One of the biggest questions for the 2009-10 season is how new head coach Jacques Lemaire will have the team play. Will it be a trap? Will it be something else? Lemaire is most well-known for reviving the neutral zone trap in his first stint with the New Jersey Devils in the mid-1990s and the expansion Minnesota Wild over this past decade. I think this a big reason why some Devils fans are worried about Lemaire behind the bench. Prior to his signing, a poll here and the comments in that same post indicated that Lemaire would not be a good choice. Back when he was hired, I expressed my own concern that Lemaire would have the Devils take a step back from Sutter's style, which I felt worked very well last season.
Yet, these are all worries; we won't truly know what will happen until preseason at the earliest - and even what we see then could change by October. Nevertheless, two recent interviews had Lemaire hint at what his intentions are for the 2009-10 New Jersey Devils.
This past Thursday, Tom Gulitti had an extensive phone interview with Lemaire and Gulitti learned that Lemaire has studied how the 2008-09 Devils performed under Brent Sutter:
Q: You watched some film before you were hired (on July 13). Have you watched more since then to learn more about your veteran players?
Lemaire: "I have about 10 tapes. I looked at 10 different games just to see who plays with who and how the team was playing in general, more how the team played in general. I felt that (former coach Brent) Sutter did a very good job with the team and they were playing really well as a team.
The last sentence is assuring to fans like me who liked how the Devils were performing under Sutter. Lemaire recognized that they were successful. Hopefully, this would suggest that Lemaire may only tweak the system instead of implementing something completely different. I certainly wouldn't mind some small improvements or changes if it means the Devils will still earn most of their possession along the boards and still set up down low on offense. Of course, this is all really inference; Lemaire may just be complementing the Devils and Sutter and I'm reading too much into it.
Supporting that the first quote may not suggest anything, Lemaire answered a more direct question about how he wants the Devils to play in this recent Q&A Lemaire had at the Devils' newly-revamped official website:
Could you explain how you want the team to play this season and what the fans should look for on the ice?
Union, N.J.Lemaire: Everyone is saying that I’m really a defensively-focused coach, but I was looking at the Devils last year and I thought they were playing more defense than we were (in Minnesota). To win, and everyone knows this, you need solid defense. You need to be good in your own zone, and if you look at all the good teams – the teams that win – they play well in their own end, and that’s key. Secondly, you need some offense. We’re always working on offense, and every coach is trying to find ways, trying all kinds of drills with the players so they turn out to be better offensively. This is what we, as coaches, do a lot. Every practice we do drills to be better offensively; to be better going at the net; to be better at making plays in the offensive zone; to be better with our shots; to be better on the point at getting the puck to the net. What you’ll see is a good, solid team that plays at both ends of the ice. I want to try to create as much speed as possible, and be as much of a transition team as possible. That’s what people will see this year.
The emphasis is mine, but if you were concerned that Lemaire would use the trap, then this may be more evidence to have them. I don't have much of a problem with this answer up until the last sentence. I agree that a team has to succeed at both ends to be successful in today's NHL. You're foolish to suggest a team can win by only focusing on offense or defense. While the Devils website is promoting the interview by stating "Lemaire Plans Speed Game," to me, the phrase "transition team" really hints at a trap of sorts.
As I understand it, a trap is not designed only for defense. The idea of the trap is really to force the opposition into a bad spot and have them make a mistake. The typical 1-2-2 that I've seen has a forechecker force the opposition to make a move, two forwards stay in the neutral zone to isolate the area where the puck is, and the defending players (be it the forwards or defense) acts accordingly to make an appropriate play. For example, forcing a turnover, forcing a bad pass, or force a dump-in by the opposition, and so forth.
But that's only half of the job. The trap is only a complete success when the defending team switches their mindset and their movement towards offense the moment they get the puck after making a defensive play. The idea is that while the opposition is recovering from the error, the defense transitions into offense for a quick, heads-up play. Much of the offense generated from a 1-2-2 or another trapping scheme comes from counter-attacks up ice. This necessitates not only a team that is defensively sound, committed to the system, and willing to be patient enough to wait for an eventual miscue by the opposition. The team must be fast and aware of any opportunity to make the opposition pay for their errors. In short, the team has to be focus mainly on a transition offense - which is what Lemaire stated in the interview.
Now, the Devils may or may not have the players to make such a system work. And it's entirely possible the Devils would be even more successful in such of a system. I'm willing to concede that; and I still don't have some special dislike of a trap. I am also willing to be quite wrong in how I'm interpreting Lemaire's words or in thinking Lemaire has committed to a certain style prior to training camp. But this has me (and I'm sure some other Devils fans as well) still worried about his intentions and by extension the fact he's the head coach. Again, I really felt the Devils played very well last year under Sutter's style and given that the core of the team is still the same, I don't feel that changing that system makes any sense.
Have your say in the comments below. Do you agree with me that his response on the official website Q&A suggests that the 2009-10 Devils will incorporate a trap of sorts? Do you think there's really nothing to be concerned over? Would you even prefer that the Devils play as a "transition team," as Lemaire would like? Does this change your opinion about Lemaire being the head coach for the Devils at all? Let me know what you think this weekend in the comments.