Monday April 26th, 2010

There is a row of dark suits and white shirts hanging in the closet in Lou Lamoriello's office at the Prudential Center in Newark. Maybe somewhere Lamoriello, whose title of President/CEO/General Manager barely scrapes the surface -- more than any hockey executive, he is the franchise -- has a pale lilac dress shirt or one of those blue models with a white collar. Or perhaps when he steps out on a summer Saturday night, he sports a snappy three-piece, two-button gray pinstripe suit.

Okay. Probably not.

There is one way to dress in Lamoriello's world, just like there is one way to play hockey. Orderly. Dependably. Responsibly. You might even venture to say correctly if you can overlook the raft of recent playoff disappointments by a franchise that is the only rival to Detroit for 15-plus years of sustained excellence.

So the question in the wake of Jacques Lemaire's abrupt retirement is: When Lamoriello hires yet another coach in what has become a depressingly annual event in northern New Jersey, does he find one who is inclined to try something different for the same-old, same-old Devils?

In other words, does a man I've never seen wear them change his stripes?

The Devils Way can still win, obviously.If those three Stanley Cups in New Jersey have slipped your mind, a quick glance at the sudden success of the Phoenix Coyotes is a reminder that a responsible defensive team willing to play within a system is capable of achieving wonders. But there are other ways to go about your business. In Detroit, for example, coach Mike Babcock is not unduly concerned by what his players do once they are over the attacking blueline. The other two-thirds of the ice, however, pretty much belongs to the Red Wings' system.

Not that Babcock's view of the game deviates wildly from the norm. But Babcock and other coaches offer their players at least the perception of freedom that is prized by offensive virtuosi like Ilya Kovalchuk, the round peg in the Devils' square hole since his acquisition. Lemaire -- or Brent Sutter or any of their predecessors, for that matter -- never told a player, "Don't score goals." But Lemaire's defensemen largely were static, and in his second term with the Devils he didn't have the offensive depth of those counterpunching teams in the mid-1990s, which scored goals in bushels because they attacked smartly in transition.

As left wing Zach Parise, a player without an ounce of guile, said of this team, "It's hard to score goals in this system."

Lemaire quit in Minnesota after the 2008-09 season because he was played out in St. Paul. But the short-term prospects of the Devils, plus his role as an assistant coach on Canada's 2010 Olympic team, seemed to energize him last fall. He'll turn 65 before the start of next season. He likes the Florida sun. Sometimes a man has to know when it's time to walk away, and who knows more about exits?

As an NHL player, Lemaire bolted after the Montreal Canadiens won a fourth straight Cup, in 1979. As Montreal's coach, he fled in 1985 because the pressure had become insane. Now, after just one year, he walks away from a team that has won only two playoff series since its last Cup, in 2003. He is as knowledgeable as any hockey man east of Scotty Bowman, which makes him useful in some capacity for the Devils. Lemaire can be an all-world second guesser.

Now Lamoriello, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, has to find a replacement capable of hanging around for much of the next decade. The process should be fascinating. Lamoriello is a man who will not compromise his values, not even to sell a couple of tickets. But with a plenty-of-good-seats-still-available arena, it probably wouldn't hurt to find a coach capable of injecting energy into the team and the hardy Devils loyalists who have had to endure premature playoff exits.

Like suits, championships don't necessarily come in only one color.

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