Commentary

Jacques Lemaire one win away from 600

'I'm getting old,' interim Devils coach says as he puts next milestone in perspective

Updated: February 11, 2011, 12:16 PM ET
By Mike Mazzeo | Special to ESPNNewYork.com

NEWARK, N.J. -- New Jersey Devils interim coach Jacques Lemaire has won 11 Stanley Cups as a player, executive and coach, is one of six men to score two Cup-winning goals and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1984.

Perhaps all those accomplishments and accolades contributed to the reason he appeared indifferent -- as well as clueless -- when asked about his latest upcoming milestone: becoming the eighth coach in NHL history to reach 600 wins.

"I don't know who's there, who won [600]," said Lemaire, 65, who has a chance to reach that benchmark Thursday when the Devils take on the Maple Leafs in Toronto. "I don't keep track of that."

League historians, however, do.

Lemaire -- once he does win No. 600 -- will join Scotty Bowman (1,244 victories), Al Arbour (782), Dick Irvin Sr. (692), Pat Quinn (684), Mike Keenan (672), Bryan Murray (620) and Toronto's Ron Wilson, who reached the milestone Jan. 11.

[+] EnlargeJacques Lemaire
Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty ImagesJacques Lemaire's latest stint in New Jersey started slowly, but the Devils have won 10 of their last 13.

"It just means that they were old when they left the game," Lemaire said sarcastically. "I'm getting old, too. You can stick around and you never know what's going to happen. You've got to stick around a long time."

Lemaire has compiled a 599-452-186 coaching record in 17 seasons. He captured his only Stanley Cup as a coach in 1995, leading the Devils to their first championship.

This season, however, may turn out to be his finest behind the bench.

The Devils were off to one of the worst starts in franchise history when Lemaire came out of his retirement at the request of general manager Lou Lamoriello. Lemaire took over for John MacLean on Dec. 23 and inherited a 9-22-2 team -- and a dressing room filled with nonbelievers.

But after losing seven of their first eight games under Lemaire, the Devils have turned it around, and have won 10 of their last 13 heading into Thursday's matchup with the Maple Leafs. New Jersey is 15 points out of the eighth and final playoff spot with 28 games remaining.

"It was doom and gloom at the beginning of the year," veteran center Jason Arnott said. "It was a snowball effect. It just kept going and going and going, and I don't think anybody thought we were gonna get out of it, especially in this dressing room. And when you don't believe in the dressing room, that's bad.

"But he kind of gave us new life. And winning is a lot better than losing, so we've got way more smiles and a lot more confidence in here. We kind of forgot about the beginning of the year and we're just playing for now and playing every game one at a time."

When he took over the Devils, Lemaire believed the players were out of shape. He began working them harder in practice. He also implemented a new system -- one that stressed greater responsibility in the defensive zone.

"He came in and kind of put in a system that fit our team and we worked at it," Arnott said. "It took us three or four or five games when he took over to change the way we used to play to the way he wanted us to play, and it worked. When we get away from what he's telling us, we don't play as well. And when we do what he wants us to do, in our system, we're real good."

Lemaire has gotten the most out of his players -- especially sniper Ilya Kovalchuk.

"He changed the momentum with his experience," said Kovalchuk, who has 14 points in his last 13 games. The Devils are 10-1-2 in that span.

"The way he coaches, the way he knows what buttons to push on every player to make them better, we know that he's a great coach. He just relaxed me a little bit. He trusted in me and told me to believe in my game."

Lemaire said the game has changed and evolved over time. Rule changes and the increasing speed, size and skill level of the players have caused him to adapt his style.

[+] EnlargeJacques Lemaire
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesJacques Lemaire returned to the Devils on Dec. 23.

But he said the most significant change of all has been the constantly increasing player salaries.

"Before [guys played for] pleasure," Lemaire said. "Now it's all business."

The LaSalle, Quebec, native began coaching in 1982-83 as an assistant with the Montreal Canadiens, the team he won eight Stanley Cups with and scored 366 goals for during 12 seasons as a player. He earned his first coaching victory Feb. 25, 1984, after replacing Bob Berry 63 games into the 1983-84 season.

He coached the Habs for two seasons before deciding to move to the front office as the organization's assistant general manager.

"I didn't enjoy coaching there," said Lemaire, who went on to win two Stanley Cups in his new role. "I didn't want to be the head coach, either. I just wanted to work with the guys [as an assistant]. I like that. I like practices and all that. I love that."

Lemaire said the pressure to win from the media in Montreal was unbearable.

"It's like that for every coach that was there," he said. "You have to deal with the press and deal with what they're saying. You never do the right thing. Sometimes you don't even do the right thing when you win, which is tough. You definitely don't do the right thing when you lose. But when you don't do it when you win, it's tough."

Lemaire didn't get back behind the bench until the 1993-94 season, when he led the Devils all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. They lost that series in seven games to the New York Rangers but ended up winning it all the next season.

Under Lemaire, a defensive-minded guru, the Devils became known for their dominant neutral-zone trap.

He coached New Jersey until the 1997-98 season, but the majority of his coaching victories didn't come until after he took over the Minnesota Wild in 2000-01. He won 293 of his 599 games with the Wild and guided them to three playoff appearances before stepping down following the 2008-09 season.

Lemaire began his second stint in New Jersey in 2009-10. He led the team to a 48-27-7 record but retired after the Devils were ousted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs.

At that time he had only 588 wins. Eleven wins later, he sits on the precipice of making history again.

"Six hundred wins?" Lemaire asked. "Me?"

Yes, you.

Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.

Mike Mazzeo

ESPN New York Writer

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