Home > Season Recap > The 2010-2011 Season Review: Lemaire Resurrects The Devils

The 2010-2011 Season Review: Lemaire Resurrects The Devils

Jacques Lemaire turned around what seemed to be a lost season, going 29-17-3 after taking over on December 23. Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils were dead in the water.

With the calendar creeping toward 2011, New Jersey found themselves in uncommon territory – the basement of the league. They sat behind notoriously bad teams like the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Islanders. The team’s goal differential was terrible, their overall play atrocious, and new coach John MacLean looked helpless behind the bench.

With a measly 9-22-2 record, Devils’ general manager Lou Lamoriello mercifully pulled the plug on the MacLean experiment. He fired the first-year coach on December 23, replacing him with Jacques Lemaire. What, Lemaire? You mean, the same Lemaire who supposedly lost the locker room last season? The one who had a not-so-private rift with team captain Jamie Langenbrunner? It seemed like a terrible choice at the time, especially with the Devils returning a nearly-identical roster.

Who knew that, in the end, it would be one of the best decisions this past season?

Greg Wyshynksi from Yahoo!’s Puck Daddy blog brought up the possibility of a turnaround under their former coach. Here’s what he wrote the day Lamoriello made the change:

Maybe there’s a warped sense that a new voice behind the bench could get the defense organized, de-age Brodeur, get Kovalchuk rolling (he played well offensively under Lemaire, comparatively) and miraculously rally the team to a playoff spot.

Maybe the Devils break off a winning streak as long as their losing streaks, get Zach Parise back and watch as Lemaire pulls off the biggest turnaround in recent memory, filling the stands at the Rock that were sure to be empty had the team tanked.

Lemaire managed to do all those things, resurrecting a team that looked dead in the water.

His tenure started unceremoniously, losing three straight games by a combined 17-3. Lemaire worked diligently, getting his team back to basics. He criticized the team for being out of shape, working the players hard in practice. He stressed team defense, getting the forwards to commit to backchecking. He moved players around, finding a few combinations that work. Lamoriello traded Langenbrunner to the Dallas Stars, eliminating the biggest malcontent from last season.

With the team searching for answers, they adopted Lemaire’s changes. And, wouldn’t you know, they turned it around. Before the All-Star Break, the Devils went 6-1-1. Their strong play continued in the second half, with New Jersey turning in a performance to remember. They ripped off a 23-3-2 streak that put them within six points of a playoff spot heading into a game against the Ottawa Senators on March 17. It seemed like the resurrection would lead to a miraculous playoff berth.

The Cinderella ending, however, wouldn’t come. Instead of surging to the finish line, Lemaire’s team limped home with a 5-7-1 record in their final 12 games. The ending wasn’t expected, but neither was the second half run.

Lemaire finished the season with a 29-17-3 mark, bringing the Devils to within one game of a NHL-.500 record. That feat in itself deserves praise, as the Devils sat nowhere near that mark in December. He made New Jersey relevant again, and brought the team and its fans on the ride of their lives.

There were several smiles for Lemaire and the Devils during the second half of the season. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

He also tremendously improved several players. Kovalchuck turned his season around under Lemaire, returning to his goal-scoring game. He also played solid defense for a player expected to provide nothing in his own zone. Lemaire taught Mattias Tedenby two-way hockey, making him a more complete player. Brodeur looked Brodeurian in the second half. The product the Devils put on the ice looked completely different than the first half.

Everyone hoped the turnaround would convince Lemaire to return next year. If he could do this in half a year, imagine what he could do with a full season! But that question will remain unanswered. After the Devils finished the season with a 3-2 win over the Boston Bruins, Lemaire announced he’d return to retirement. He still holds a role as an advisor to the team, which allows him to hang around the organization. But he insisted he’d have no input in the search for a new head coach.

In a season that seemed lost, Lemaire returned to resurrect the Devils. He returned respectable hockey to the Garden State. It’s a shame the ride ended so soon.

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