by PuckStopsHere on 11/15/09 at 02:23 PM ET
As usual, Jacques Lemaire is doing a great job coaching. This happens every season and is usually overlooked. It required some first class coaching to keep the Minnesota Wild in the playoff race as long as they were last year. Last year, the Minnesota Wild finished ninth in the West Conference. They were two points back of a playoff berth despite having played without star forward Marian Gaborik most of the season. This year roughly the same Wild team exists (Gaborik is now a New York Ranger) and they are sitting last in the West Conference. That is one way to measure the Jacques Lemaire effect on the Wild. Notice how far they have dropped without him.
Lemaire has come to New Jersey where he is doing his usual great job. The New Jersey Devils are first in the East Conference with a 14-4 record. Lemaire teams are always defensively responsible. This year the Devils have the top defence in the NHL - with a 2.06 GAA.
Most people were predicting the Devils to be a mid-level playoff team in the East Conference. They probably would not do well enough to have home ice advantage in the first round. So far, that prediction has been wrong. This has happened despite injuries to the Devils team. Patrik Elias missed the first month of the season with a groin injury. He is yet to score since returning to the team four games ago. Last year, he was the team’s second highest scorer. There are several key defensive injuries as well. Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya are hurt. Martin is especially important as he leads the team in ice time per game played. Key defensive forwards Jay Pandolfo and Rob Niedermayer are also hurt. None of this has stopped the New Jersey Devils from exceeding expectations.
Jacques Lemaire should be an annual coach of the year contender. His value to his team is more than almost any other coach in any given year. This was overlooked in Minnesota because the Wild lacked the talent to be at the top of the league standings even with his coaching and because after he had been there several years it became expected that the Lemaire teams would have more wins than their talent level would predict. The Jacques Lemaire effect was (partially) built into expectations.
Now that Lemaire is a newcomer to his team and his team has the talent to be near the top of the league standings, it is quite likely he will get some coach of the year consideration. This is well deserved. Lemaire has won the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year twice. He won in 1994 at the start of his first New Jersey run and again in 2003 near the beginning of his Minnesota Wild run (when the team first had enough talent to win some games). It would not be a surprise if he wins again at the beginning of his second New Jersey run. He should have won further coach of the year awards during his previous coaching runs, but the big improvement from the addition of Lemaire to his new team is gone and he tended to get overlooked. The NHL writers have a long history of giving the coach of the year award to the coach of the most improved team. This is a poor method. A top coach who is well established with a team is unlikely to bring about sudden improvement (rather the team will maintain its previous success). It rarely produces winners who truly deserve the award. With Jacques Lemaire on a new team and that new team showing a significant improvement, that method may work out this year. Of course the possibility exists that at seasons end the most improved team might be Colorado or Buffalo or Los Angeles (or someone else) and their coach will be given the coach of the year award despite the fact their improvement is not nearly as due to coaching as it looks like New Jersey’s will be.
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