ST. PAUL, Minn. - Last summer, the Minnesota Wild talked Jacques Lemaire into returning as coach. This time, they might have to be more persuasive.
This has been a trying winter and spring for Lemaire and the Wild, who entered the final weekend of the regular season with a faint hope of reaching the playoffs but haven't put together a three-game winning streak since before U.S. Thanksgiving.
They've been hampered by injuries to important players, slow development of recent first-round draft picks, and persistent inconsistency that frustrates the discipline-driven coach like no other flaw.
Not only is the future of star forward Marian Gaborik in question with free agency looming in a few months, but the only bench boss this franchise has ever had is not guaranteed to be back for training camp next fall.
The 63-year-old Lemaire, in the Hall of Fame for his eight Stanley Cups won and 835 career points as a player with Montreal, has taken three teams to a total of nine playoff appearances plus one championship as a coach. The man, whose penchant for proper positioning on the ice helped spawn the frequently emulated neutral-zone trap, will assume his usual off-season routine.
He'll assess his feelings, his energy and his enthusiasm for the job in consultation with his family and Wild general manager Doug Risebrough, a former Canadiens teammate who hired the Quebec native to guide the club when it entered the league nine years ago.
A few weeks after Minnesota was eliminated in the first round of the NHL's post-season tournament last April, Risebrough flew to Florida to convince Lemaire he was still the coach who could best motivate and maximize the abilities on the roster. Until their talk, Lemaire wasn't so sure.
This year, Lemaire's resolve has been tested as much or more. Gaborik missed 65 games. Owen Nolan has missed 23. Defenceman Brent Burns and forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard have both been out down the stretch due to lingering post-concussion symptoms.
"It's been a little frustrating," the coach said. "Because of the injuries, we never had a full team. Maybe a couple of games and that's it. And when it happens to your key players, then it's hard to get the players having a good feel about the group."
Risebrough declined an interview request, preferring to wait until after the season.
"I haven't thought about it, honestly," Gaborik said, asked whether he has wondered if the only head coach he's had in the pros will retire. "I don't know what they're going to do, so it's out of my control. I'm just focusing right now on playing."
Though Lemaire is considered a strict, demanding coach, and some of his more-skilled players have balked at his insistence on a cautious style, he has a well-respected presence around the arena.
"With what he's done for this franchise, I think he's in position to have it be up to him" on whether he'll be back, forward Andrew Brunette said.
After some games, Lemaire has been beside himself with anger and frustration.
On other days, he's been upbeat: making quips about the sport, the team and life in general in that distinctively French Canadian accent of his, or with a mischievous smile cryptically offering guarded answers to questions he'd rather not entertain.
During one practice last month, when the oft-injured Gaborik had returned to the team after his rehabilitation was finally complete, Lemaire excitedly skated over to the glass near the assembled media with mock astonishment at Gaborik's presence on the ice and jokingly posed for cellphone pictures with his best player.
Even Gaborik had to grin.
Despite being four decades older than the majority of the guys on his roster, Lemaire has a knack for reaching his players.
"He's tough, but he's not mean," said centre James Sheppard, one of the youngsters who hasn't performed up to his potential this season. "I guess strict is a good word for it. He wants the young guys to learn, and once you learn you kind of can have some more freedom. He wants us to be in shape. He's always wanting us to be energy players and stuff like that. So, yeah, I think he's strict. I don't think he's mean. He wants us to learn the game."
Lemaire has been humbled, too.
"We're trying to prepare them so we get them to play their best, and then they have a responsibility to get prepared," he said. "So we have to do our job. They have to do their job. That's how it works. Part of it us. The other part of it is them. And I'll take some of the blame, because I'm not perfect."
So assistant coach Mario Tremblay, another ex-Canadiens teammate, will wait on his friend's decision - just like everyone else.
"We will see how it is," Tremblay said. "At his age, it's year after year. He's old enough. He knows what to do."