Lemaire returns for third tour behind the Devils' bench.
Jacques Lemaire knows he has his work cut out for him.
During the Devils’ 5-1 loss to the New York Islanders on Thursday, the new head coach got a firsthand look at everything he hopes to fix, starting with the team’s belief in itself.
Lemaire, who was named Thursday morning as John MacLean’s successor, saw the home team fall behind by three in the game’s opening 11 minutes.
This is the third stint behind the Devils’ bench for Lemaire, who retired in April after guiding New Jersey to a 48-27-7 mark and their ninth Atlantic Division title last season.
“The first 11 minutes what was I thinking? Oh, I said, ‘It’s going to be rougher than I thought,’” Lemaire said.
Two goals by Josh Bailey gave the Islanders a 2-0 lead by the 5:39 mark of the first period before John Tavares made it 3-0 for the visitors. Bailey later capped a three-point night with an assist on Frans Nielsen’s shorthanded goal.
"What I want to do from what I’ve seen today, I want this team to be competitive," Lemaire said. "This is what I want. I want to get this team to play against anyone and be competitive."
Travis Zajac had New Jersey’s lone goal and trimmed the deficit to 3-1 in the second period.
Zajac's line with Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner accounted for some of the Devils’ best scoring chances of the evening. Elias set up Zajac’s tally with a pretty spinorama at the right circle followed by a backhand shot that was denied by Dwayne Roloson. Zajac cruised in front for the rebound, burying his fourth at 1:21.
"It's a new start for us and hopefully we can start to get some wins and get some confidence," Zajac said. "Who knows? We're in a tough situation, but who knows? If we play hard, if we get some bounces, you never know."
Martin Brodeur made his seventh straight start and finished with nine saves. The Devils outshot the Islanders, 35-14.
What I want to do from what I’ve seen today, I want this team to be competitive. This is what I want. I want to get this team to play against anyone and be competitive.- Jacques Lemaire
What Lemaire sees is a crisis of confidence on a Devils team that’s too talented to have fallen two points behind the Islanders for 30th place overall.
“When I was first behind the bench, I was looking at the players trying, not working as hard as I thought they would,” Lemaire said. “But they were trying. It looked like they lost their ability to play the game, which is very strange. I’ve never seen this in the past, never. I can understand when a team’s not winning and you’re trying hard, you’re still trying and things are going bad. A lot of times, it’s what you call, ‘squeezing the stick.’ But it’s not ‘squeezing the stick,’ it’s worse than that.”
The Devils (9-23-2) have dropped four in a row and nine of their last 10. Their homestand continues Sunday against Toronto.
Lemaire’s experience could be just the ticket to better days ahead. As a special assignment coach, he had watched most of the team’s games to this point and knew what he was getting into.
“Seeing that they don’t have a lot of chances to win the way things are going, it was painful,” Lemaire said. “I have to tell you, it was painful. That’s why we have to change this, and the players will. I know the players will.”
Lemaire got the call Wednesday from Devils' President/CEO/GM Lou Lamoriello, who has built three Stanley Cup winners and hasn’t missed the playoffs since 1996.
“At that time, I couldn’t say no to him,” Lemaire said. “I know Lou has been working so hard for this organization for years and he’s been not only to me but to a lot of players and all that. What he’s done for me and my family, I had no choice.”
Lemaire called timeout after the Islanders’ third goal and told his squad to forget about the score. They responded by turning the tables over the final two periods, outshooting New York, 29-6.
The difference was Roloson, who finished with 34 saves.
“I think in the situation we’re in now, we have to take the positives that we take a strong second and third and created a lot of opportunities,” Langenbrunner said. “We’re going to have to build on that.”
The timeout settled the nerves on the bench.
"It looked like we've never played hockey before," Zajac said. "When you lose the way we have this year, you don't get the confidence you need. It wears on you. He just told us to work hard, make plays. When you do work hard, you're going to get bounces. It's not going to happen overnight, but it will happen."
Lemaire was still in Montreal when Lamoriello made the news official. He has the most wins in Devils history (460), led them to their first Stanley Cup in 1995, and landed in New Jersey in time to coach his 1,214th NHL game.
The night got off to a rocky start 3:09 in, when Bailey intercepted a Langenbrunner pass in Devils territory and walked in alone on Brodeur.
Bailey got his second with Jason Arnott in the box for hooking. He swatted in Andrew MacDonald’s rebound at the top of the crease for a two-goal lead at 5:39. Tavares then put a Travis Hamonic rebound top-shelf from the left circle at 11:00.
After Zajac's tally, Nielsen restored the Islanders’ three-goal lead. On a Devils power play, Bailey got the puck past Zajac at the left point and rushed in alone on Brodeur as Ilya Kovalchuk raced back. Bailey got off a backhand shot as he was checked by Kovalchuk, but Nielsen got to the rebound before Zajac could intercept at 10:43.
Rob Schremp set up Blake Comeau’s one-timer from the right circle that made it 5-1 at 3:15 of the third.
Lemaire hopes to address team confidence.
Coach's quotes Lemaire on this year's team versus last year's…
"The offense is as good or even better. (Zach) Parise’s not there, but the offense overall is better. Defense, I haven’t looked at it closely yet, but I don’t think we’re that far on defense."
On Kovalchuk's scoring struggles…
"He’s like the other guys. He lost confidence. It’s only his confidence. He’s got to think about working, getting short shifts, get in the game by spurts there. Working hard, come off, working hard, come off. He’s going to get his confidence back. He’s going to get a couple of goals, and usually that’s how it starts: a couple goals, or a couple plays that you make, then your confidence builds up and you start to play better."
On the decision to come back…
"Let’s say, I was having a nice, not vacation, but retirement, playing golf four days a week, and lately I was with my grandkids at the cottage, having the winter sports. We were four-wheeling and all that. We had a ball. Then I get a phonecall from Lou yesterday and he said, ‘I need your help.’ At that time, I couldn’t say no to him. I know Lou has been working so hard for this organization for years and he’s been not only to me but to a lot of players and all that. What he’s done for me and my family, I had no choice."
On his energy levels…
"Right now I’ve got energy. I don’t know how long it’s going to last. I’m good for at least another hour, then I’m going to need sleep. I’ll be back tomorrow."
Devils eager for fresh start
The players are hopeful that Lemaire's tenure will bring better results with 48 games remaining. He spoke to the team before Thursday's contest.
"For us, it's a start to hopefully get something going, get some momentum," Zajac said. "Maybe come to the rink and work hard and have a new attitude, I think, is the main thing. That's what's going to have to happen. We're going to have to try and get better and just battle for the rest of the year."
Zajac said the team's work ethic over the final 40 minutes were evidence of the impact Lemaire can have.
"I think you saw it in the second and third period," Zajac noted. "Just the way we played, we had, I'd say in those two periods, 10 good scoring chances, maybe more. But like I said, those bounces don't come overnight, so it's going to have to be effort like that, night in, night out."