I’d like to say that this news surprises and horrifies me, but deep down it doesn’t.
The Devils have gone back to the future for their new coach, bringing back Jacques Lemaire as the man to replace Brent Sutter, who resigned June 9. Assistant coach John MacLean, once again passed over for the job, will take over as head coach of the Devils’ Lowell, Mass., minor league team.
“When Lou called me, I was excited, especially, it was a great organization, with a lot of people working for the organization, and it’s going in the right direction,” Lemaire said in explaining why he decided to return to New Jersey after stepping down as coach of the Minnesota Wild at the end of last season.
Pardon me for a moment:
There, now I feel a little bit better.
No, you know what? I don’t.
I don’t feel better because, finally, after what feels like a million years the Devils were getting to be interesting to watch. Zach Parise is a certified star in the league banished to Newark to apparently pay his sins for daring to be a college hockey deity with his partner in crime Travis Zajac. Patrick Elias vanquished his case of Hepatitis Q and was scoring goals again and hell, they even busted out Brendan Shanahan last year to make fans of the 1980s Devils get all warm and fuzzy again.
Bringing back Lemaire to a squad that seems to be two lines of legitimate talent and two lines of guys that should struggle in the AHL makes you wonder just what kind of coach can make a team like that into one that can make the playoffs.
Well hey, Jacques Lemaire has done it since he started coaching in the NHL so why not get him… again?
Listen, I know the Devils won’t look like a thorough patchwork squad when the season starts because, as usual, Loophole Lou Lamoriello is waiting to see which players are really desperate to stay in the NHL and Lou will get them on the cheap knowing full-well what awaits the NHL next season and beyond as far as the cap goes. He got caught with his pants down once before and won’t let it happen again.
Besides, he doesn’t have Alexander Korolyuk to kick around anymore.
As much as I abhor this move by the Devils, I fully understand it. Lemaire gets the most of having the least especially when your general manager purposefully hates acquiring new talent and his name is Doug Risebrough.
There is an aspect of all this that has me petrified and having honest-to-God flashbacks to 1994-1995 once again. No, it’s not the threat of a labor dispute after an epic Stanley Cup Final. It’s about how, magically, the rule book got ignored setting hockey back even further than that work stoppage after the 1994 Finals did.
Take a look at how the rules were interpreted in this years Stanley Cup Finals. Detroit and Pittsburgh were allowed to do, seemingly, whatever they pleased to play defense on each other. Be it obstruction, interference, holding… All of that stuff that was supposed to become a part of the past after the labor dispute of 2004-2005. It was back and back with a vengeance and on full display by both teams.
What concerned many folks, including yours truly, was that the way the rules were being called in the Finals would become the new norm since a lot of players sounded off being OK with that. Case in point from Stu Hackel and Jeff Z. Klein from the New York Times:
Coming out of the 2004-5 lockout, the N.H.L clamped down on hooking, holding, tripping and interference with the intent of making the game more a show of skill. The referees had stuck to that strict standard for the last four seasons — until this series.
Through the first four games of this season’s finals, referees called a total of 21 penalties, compared with 43 through the first four games of last season’s finals. Obstruction calls also showed a disparity: 13 this season compared with 22 last season.
Some fans have complained about the change, though most seem to like it — including the Detroit and Pittsburgh players and coaches.
“I love it,” the Red Wings’ Kirk Maltby said. “They’re not going back to the old rules, where there’s dramatic hooks and holds. They’re letting guys battle, in the corners and in front of the net. As players and as hockey fans, all you ask is that it’s even on both sides. I’m not really used to this many penalties not being called, but it’s fun. You’re letting the guys go out and play and decide who’s going to win.”
I don’t give a damn what Kirk Maltby has to say about the lack of penalties being called because, frankly, he’s not the guy wheeling, dealing and scoring out there and having his progress halted with every stride. He’s also the guy who’ll be out there and trying to make sure the big guns for the opposing teams don’t get the space or time to score and having officials look the other way only helps him out all the more.
I appreciate what Maltby has done as a grind line player in the NHL, but he’s not the guy I wante to hear from on these matters because the more the whistle gets put away by the referees, the more he stands to gain from it.
Back in the NHL’s “Dead Puck Era” I used to think of Mario Lemieux as the world’s biggest whiner when he would openly complain about the holding and obstruction going on in the NHL and it made it more difficult to respect him. Learning more about the game and studying it closer I realized he was right all along. Mea culpa, Mario. Look what he had to say back in 1997:
“The game isn’t as exciting as it was five or six years ago,” says Lemieux, who is quitting after the next few weeks because he has grown tired of the way it is being played.
What I want to know is this: If Mario Lemieux isn’t on the edge of his seat before he takes the ice, why should we be any more excited?
“It’s really disappointing,” Lemieux says “There are so many great players in the league who can’t show their talent. It’s too bad for the fans. This could be the greatest game in the world, but with the rules as they are, we can’t do our jobs.”
Lemieux met with NHL commissioner Bettman last summer to plead his case for a crackdown on obstruction penalties. “Stop whining, Mario,” he was told. “Just go out there and fight through the checking.”
Care to guess which part of that Larry Wigge story I’m going to harp on? I don’t think you need a road map to find it.
So what happens next? What happens if the rulebook enforcement goes south again and the heaps of brilliant talent that currently exist in the NHL all find their numbers and progress stunted because a new wave of non-skating, grabby ogres get to turn the NHL into a skating rodeo of sorts where the best skaters are all grabbed onto and ridden to the ice?
That sounds like a bad time had by all.
Lemaire showed how to win with that style and every expansion team of that era followed his plans to the letter to make it into the playoffs and even the Finals. Lemaire now takes the reigns of a Devils team with brilliant offensive talent buoyed by a no-name third and fourth line, a solid but unspectacular defensive corps and the same goaltender he had years upon years ago in Martin Brodeur.
I think I’ve seen this movie before and it ends with the fans ultimately losing out having their game destroyed both on and off the ice. Instead, let’s just hope this ends with a great coach’s swan song in the place where his legacy began and our game remains in tact.