This afternoon, the head coach of the New Jersey Devils, Jacques Lemaire announced his retirement. Various sources claim he will still remain in the organization with another job, but as a coach, this is the end of a glorious career in the National Hockey League.
As a player, Lemaire won eight Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens and two more as their general manager. He then won his last one in 1995 as head coach of the New Jersey Devils, where he would put the stamp on the organization for years to come, even when he was no longer there.
Lemaire would grow to become unpopular with fans as he played a strict defensive system known as the neutral zone trap. It was in Montreal that he created it, and in New Jersey where he let it thrive. He would also bring it to the Minnesota Wild, where unfortunately, was never able to capture previous success.
The trap was without a doubt a very boring style of hockey, but it yielded results. Lemaire won forty games or more nine times, won one Stanley Cup, and made it to the conference finals two additional times. This style was able to transform a not-so skilled team into one that could compete with the best in the league.
However with the Devils, it would transform an already stacked defensive team into an unstoppable monster during the regular season. Players like Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, and Scott Niedermayer made careers out of playing this system. It would also turn Martin Brodeur into a hall-of-fame caliber goaltender.
Lemaire’s only Cup as a coach would come in the strike-shorted 1994/95 season, the year after the Devils made it to the conference finals and lost to the Rangers. But after that victory, the Devils could never seem to get it right in the playoffs, although they dominated regular season play. Lemaire would be fired from the Devils in 1998, coming off a forty-eight win season, a career high that he would match two more times.
Even after Lemaire left, though, the Devils would remain a defensive minded team with coaches such as Robbie Ftorek, Larry Robinson, Pat Burns, Claude Julien, and Brent Sutter. His stamp, although unpopular, was a sure way to get wins. The Devils would win a Stanley Cup in 2000 and 2003.
From New Jersey, Lemaire headed to the Minnesota Wild, where he would coach in their inaugural season and remain there for eight years. The teams he coached there were never loaded with stars, but he kept them competitive, winning forty games or more four times and making the playoffs three times. At the end of last season, Lemaire stepped down as coach and many thought his career would end there. Then Lou Lamoriello called…again.
The Devils had an aging goaltender, no-name defense, and an average offense, Lemaire was once again the perfect candidate for coach. The Devils were expected to do well but not to the extent they experienced this season. Lemaire led them to forty-eight wins, but the Devils were ousted in the first round of the playoffs by the seventh place Philadelphia Flyers.
With that, would come the end of an era.
During all this time, perhaps the one thing that Lemaire will be most noted for is professionalism. If you go to a dictionary and look up “class”, it is his picture you should find next to it. From when his teams were struggling, to when they were winning, he always maintained his composure both on the bench and in press conferences. This carries a lot of weight, because some coaches now take it upon themselves to be bullies and tyrants.
Many will claim that Lemaire helped to contribute to the NHL becoming boring during the era he coached in. People want offense and his system put defense at the forefront. But when it comes time to get wins, Lemaire was able to achieve that. He turned bad teams into good teams, and a good team into a Cup winner.
Lemaire’s legacy will live on, as it should.