By Stu Hackel
Here's an indication of just how bad the Devils played for the first part of the season: They've won six of their last seven games (the loss was in overtime, so they've taken 13 of a possible 14 points) and are still last overall in the NHL -- 20 points below a playoff spot. But thanks to the guy who has often been hailed as the best coach in the game -- Jacques Lemaire -- there are strong signs that the Devs are becoming the team many thought they'd be in the preseason, although the postseason is most likely out of sight.
New Jersey beat the Flyers, 3-1, quite convincingly on Saturday, and the Flyers just happen to be first overall in the league at the moment. Yes, it was a sluggish effort by Philadelphia, but the Flyers denied they were looking ahead to Sunday's Stanley Cup Final rematch against the Blackhawks. In good measure, they were frustrated because the Devils did what formidable Devils teams have done for about 17 seasons, since Lemaire first took over the team in 1993: diffuse the other team's strengths and take advantage of its mistakes.
On Sunday, in a game that left Lemaire unhappy with his team's performance, the Devils won their fourth straight anyway, beating the Panthers, 4-1. When you don't play well and win, it's another hint that you're a pretty good outfit.
Yes, other struggling NHL clubs have had little spurts. The Maple Leafs and Islanders went on hot streaks and then settled back into mediocrity or worse. Why are the Devils different? Talent for one thing -- as a comparison of the three rosters makes obvious -- and Lemaire for another.
Shortly after taking the reins around Christmas, Lemaire recognized two things about this Devils team. It was not in good condition and it lacked confidence as a group. He set out to improve both areas.
Lemaire also changed the Devils' system and in doing so, he revealed something important about himself. He'd changed his own approach to the game with a flexibility that few coaches display, but flexibility was an essential characteristic of Lemaire's own influential coach during his playing days in Montreal: Scotty Bowman.
Perhaps Lemaire's new view resulted from his not coaching for the first half of the season, the first time he'd been idle since the period between his resignation as coach of the Devils in May 1998 and his being hired by the expansion Minnesota Wild for 2000-01 , the franchise's first season. Or perhaps its just that he's as smart as anyone who is prowling behind an NHL bench today.
"You know, the game is changing," he said in late December (quoted by Tom Gulitti, blogging for The Bergen Record), shortly after his return to the Devils. "Even if you feel that it’s not changing, it is changing. And the change is it’s a quicker game, a faster game. It’s a pressure game and you cannot sit anymore. Before you could sit and take it easy and keep your energy for the big moments when it gets important. Now, you can’t do that. You’ve got to get in better shape. You’ve got to get your skating at its best. You’ve got to be on the puck. You’ve got to get support. You’ve got to backcheck every time all three guys -- the forwards I’m talking about -- and it’s puck pressure everywhere on the ice.”
The strictly cautious, defense-first, chip-and-chase Lemaire seems to be a thing of the past. “He’s changed,” left wing Brian Rolston told Gulitti on Sunday. “It’s a different game now and I think that he changed a couple of things or more specific for him -- it was always that you’ve got to be good in your defensive zone, but our support coming out of our end and having possession coming out of our end is definitely something that I think you have to give him most of the credit (for).”
“Jacques implemented different things,” Patrik Elias added. “We’re doing it in the practices. He really preaches it. Don’t get rid of it. Don’t get rid of it. Try to move every time with the puck. Make a play. Make little plays, little passes. In the offensive zone, when you have a chance, D pinch in. The forwards have to back them up."
In the past, even last season, that would have been unthinkable coming from Lemaire. And apart from adopting a new system, he's also had to work with individuals. On the MSG Network postgame show on Sunday, Jason Arnott, who had two goals against Florida, mentioned that Lemaire has taken a lot of time in practice working with players one-on-one, imparting private lessons from a lifetime in the game.
Arnott remarked that even veterans such as him have benefited from Lemaire's teaching -- and it shows. In the seven games of the Devils' improvement, Arnott has three goals, two assists and is plus-4. Ilya Kovalchuk, who seems to have magically become, uh, Ilya Kovalchuk once again, is dancing all over the ice to great effect: four goals, four assists and plus-3. Rolston, who the Devils tried to unload not long ago, has three goals, eight assists and is a plus-6. Elias? Five goals, four assists, plus-6. Travis Zajac? A goal, four assists, plus-5.
Dainius Zubrus, minus-11 in December. is plus-8 over the last eight games. David Clarkson, who was minus-12 in December, is plus-1 in January. The Devils' two important offseason veteran pickups on defense, Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, have rediscovered their games. Volchenkov is taking the body and blocking shots as he did in Ottawa. Tallinder is implementing Lemaire's new approach of rushing the puck, making plays and pinching, and looking like the player he was in Buffalo.
And then there's Marty Brodeur. We wondered during his disastrous first half if his poor play meant the end was near or the team in front of him had left him vulnerable to an inordinately high number of quality chances. Part of Lemaire's message has been directed at how the Devils play in their own end, and Brodeur is not seeing anywhere near the number of second shots or shots from dangerous areas. He's also not allowing softies. He's played in six of the seven games during this hot stretch and has allowed only 12 goals, which is very Brodeur-like.
Perhaps the most important effect of the veterans producing is that the Devils' younger players can now develop in a winning atmosphere. There are even more angles to look at on this apparent turnaround. Did the trade of captain Jamie Langenbrunner shake up the room and get the players' attention? Did GM Lou Lamoriello wait too long to replace John MacLean?
But the bottom line is that even if the playoffs are not in the cards, the Devils are going to have a significant impact on the rest of the NHL down the stretch. The Flyers and Panthers found that out during the weekend.