Lemaire announced he will not return as head coach next season. GETTY IMAGES
In his final game as Devils head coach, Jacques Lemaire went out with a win.
Lemaire announced after Sunday’s regular-season finale that he will not return behind the Devils bench next season. He met with players to inform them before they hit the ice for a 3-2 win over the visiting Boston Bruins.
The anticipation started earlier in the day when Lemaire said he would reveal his decision after the game. He opened his final postgame press conference with his trademark sense of humor.
“Pretty good game,” he said, playfully delaying the announcement. “Very interesting. I thought it was a little slow at different times, but we got the goals.”
Then came the news.
“No, I’m going back where I was before this year, doing the same type of job,” said Lemaire, who began the season as a special assignment coach.
After retiring at the end of last season, Lemaire took over for John MacLean on Dec. 23. He guided the Devils to a 29-17-3 record, including a 23-3-2 run to start the second half. The team climbed from what was once a 27-point playoff deficit to within six of eighth place.
They were eliminated from playoff contention with a loss to Montreal last Saturday.
“It demands a lot and I want to enjoy life,” Lemaire said. “I want to enjoy the family. I thought, I still do think that I made the right decision last year, but I’m really happy I took the job for the rest of the season. I had fun. At a time, it was a huge challenge for me. I thought the guys responded well. Like I mentioned this morning, the only regret that I have is not making the playoffs.”
I had fun. At a time, it was a huge challenge for me. I thought the guys responded well. Like I mentioned this morning, the only regret that I have is not making the playoffs.- Jacques Lemaire
Lemaire dropped seven of his first eight games after taking over, but started enjoying himself once he was able to right the ship.
The most successful coach in Devils history, Lemaire won his 600th game on Feb. 10 at Toronto. He's one of just eight coaches to accomplish the feat, and joined Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Dick Irvin, Sr., Pat Quinn, Mike Keenan, Bryan Murray and Ron Wilson.
"This is exciting," he said of coaching. "This is fun, especially when the team wins. It’s a great atmosphere. You love a lot of things. You get really upset, you get mad about what the players do – not the individual, about what they’re doing. Soon as they do something good, right away, you feel good and it’s a great environment. I said just today when I talked to my wife, I said, ‘If I would be younger, that I love it.’"
Players found out after being divided into groups of forwards and defensemen.
"I just said, 'It’s my last game,' like that," Lemaire recounted. "They knew right away because I told them maybe four times during the season as a joke. But they knew this wasn’t a joke. Not this time."
The Devils salute the fans after the game. GETTY IMAGES
The Devils finished 2010-11 with a mark of 38-39-5 and 81 points, good for 11th place in the Eastern Conference. Though they missed the playoffs for the first time since 1996, it was Lemaire who got them pointed back in the right direction.
That made it tougher for Lemaire to make up his mind on next year.
“Up to two days [ago], I wasn’t 100 percent sure,” Lemaire said. “One of the reporters asked me at a time if I can say no to Lou [Lamoriello]. It was hard, that’s why I delayed.”
With 21 goals and 41 assists, Elias finished as the Devils’ leading scorer for the seventh time in his career, and first time since 2006-07. He collected five goals and three assists in the final six games of the season, and credited Lemaire for what the Devils were able to accomplish.
"It's disappointing because we played good hockey under him," said Elias. "He knows the game probably better than anyone. The guys have respect for him, but on the other hand, he's been around hockey for so long. He's got to enjoy his life, too."
Echoing what many of the players said, Hedberg wasn't surprised by Lemaire's decision.
"It's been a great thrill for myself to get a chance to play for him as a coach," Hedberg said. "I think he's very, very skilled at what he does. I learned a lot from him this year."
Ilya Kovalchuk has called Lemaire the best coach he’s ever had, and hopes he might reconsider after some vacation time. Kovalchuk rebounded from a slow start to score a team-leading 31 goals.
“That’s the one guy who is really tough to replace, but we’ll see what’s going to happen again,” Kovalchuk said. “Last year he retired, too, and we’ll see, maybe he’ll change his mind.”
Kovalchuk hopes there's a chance of that happening.
"He knows what he's doing, but maybe a couple of months in Florida will help him to change his mind," he said.
Martin Brodeur won his first Stanley Cup with Lemaire at the helm in 1995. The coach still had a winning touch in 2011.
"We really learned a lot the last part of the season under Jacques," Brodeur said. "We've got to be thankful that he came in and salvaged a little bit of the season for us and made this a fun season."
Brodeur was quick to praise Lemaire both for his impact and for throwing the Devils a lifeline back in December.
"It's a disappointing season for us not being part of the playoffs," he said. "But we've made this season more fun than it could've been, because I think we going really in the wrong direction before Jacques took the job here. It's disappointing seeing that he's not coming back but I think we had to expect [it]. He didn't want to come back for a reason last year. He made us a favor and I think everybody really appreciated that. Now we're going back to square one to try and find a new coach.
"I think we've learned a lot from what we can do and what kind of system we're allowed to play and thrive on it. Hopefully, we'll continue what he started."
It's nothing new for Brodeur and the Devils to finish the year with a win. In the past, he's had something to show for it, though.
"First time I win a game and I'm going home," he said. "Usually, I win a game, I win a Stanley Cup when it's over. It's different, definitely, but it was good taste for everybody to have an exciting game like this and have the people from Quebec make it even more exciting for us with their cheering and stuff, so it was a lot of fun to see that. It's over. At the end of the day we wanted to be in the playoffs and we're not."
The Devils got off to a quick start for the second straight game when Elias gave them a 1-0 lead at 1:47. Brian Rolston made a nice play to find Elias in front for his 21st, a tap-in past Tuukka Rask’s catching glove.
Nordiques fans made themselves heard at Sunday's game. GETTY IMAGES
Boston answered at even strength, just six seconds after Andy Greene had exited the box for tripping Gregory Campbell. Andrew Ference took a shot from the right wall that went off Michael Ryder’s skate and right to Rich Peverley, who tied the game at 10:04.
Zharkov used a set up from Anssi Salmela to bury a breakaway at the 4:00 mark of the third.
Zharkov's second of the year perfectly coincided with the cheers of the 2,000 Nordiques fans in attendance, who made plenty of noise with 16 minutes remaining in each period. It has been 16 years since the Nordiques left Quebec City for Colorado.
As the clock ticked down in regulation, the blue-clad fans poured into the aisles of Prudential Center's lower bowl.
"I think we have to get these Quebec people to move down here," Hedberg said. "It would make the games fun. They'd get a green card each, and we should be fine."
Urbom scored on wraparound at 9:10 for his first NHL goal and first career point. Assisted by Jacob Josefson and David Clarkson, it became the game-winner after Chris Kelly tallied with 3.1 seconds left in the game.
Notes and Quotes The 2010-11 season had its ups and downs, but Lemaire was bullish on what to expect from the Devils next year. He predicted a return to the postseason.
"I think the offense on this team looks really good," he said. "There’s no doubt with all the kids, there. You could see [Adam] Henrique today. Looks like he’s played quite a bit. He didn’t look like a first game in the NHL. He’s good with the puck, he can skate, he sees the ice well. I’m sure he’s got a touch for scoring. All these kids that are either with us or came up, this is the future. The future up front is bright, there’s no doubt about this. We could see tonight we have to improve our defense a little bit. I’ll be back here next year to watch them play in the playoffs."
Brodeur on Lemaire: "He made us believe that we were able to win games. I think he made us work really hard. We went right back to the basics, Hockey 101. The first few months it was just crazy, long practices, lot of attention to details. I think everything kind of meshed together at one point. We started rolling and I think we just started believing that we're still good hockey players. I think when you lose so many games, you start doubting yourself. I think everybody got their confidence back because of the way he approached the whole thing."
Brodeur on replacing Lemaire: "It'll be tough, but I'm sure there's a coach that's going to have an opportunity now to do something. I think we've shown that we're a good hockey club. We discovered a lot of the young talent in the organization that we might not have discovered if we didn't have that bad of a start. From there, he's going to have a lot to work with. Hopefully, it'll be the right pick and I'm sure they'll take their time and do something that's going to be to the benefit of the team."
Henrique makes NHL debut
The Devils have had a record number of players make their NHL debut this season, and on Sunday, Adam Henrique became the 10th. He and Urbom were recalled for the season finale and played for David Steckel and Jay Leach.
"It was exciting," said Henrique, who had three shots in 13:21 of ice time. "I was excited to get out there and get started and get that first shift out of the way. After that, I felt like I settled in pretty good and felt like I played pretty well."
Henrique, 21, was selected by the Devils in the third round, 82nd overall, in 2008. He was Albany's second leading scorer with 25 goals and 25 assists in his rookie AHL season. Urbom, 20, was drafted in the third round, 73rd overall, in 2009, and led Albany defensemen with 23 points (2g-21a).
Lemaire reached out to Henrique earlier in the season while serving as a special assignment coach.
"He just told me I've got to be confident in my play, go to the rink everyday ready to work," Henrique said. "Over the year, I just learned how to be a pro. It paid off. I felt like I had a pretty good year. Nice to get a first game in."
1 - 0 NJD
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 NJD
3 - 1 NJD