Niklas Backstrom and Mikko Koivu are Minnesota's leaders, but the team is sitting 13th in the West. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
Sometimes you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.
When the Minnesota Wild and coach Jacques Lemaire parted ways after the 2008-09 season there was a sense the shutdown and trap style he’s so famous for would go by the wayside. New coach Todd Richards was to bring in a new brand of exciting hockey that would put butts in the seats and generate a buzz defensive hockey doesn’t create.
The only thing that’s happened, however, is that the Wild have gotten worse.
Take one look at the Phoenix Coyotes and Dave Tippett (plus assistant Dave King) and you’ll find proof positive of how much a good coach can influence a team’s position. The Coyotes, despite a lack of superstar power, ascended to the playoffs as soon as the pair arrived and have continued to be a difficult team to lineup against this season.
Lemaire had the same affect with the Wild.
The post-lockout NHL was supposed to kill defense-minded hockey. Sure, it got rid of the slow-footed, one-dimensional, big-bodied defenseman, but nothing can make responsible, disciplined hockey obsolete.
From 2005-06 through Lemaire’s exit in 2009 the Wild were in the NHL’s top 10 in both the penalty kill and power play three times – the most in the league. To give you context of what types of teams achieve that feat, know that last season San Jose and Detroit were the only ones to do it and currently the Canucks, Lightning, Red Wings and Capitals hold the distinction. The Wild have remained a top-10 power play team, but their penalty kill has dropped 12 spots since Lemaire’s last squad.
Under Lemaire, the Wild didn’t score a heck of a lot of goals. The highest ranking they achieved was a tie for 17th in 2007-08 with 2.68 goals per game. But they were dominant defensively, ranking no worse than eighth in goals-against per game in the post-lockout world.
Since Lemaire left, the Wild scored 2.61 goals per game last season (tied for 20th) and average a mere 2.42 goals per game this season (lower than any post-lockout Lemaire year). Meanwhile, the team’s goals-against average spiked by more than half a goal in its first season under Richards, as the Wild ranked 21st in that department. They currently sit tied for 18th with a 2.81 GAA.
And it’s not as though Lemaire had a whole lot more to work with. The basis of the defensive game revolves around goalie Niklas Backstrom, who is in his fifth season with the Wild. In Lemaire’s last three seasons with Minnesota, players such as Brian Rolston, Pavol Demitra, Todd White, Eric Belanger and Antti Miettinen played vital support roles and none have matched their importance or production in Minnesota’s or any other lineup since. Sure, losing Marian Gaborik along with Lemaire hurt, but the Slovak missed a lot of time with injury, anyway. Mikko Koivu is ascending as a producer and Martin Havlat is finding his rhythm: Even in a down year last season, Havlat’s 54 points was exactly Gaborik’s average in his last three years in Minnesota.
Lemaire knew what buttons to push and how to get the most out of his lineups. When he stepped aside from the Wild it was recognized as the right move for everybody because the Wild needed a new voice in the room.
"Sometimes change is good," James Sheppard said at the time. "I've been playing hockey since I was three, so it's not like I'm new to the game, but I'm new to the way that Jacques did things. It wasn't that we didn't like each other. It was just that sometimes I maybe didn't understand, or he didn't understand where I was coming from. When we talked and figured things out and got on the same page, we were fine and it worked well."
Sheppard has six points since that statement and has been out with injury this season.
Lemaire coached one more playoff-bound season in New Jersey before calling it a career. The Wild missed the post-season by two points in Lemaire’s last season, but fell short by 11 in 2009-10 and currently aren’t doing anything to inspire their fan base as they putt along in the West’s worst division.
It’s hard to admit to missing Lemaire’s style of hockey, but Wild fans must be pining for the days when they knew their team would overachieve.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His blog appears Tuesdays only on THN.com.
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