Its funny how you can get ready for a hockey season, think that you have an idea of what is going to happen and watch all of your assumptions get smashed like a cab driver in Buffalo. Just about everyone in the hockey world assumed that the Avalanche were going to be one of the worst teams in the league. Wrong. People thought that the Coyotes and the Islanders would be in the last spot in the league, not last playoff spots in their conferences. Wrong again. And some people thought that the New Jersey Devils were going to be one of those teams that might struggle because Jacques Lemaire wasn’t the coach that he used to be. It takes a big man to admit that he’s wrong. Apparently, I’m very big.
Tell me which of these shocks you: A Jacques Lemaire team is winning with defense or that a New Jersey Devils team is winning with defense? If either of those surprises you, then you need to break out your NHL 101 pamphlet and brush up on some basics. They’re doing exactly what we thought they’d do—they’re just doing it better than expected.
Through 19 games this season, the Devils are 14-5 and are looking down at everyone in the Eastern Conference. That’s right, even the defending Stanley Cup champs that got off to the best start are chasing them in the standings. Just think: this is a team that started the season 0-2. After losing their first two games against the Flyers and Rangers, they had gone on a 14-2 streak to get everyone’s attention (until last night’s loss to the Flyers). Their only losses were to an underrated Thrashers team—who with Kovalchuk are pretty damn good—and to the Buffalo Sabres when Ryan Miller stood on his head for 60 minutes. It makes that 14-5 record look even MORE impressive!
I asked a couple of people that follow/cover the Devils what they thought the single most important factor that had contributed to their early season success. Michelle Kenneth at Inside Hockey directed me to a quote from Jaime Langenbrunner in her most recent article. Here’s what the Devils captain had to say after Saturday’s 8th straight victory about their secret to success:
“The reason why we have been getting a lot of wins lately is because we expect to be successful. We play the full game. No matter what happens…we play the whole game.
“To be doing the things we’ve been doing lately, we had to have some confidence. I definitely think there’s a lot of confidence in the locker room and we’re not letting anything rattle us. That’s the important thing.” –Jaime Langenbrunner (Inside Hockey)
It’s amazing how much confidence an 8 game winning streak can cultivate. It’s like the old, cliché conundrum goes: What came first, the chicken or the egg? In this case, which came first: the confidence or the winning? Either way, the Devils are an extremely confident team that can’t stop winning. Aside from their recent winning streak, they started the season 9-0 start on the road. To put it into perspective, that’s the 2nd best road record to start a season EVER (Buffalo 05-06).
“Lemaire. The way he has mixed and matched lines, not only from game to game, but from period to period, going with the hold hand, it has kept every player involved. It shows when a guy like Bergfors, a rookie, is 5th on the team with 14 points and a player like Andy Greene (who equals wins) has been their best defenseman after fighting for a spot in camp.” –Carlos Figueiredo
This isn’t the first time that Lemaire has pushed all the right buttons to lead his team to success. The man has been a part of 11 Stanley Cup champions. Whether he was a player, in the front office or behind the bench, he’s proven that he knows what he’s doing. People can say what they want about the style of play he employs, but the bottom line is that it’s successful hockey.
I won’t lie—I openly questioned the Devils’ decision to hire Lemaire after he stepped down as head coach of the Wild. I thought it was nothing more than an organization grasping at straws to recapture magic from a previous era. It looked like they were caught with their pants down after Brent Sutter made his abrupt exit from the Garden State—simply going with a known quantity to fill their vacancy.
For a team that had played so well offensively last season, I thought the Devils organization was taking a HUGE step backwards by hiring their former coach. I wasn’t sure that his defense-first style of play was going to be able to win at the HIGHEST level in the “new” NHL. (Can we just call it the “modern era,” “post-lockout,” or something else? It’s been 4 years since those rule changes took place. They’re not new anymore). Would he be able to adapt his defense-first mindset to an open brand of hockey? I had my reservations.
For anyone that doubts Lemaire’s skill behind the bench, look no further than his current (and previous) team this season. In his first season back with the Devils, he already has them on top of the league with a 2.06 Goals Against Average. While his new team is the best in the East, his old team is struggling to do anything right. The Wild are the 2nd worst team in the West and recently helped the Hurricanes snap their 14-game losing streak. They are NOT enjoying the post-Lemaire era in the State of Hockey.
We’ll see how long it takes for people around the NHL to catch on, but sooner or later they’ll realize that the Devils are a serious contender THIS season. With guys like Langenbrunner and Zach Parise up front, a defensive philosophy that keeps the puck out of the net and one of the best goaltenders of all time anchoring the whole thing, New Jersey looks like they could be around when the hockey gets serious in May and June.
It’s amazing what a little confidence will do. The team might be confident in their game—but I’ll put my confidence in Lemaire. I’ve learned my lesson.