John MacLean was fired as coach of the Devils after 33 games. He finished with a 9-22-2 record. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
On the night Lou Lamoriello’s New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup in 2000, Pat Quinn referred to Lamoriello as a “coach killer.”
And while the timing of Quinn’s comments made him sound petty and vindictive, it’s sometimes difficult to disagree with the sentiment. Lamoriello is in his 23rd season (24th year) as GM of the Devils and his decision to fire John MacLean and replace him with Jacques Lemaire represented the 16th coaching change on his watch.
(To be fair, not all of them were Lamoriello’s idea. Lemaire stepped down from the Devils twice. Brent Sutter left the Devils to spend more time with his family at the same time the Calgary Flames job curiously became vacant. Larry Robinson stepped down because of the stress of the job and the late Pat Burns stepped away from the bench when he was diagnosed with cancer.)
There’s little doubt Lamoriello has a sensitive trigger finger when it comes to his coaches. But if there’s any criticism of Lamoriello and this scenario, it’s that he waited too long to put both the Devils and MacLean out of their misery. Waiting until late December for the Devils to be hopelessly out of the playoff picture was a rare departure for Lamoriello, one of the men in hockey who realizes that coaches truly are hired to be fired and that there are so many qualified people chasing so few jobs that almost all of them are easily replaceable.
Certainly this move could not have been made with Lamoriello thinking the Devils have a realistic chance of salvaging this season and making a legitimate run for a playoff spot. Now it’s all about avoiding embarrassment. Going into Thursday’s game against the equally hapless New York Islanders, the Devils are on pace to finish the season with 50 points. Compared to last season’s 103-point performance under Lemaire, that would represent the largest one-season drop in points in NHL history.
One look at the NHL standings tells us there is no way the Devils will rally and make the playoffs this year. Going into Thursday’s games in a much-improved Eastern Conference, it will take 96 points to make the playoffs in the East this season. That means the Devils would have to take 76 of the 98 points available to them – for a .776 points percentage – just to be in the playoff hunt.
No, this is more about changing the culture in New Jersey. Actually, it’s about returning to it. For all the lip service Lamoriello pays to turning the Devils into a more offense-oriented team and for all the carping Devils players do about being stifled and restricted in a tight system, the fact is they have never thrived under a coach with an offensive bent or one whose forte is communication with the players. It must have something to do with the uniforms because offensive players and coaches have never been able to thrive there and they almost always harken for a return to the old winning ways.
Was MacLean that bad a coach? It’s hard to tell, actually. At the time of his firing, the Devils actually had the seventh-best penalty kill in the NHL and sat eighth in shots-against per game. Those are two areas where coaching can, and often does, make a huge difference. In the areas that rely more on the skill of the personnel, such as goals per game (1.73, 30th in the NHL) and power play (16.4 percent, 22nd in the NHL), the Devils were among the league’s bottom feeders.
But the most prominent factor in MacLean’s downfall was the Devils play 5-on-5, which was 29th in the league. In MacLean’s final two games as coach, the Devils gave up a total of 12 goals, all of them surrendered at even strength.
The Devils have been hit hard by injuries to key players, but the fact of the matter is this team has much, much more talent than its record indicates. Perhaps expecting the Devils to be serious Stanley Cup contenders was a little lofty, but nobody predicted them to be languishing in 30th place approaching the Christmas break.
It was unfathomable to suggest the diminishing returns for Ilya Kovalchuk would happen in the first year of his mammoth deal, but Kovalchuk is a perennial 40- to 50-goal scorer who is on pace for 20 this season. The veterans aren’t producing at all and young talents such as Travis Zajac and David Clarkson are taking steps backward.
Perhaps the Devils’ troubles can truly be attributed to how the organization was poisoned by the Kovalchuk signing, something that was orchestrated by ownership, not Lamoriello. But there is little doubt MacLean has to take ownership over this as well.
And it may be a cliche, but it’s an undeniable truth that replacing a coach is much easier than overhauling a roster. Lamoriello realizes that better than anyone, which makes it surprising he didn’t come to the realization even sooner.
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