The fact that Jacques Lemaire retired today as coach of the New Jersey Devils - announced by the team on their Twitter account Monday morning - after one encore season behind the bench brings mixed feelings.
It isn't much of a surprise, given that Lemaire will turn 65 in September and has been doing this off and on since first going behind the Montreal Canadiens' bench in 1983-84. In that span, Lemaire won 588 regular-season games and piloted the Devils to their first of three Stanley Cup wins in 1995, starting the organization down a path of respectability that survives to this day. That first championship was won the year of the 1994-95 NHL lockout, when the regular season shrunk to 48 games and the Devils barely squeaked in, qualifying eventually as a fifth seed and winning it all, despite starting every series on the road. It was also memorable at the latest point in any season that a Stanley Cup was awarded. New Jersey clinched the championship by sweeping the Detroit Red Wings on June 24; if the Red Wings had put up more of a fight, they would have been closing in on Canada Day before they'd settled the matter.
Lemaire was something of an innovator as a coach - because of his particular attention to defensive hockey, something borne of his own playing experience and the fact that he started his coaching career in Switzerland. Sadly, when the Devils won that year, it also introduced the dreaded term 'neutral zone trap' into the popular hockey lexicon. Given how the NHL is a copycat league, it became the de rigueur style for the better part of a decade.
The Devils' Crash Line of Bobby Holik, Randy McKay and Mike Peluso were able to squeeze the life out of any game, with their ability to hook, hold and otherwise impede in the neutral zone - and the referees of the time were complicit, gradually allowing hockey to devolve into rodeo and ushering in what old friend Michael Farber labelled as the dead-puck era. It took another lockout in 2004-05, plus the input of the players through Brendan Shanahan's summit, to get the game back on the rails. What an irony then that Shanahan's final days as a player were in New Jersey and that Lemaire's reluctance to give him a meaningful role on the team ultimately led to Shanahan's retirement 34 games into this season.
Shanahan was an original Devils' draft choice back in 1987, but he had moved on before Lemaire's first coaching term with the team. Lemaire had a bright hockey mind; and willingly or not, a lot of players learned something about playing a more complete game from him. That he will stay on in the organization is what you'd think would happen - GM Lou Lamoriello always rewards loyal company men; and Lemaire was always that, coming to the rescue last season when Brent Sutter bolted the team with a year left on his contract and leaving the Devils in something of a lurch. John MacLean was considered the front runner before Lemaire took over; and he will likely be considered that again, after another year of serving the organization as the head coach of their AHL farm team in Lowell. You'd almost think that the succession plan was in place a year ago - that the Devils wanted MacLean to run his own team once before he took over at the NHL level.
As for Lemaire, he proved to be the ideal Devils' employee, someone who figured out what they needed do to win and successfully implemented a system to accomplish that goal. That the aesthetics of the game took a 10-year nosedive wasn't their issue; but like it or not, it will always be a part of his coaching legacy.