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The 2009-10 New Jersey Devils: Thanks to Jacques Lemaire and the Coaching Staff

As you are enjoying the Christmas holiday, the New Jersey Devils are enjoying their current record.  They currently have the best record in the Atlantic Division, the Eastern Conference, and the entire NHL at 26-8-1 with 106 goals scored and 75 goals against.  That's right, first place in the league.  In fact, the Devils haven't even lost 10 games yet. Clearly, this is a significant upgrade of where the Devils on December 25 last year: 19-11-3 (99 GF, 85 GA) and seventh in the Eastern Conference.   It's the best start in New Jersey franchise history and you can't ask for much more.

Who do we thank for such a gifted season so far?  Well, the players are obvious, they are rightfully praised when they perform well, and criticized when they do not.  They're the ones who have stepped up when other players have gone down, and they're the ones doing their jobs for the most part on the ice to get the team to where they are today.  Lou Lamoriello, of course, deserves credit for who he re-signed, who he didn't to allow Lowell players a real shot at making the New Jersey Devils, and for signing veterans like Rob Niedermayer and Dean McAmmond to bolster the squad.

However, Jacques Lemaire and the coaching staff deserves a ton of credit.  Something I definitely did not expect back in July when he was signed and did not expect in September during training camp prior to the season. Mind you, I predicted the Devils to compete with Pittsburgh but ultimately fall behind them for the Atlantic back in September.  Now, the Devils have as many points as Pittsburgh with 3 games in hand a 3-0 record against them - and competing for first in the league as well as the East and the Atlantic.   In a word: massive.

Let's take a step back and evaluate where the Devils are.  In short, it's amazing.  Even head coach Jacques Lemaire is amazed by the results so far this season.  As Colin Stephenson reported the coaches' thoughts after Wednesday's practice:

Lemaire was asked if he could have imagined, back in October, that his team would be in the position it is in now -- first place overall in the league with 53 points, after 35 games.

"Never. Never. Never,'' he said. "You know, when we had a couple of days (off) there, I started to think -- because when you're in the game, you don't think about the points you're getting... you just go on and (think about) what's the next practice after the game? What are we going to do the next day? And it's one day at a time, and you're focused on that, more than anything else,

"And (Tuesday) I started to think about it and I started to realize, 'Holy (Cow)! We've got a lot of points!''

Holy (cow) is right!  It's not even just the results, but the team has also performed close to if not better than last year's squad that broke the 50 win plateau in some other statistical categories:

  • The Devils finished 08-09 with a goals for per game average of 2.90.  This season, the Devils have a 2.89 goals per game average (tied with Chicago for 7th place). 

  • While the Devils of 2009-10 have not improved on the shots for per game average (29.9 versus last season's 32.9); the Devils' shots against per game have been reduced from 2008-09's average of 29.5 per game to an average of 27.1 per game (2nd best in the league).
  • In terms of goals against per game, the 08-09 Devils finished with 2.52 goals conceded per game.  This season, the Devils only allow an average of 2.11 per game (2nd best in the league)

  • The Devils' power play ended 08-09 with a conversion rate of 18.9%.  As of today, the Devils' power play conversion rate is at 22.1% and tied for 7th in the league.  No complaints out there outside of a poor 5-on-3 scoring rate (only 2 goals on 2 man advantages).

  • The Devils' penalty kill ended last season with a success rate of 79.9% (20th in the NHL), the Devils this season have improved on the PK front to 82.4% (12th in the NHL)
  • Per my preview, I pointed out three "weaknesses" with the Devils: depth at center, special teams play, and offense from the defense.  The signings of Rob Niedermayer and Dean McAmmond have answered the first "weakness;" the special teams have improved over last season so far, which answers the second "weakness;" and the impressive production of Andy Greene answers the third "weakness" well enough so far.

OK, has that all sunk in yet?  Now recall the Devils have improved in terms of their records while significant players have suffered significant injuries.  The Devils didn't start the season with Patrik Elias and didn't see him until November.  The Devils' top defensive pairing, Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya were injured in the end of October; and while Oduya's back, Martin will be out for another month or so.  Center Dainius Zubrus and right winger David Clarkson remain out with injuries but could be coming back soon.  At one point, Rob Niedermayer and Jay Pandolfo were out with injuries.  The Devils have yet to play a game where they had everyone healthy this season and they are currently at 26-8-1 and first in the league.   Of those 26 wins, a significant amount of them were come from behind wins or wins where the Devils were not the superior team on the ice for all three periods. 

That the Devils have remained so successful in spite of the injuries, in spite of needing to replace Brian Gionta's production and John Madden's defensive contributions, in spite of playing players from Lowell in some key spots, in spite of some sub-par/inconsistent performances, and in spite of what the roster was capable of speaks very highly of how good the coaching staff has been this season.  The Devils have had exactly two instances of consecutive losses this season: at the very beginning (2 losses) and for the week of November 15 (0-2-1 that week).  All other times, the Devils find a way to win and when a loss does happen, the Devils have responded with a victory.

I can't say for certain what exactly Mario Tremblay and Tommy Albelin does, or what role special assignment coach Scott Stevens has; but the assistants along with Jacques Lemaire and goaltending coach Jacques Caron have assembled a highly focused squad that is a nightmare to play against and a joy to watch.  

Most of all, the coaching staff is willing to make adjustments as they see fit.  Let me offer a few examples from this season: If Zach Parise hasn't been scoring goals (and he hasn't), then Lemaire and the staff won't panic.  They will change the forwards around regardless of how successful the team has been to get the most out of all of his players - and to great success. Even if Parise himself isn't scoring, new linemates could spur him to help others score (like 3 assists against Pittsburgh on Monday).   If Colin White and Mike Mottau, a pairing that has been together for the last two seasons, didn't have a good period, Lemaire will split them up for the next one. Lemaire doesn't care if Dean McAmmond is 37 or if Vladimir Zharkov and Mark Fraser are just players called up to fill injuries.  If a player is playing well, he'll reward them with more minutes or switch them around to spread the contributions through the lineup.  Notice that McAmmond is now the first line center, Zharkov has stayed on the team and gets some power play time, and Fraser has been a regular #6 defenseman.

Moreover, Lemaire and the staff doesn't force the team to solely trap (I've noticed more teams stacking the neutral zone against  the Devils) or to solely rely on long passes going up ice in every game. The tactics are adjusted by how the team is playing and what the opposition is doing.  Even if they are winning games outright, if the power play (for example) hasn't been effective, they'll get right to work on that in practice.  At no point do I believe the team has been complacent about their current position in the standings.  In fact, that the team practiced on Wednesday to keep them sharp is an excellent example of what Lemaire is all about. 

I am so happy to be so absolutely wrong about what I thought back when he was signed and back in August.  I honestly thought the Devils would return to trapping and heavily reliant on the counter attack.  I liked what Brent Sutter was doing over the previous two seasons and I felt the team played very well with possession-based hockey.  In retrospect, I was wrong, wrong, wrong, and oh so wrong.  And admittedly, while my opinion changed in training camp; what Lemaire and the staff has done with the team was something I did not expect.

And it's not even just addition of Lemaire. Down in the AHL, the Lowell Devils are currently tied for second place in the Atlantic Division and tied for third in the Eastern Conference with a record of 18-11-1-2.  Despite missing a considerable amount of talent due to injuries on the New Jersey Devils, the new head coach John MacLean definitely has made an impact on the roster.  The Devils' AHL affiliate hasn't made the playoffs since the 1999-2000. If Lowell can keep up their pace, then it would be further success for the coaching changes made in July 2009.

Lemaire's work isn't going without notice.  I hope this post, essentially a big giant overview and a thank you for the coaching staff contributes to that.  Given that the Devils are the top team in the league and that they have improved over last year's team in various aspects, I would think Lemaire is the best coach in the league.  I'm not alone in that thought.  Timo Seppa and Robert Vollman of Puck Prospectus both agree that Lemaire is the best coach in the NHL so far this season.  As the season goes on, if the Devils can maintain a high level of performance, then let me be the first to tell you to not be surprised if Lemaire is tipped to win the Jack Adams trophy.  After all, he and the coaching staff has taken a very good Devils team literally to the next level.  This team is performing better than last year's team that won 51 games. That's huge.   The fans, instead of worrying about how the next few games may go, are currently asking the bigger question (here asked by ILWT user Zelepukin) is whether they are really contenders.    Not to shortchange him an answer, but I believe the answer is an emphatic yes.

Thank you Jacques Lemaire, Jacques Caron, Tommy Albelin, Mario Tremblay, and Scott Stevens.  May you continue to be successful in guiding this team through April 2010 and beyond.   If you have any thoughts about the coaching staff - be it praise or criticism - please leave them in the comments.