Saturday’s night’s loss to the Montreal Canadiens officially removed the NJ Devils from playoff contention, ending a 13-year streak of successive playoff appearances. The Devils have only missed the playoffs 3 times since the 1987-1988 season.
Remarkably, though, the Devils salvaged a very good end to the season, posting an NHL-best record since January, shortly after Coach Jacque Lemaire returned to Head Coaching duties, replacing the abysmal John Maclean.
When Maclean was fired, the Devils were 13 games under .500, after only ¼ of the season.
Lemaire set the team on an improbable run that put them at one time within 7 points of a playoff spot, a position that was unthinkable when the team was in the losing gutter.
The Devils returned to a discliplined, defensive system, and they got much improved play from Ilya Kovalchuk and goalie Marty Brodeur, who returned from injury during their winning streak.
Lemaire’s tough, demanding style resulted in more productive practices, and holding players to a higher standard resulted in a more consistent effort from the entire team, night in and night out. Lemaire returned NJ to the disciplined, defensive style of play that has earned the team much success over the decades, even with different head coaches.
Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that Lemaire should be a contender for Coach of the Year, for what he did for the Devils in 2011.
As they look to next season, the Devils can build on the positives from the last half of the season. While Lemaire is not likely to return next year as Head Coach, GM Lou Lamoriello would be wise not to repeat the mistake of hiring another Coach who did not honor the Devils’ long-standing and successful style of play that has brought NJ multiple play-off appearances and 3 Stanley Cups.