NEWARK, N.J. - Facing the prospect of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996, the New Jersey Devils fired rookie coach John MacLean on Thursday and brought back the firm hand of Jacques Lemaire to try to salvage the season.
Based on Thursday night's 5-1 loss to the New York Islanders, the 65-year-old Lemaire faces a tough task.
"When you struggle like we've struggled, you don't turn this around in a couple of shifts," Lemaire said. "It's going to take a little time but I know the guys will come back. I could see it."
The Devils have been one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL, and their 20 points in 34 games (9-23-2) is the worst mark in the league.
Lemaire received a loud ovation from the crowd at the Prudential Center when he introduced before the loss against the Islanders, and he was able to joke with media after the game.
However, he was serious when he said the team has lost its confidence and needs to find it again.
"I want this team to be competitive, that's what I want," Lemaire said. "I want this team to play against any one and be competitive."
Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello took no pleasure in relieving MacLean.
"But it's a decision that, in my opinion, had to be made," he said.
Lamoriello made the decision two days after the Devils dropped a 5-1 decision to Washington for their third straight loss and eighth in nine games this month. The Devils have been outscored 20-4 in the last four games.
"I take responsibility for waiting and trying to get it to where it should have been," Lamoriello said. "Under no set of circumstances should all of this responsibility be placed on (MacLean). The responsibility lies on the players and myself for what couldn't be done. Unfortunately, we just weren't getting it done."
A perennial contender in the Eastern Conference, the Devils were expected to be among the leaders again this season after re-signing All-Star forward Ilya Kovalchuk to a 15-year, US$100 million contract.
Kovalchuk, however, has been a major disappointment. He was even benched a game by MacLean for undisclosed reasons.
While saying the firing was unfortunate, Kovalchuk expected the move.
"The team's struggling and something had to happen," he said. "I'm sure Johnny will be back somewhere in some place. It's sad that it didn't work out for him. That's the reality of this business."
Goaltender Martin Brodeur was looking forward to working with Lemaire for a third time. Lemaire led the team to its first Stanley Cup title in 1995 and returned for a second stint last season before retiring.
"Jacques has the winning resume with him and he knows what has to be done to turn this around," Brodeur said. "This has to be a wake-up call for all of us. Jacques is able to get the best out of guys. He's a familiar face, so the adjustment won't be that bad. It will take us a lot less time to get accustomed to him. I'm sure that's what Lou is looking for, someone who can turn this around quickly."
Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner has had an up-and-down relationship with Lemaire, who retired after the Devils were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
"We should be better and everyone knows that," Langenbrunner said. "It's a new situation and in a way, it's a chance to start over, start the season all over a little. Maybe this will re-energize everyone a little bit. We'll see. We respect him as a coach. He's a very smart hockey man. He's always done what's best for the team."
Injuries to high-scoring left wing Zach Parise (knee), Brodeur (elbow) and others in the supporting cast have hurt the Devils, who were forced to play a couple of games early this season with less than 18 skaters because they were up against the NHL's salary cap.
Brodeur is back in the lineup, but Parise isn't expected back until February.
Not only is the goal-scoring down but the defence has struggled. Considered among the best in the league for more than 15 years, it has allowed 108 goals to rank in the bottom third.
"He's a very good defensive coach and it doesn't hurt that we're all familiar with him," Langenbrunner said about Lemaire. "The transition should be easier. He has his system and the way he wants the game to be played. He's drawn the blueprint of what success has meant to this organization."
One of the Devils' career scoring leaders, MacLean coached the franchise's top minor league team at Lowell (AHL) before replacing Lemaire this season. MacLean was a Devils assistant for seven years before going to Lowell.
"The blame has to fall some place," forward David Clarkson said. "It's a shame because we didn't give Johnny a fair shake. I feel bad for him, especially at this time of year. I think we all have to take this as a kick in the butt to get going. We still have a lot of hockey to play."