It could be an issue if you’re not good enough and you need to play with certain guys to get better. Then, for that particular guy, it would be an issue.”

Hockey coaches have to switch lines. In year’s past, Brent Sutter would use the Devils’ third line to match against the team’s first line. If a coach doesn’t change lines and match up with the other team, they don’t give themselves the optimal lineup out on the ice. But I don’t agree with the constant line-juggling this season. The coach had a dynamite first line, one that could easily lead the team in scoring. They also brought energy and talent to the ice. By breaking them up, Lemaire eliminated one of better scoring lines in the entire league.

When asked about the decision to break up the ZZ Pops line, Lemaire said

“I try to get the best out of players. Sometimes, yes, I did put guys with certain other guys so they play better,” Lemaire said, “but I have to think about the team and what is good for the team. I’m happy with the way I’ve done things. No regrets. I’ve always done this and the success was there.”

I understand Lemaire’s idea here – spread the scoring, maybe allow for some other players to get going. But when the team needed offense or a spark, the ZZ Pops line should have played together. There was no need to continually switch those players around. We all know they played well together, and I believe the line should have been kept together, giving the Devils their best offensive line (and one of the better defensive lines as well).

For the rest of my reaction to the article, continue reading after the jump!

 

Jamie LangenbrunnerIssue #2 – The Relationship With Jamie Langenbrunner

Lemaire and Langenbrunner didn’t have the best relationship this season, as we’ve seen in several instances last season. One of the bigger issues of the season came in Raleigh, North Carolina on April 3, when Lemaire decided to rest the captain. Langenbrunner didn’t agree with the decision, but it didn’t stop with him. Lemaire then tried to give the “C” to Colin White for the game, who refused to wear it out of respect for Langenbrunner. Lemaire believed the situation was overblown, and he didn’t feel it was a big deal.

“That’s not a big deal. It could be a big deal for certain guys. It wasn’t big for me,””Lemaire said. “Since I’ve been coaching, except for the first five years here, I’ve been switching captains every month and sometimes every two months. The ‘C’ went to different guys.

“I know that Scotty (Stevens) didn’t miss a lot of games, but I think I gave the ‘C’ to another guy when he missed some games. It was so we had a guy to represent the team in that particular game. I don’t like several guys having an ‘A.’ Then, who is the boss? Who is the leader, the man you’re going to refer to?

“That’s my philosophy. Obviously Jamie has a different philosophy and that’s OK. It’s the way I do things. Maybe you don’t (like) it, but I’m the one coaching. This is how I do things.”

Lemaire dropped the proverbial hammer with that last quote. If that’s not a direct shot at Langenbrunner, I don’t know what else it could be. The Devils needed someone to represent them that night, and I agree with Lemaire – the team needs a leader on the ice to speak to the officials, etc. during the game. With a bunch of “A”s skating around, who takes that responsibility? Someone needed to step up during that time. Lemaire didn’t disrespect Stevens when the former captain needed to sit. As soon as he hit the ice, he got the “C” back. It’s not disrespectful, it’s just something that needed to happen.

Issue #3 – Ilya Kovalchuk

The Devils’ aren’t helping themselves sign Ilya Kovalchuk with the complaints from their locker room. Several players were upset with the way Kovalchuk played last year. Instead of being expected to be a two-way players, Lemaire allowed Kovalchuk more free-wheeling abilities. Lemaire had no issue with the way Kovalchuk played.

“He played different than the other guys because of his talent. I have no problem with that,” Lemaire said. “He had 6-7 chances a game. You think I’m going to tell him to play defense? Come on. We’re looking to score goals here. Give me a break.

“I let him play as much as I could as long as it didn’t disturb the whole team: ‘Play the way you want, but be responsible when it’s time to come back and when it’s time to do the job in your zone.’ Which he was.”

Kovalchuk actually played a solid defensive game last season, and his abilities far outweighed those of many of the forwards on the team (except Zach Parise, who is one of the most talented wingers). Kovalchuk was able to generate scoring chances, as his 17 assists with the Devils show. At times, Kovalchuk’s play seemed erratic, and he did seem to hog the puck. But any coach can tell you that restraining an offensive force wouldn’t be smart. Devils’ general manager Lou Lamoriello brought Kovalchuk in to do one thing – score goals. He played decently in his own zone, and he attempted to make things happen in the offensive zone. Maybe some players didn’t like it, but Kovalchuk had to do things to make the team better.

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So, what do I think of the article? I’m glad Chere gave Lemaire a chance to give his side of the story. The guy has been getting kicked around the past few weeks, so getting the other side of the story was a good move. Lemaire looked to clear his name throughout the article, which is what anybody would do in the situation. And, while I agree with some of his arguments, I still find it hard to completely believe Lemaire. As the head coach, he should have addressed serious issues within the team’s locker room. Lemaire didn’t do this well enough, and as a result, he lost the players. I think this divide was one of several reasons why the team didn’t do well in the first round.

It’ll be interesting to see Lamoriello’s next choice for head coach. Whoever comes in needs to be tuned into the climate of the locker room. This team needs someone who knows how to relate and manage players better. It’ll be interesting to see if Lamoriello can hire someone who fits this profile.

Jacques Lemaire Photo Credit: Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger

Jamie Langenbrunner Photo Credit: John Ulan/AP Photo/The Canadian Press

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