Commentary

Lemaire the answer for the Devils?

Updated: July 14, 2009, 2:16 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

So, when does the comfort of a circle become a spiral, as in a death spiral?

The answer to that question will start to reveal itself in the coming weeks and months as the déjà-vu-all-over-again beat continues with the New Jersey Devils and Jacques Lemaire's return for a second go-round behind the Devils' bench.

After being jilted by former head coach Brent Sutter -- who was so homesick for Red Deer, Alberta, that he asked to be let out of the last season of his contract to coach the Devils only to end up behind the bench of the Calgary Flames -- Devils president and GM Lou Lamoriello went looking for a coach who could bring his young players to the next level as well as coax more out of underachieving veterans.

Turns out all he had to do was go back to his old rolodex and call up the man who led the Devils to the first of their three Stanley Cups, back in 1995.

The hiring -- or rehiring, as it were -- brings into sharp focus the great chasm that often exists between perception and reality. Nowhere is that chasm more keenly in evidence than in the swirling fog of New Jersey.

[+] EnlargeJacques Lemaire
Len Redkoles/Getty ImagesJacques Lemaire has won three Stanley Cups, including one with the Devils in 1995.

The perception has been that Lemaire is one of the keenest hockey minds in the game, and that his penchant for stifling defense comes at an awful price both in terms of offense and entertainment value.

Yet during the Lemaire era in New Jersey between 1993-94 and 1997-98 -- an era of stupefyingly tight defense some credit with virtually destroying the game -- the Devils ranked 14th overall in offense.

In Lemaire's last season in New Jersey, the Devils were ninth in goals per game.

Lamoriello told ESPN.com on Monday afternoon that he thinks the perception that Lemaire embraces defensive hockey at the expense of anything approaching creative expression is wildly overblown.

"I know he's not going to restrain our offensive players," Lamoriello said.

Another perception -- that the Devils are capable of playing only one style, the mindless dump-and-trap -- remains to this day, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

This past season, for instance, the Devils ranked fourth in goals per game and boasted a dynamic offense led by emerging star Zach Parise, who finished fifth in NHL scoring with 94 points.

In 2007-08, Sutter's first season as an NHL head coach, the Devils were 27th in goals per game. Go figure.

In 1999-2000, when the Devils won their second Cup, they were second in the league in offense. It was also a season in which Lamoriello fired head coach Robbie Ftorek late in the regular season and handed over the reins to Larry Robinson, who would follow a Hotel California-like pattern -- in which players and coaches check out but never leave -- by being fired and then returning to the bench a couple of years later.

Brian Rolston left and came back. So did Brendan Shanahan and Bobby Holik.

When super-checker John Madden signed with Chicago a couple of weeks ago as a free agent, Lamoriello praised Madden's contributions and noted that Devils players often come back, implying perhaps that, once Madden gets the wanderlust out of his system, he too might return.

Lamoriello said Monday that when Lemaire left after that 1997-98 season, it wasn't a negative but rather that both the coach and the players needed a change.

Lamoriello said their relationship never changed in the decade that followed and that, forced with making another coaching hire, he was completely comfortable he'd made the right choice in hiring Lemaire.

The man who has built three Cup winners always gets the benefit of the doubt. Or at least he should.

Indeed, the Devils remain an anomaly.

Since the end of the lockout, they have lost key pieces, including Scott Stevens (retired), Scott Niedermayer (signed in Anaheim), Bobby Holik (signed in Atlanta), Scott Gomez (signed in New York), and in recent days Madden, Brian Gionta (signed in Montreal), Michael Rupp (who scored the Cup-winning goal in 2003 and signed in Pittsburgh) and superb backup Scott Clemmensen (signed in Florida).

Still, in spite of the leakage in talent, every season the Devils find a way to defy the skeptics who say this is the end of the road or the beginning of the end. Last season the Devils finished atop the Atlantic Division with 51 wins, earning their 18th playoff berth in the past 19 seasons.

Only Detroit -- 21 appearances in the past 22 playoffs -- has a better record for regular-season success.

But if that consistency is a reflection of the organization's stability -- or vice versa -- then the other side of the coin is that the Devils have failed in recent seasons to live up to their trademark as winners at the most important times of the season.

Since 2003, the Devils have won just two playoff rounds. Since the lockout they have won just one. This past spring they blew a one-goal lead in the last two minutes of Game 7 -- at home -- and were upset by the sixth-seeded Carolina Hurricanes.

Lemaire, likewise, has seen the bloom come off his coaching rose in Minnesota. After he took his upstart Wild to the Western Conference final in 2003, the Wild have failed to win a single round and the fans in Minnesota had grown restless with the team's inability to take a meaningful step forward.

Still, Lamoriello insisted he thinks Lemaire is the perfect man to help top prospects like Nicklas Bergfors and others achieve their potential.

"They're ready to take that next step," he said after watching his prospects work out Monday at the team's facility in Newark, N.J.

He also said veterans Brian Rolston and Patrik Elias need to return to previous levels of production, and that Lemaire can assist them, too.

"I'm excited," Lamoriello insisted. "We have young guys who will be pushing for jobs."

Funny, excitement and the Devils -- with or without Jacques Lemaire in the equation -- have always seemed mutually exclusive. Now we'll find out whether that's merely perception or the sad reality of the New Jersey Devils.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.