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June 15, 2006
  

Lou's coaching moves speak volumes
You can tell plenty about the future of the New Jersey Devils from the coaches Lou Lamoriello hires, writes TFP's Greg Wyshynski.
 

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Lou Lamoriello's coaching changes are the hockey equivalent of a mood ring.

Wherever the president/general manager/former coach/ruler of all he surveys sees the New Jersey Devils headed, that foresight is revealed by the character of the men he selects to stand behind the bench.

It's been true ever since his first hire for the team, and it's true again as the Devils bring on former Montreal coach Claude Julien.

In January 1988, Lou hired Jim Schoenfeld because then-coach Doug Carpenter had lost the young, talented team.

Lou felt the Devils needed a coach the players could quickly bond with, but one that could light a fire under their collective arses and bring out the God-given aggression in players like Patty Verbeek and Brendan Shanahan.

For one season, it worked: the Devils made the playoffs for the first time in their history, and advanced to the Wales Conference Finals. (Boy, did it feel nice to write that name again.)

After a disastrous follow-up season, Schoenfeld was canned and assistant coach John Cunniff was hired. The late Cunniff was a respected hockey man, and Lou felt the Devils needed his stability and his temperament after Schoenfeld's bluster busted. Cunniff was the guy to repair whatever damaged psyche the team had after it squandered its postseason success; he was also a guy who clearly answered to Lamoriello.

After 133 games behind the bench, Cunniff was replaced, because Lou felt the Devils needed something completely different: a surly, no-nonsense coach by the name of Tom McVie, who previously coached the team in 1984. He got results, but Lou felt the Devils — now loaded with stars like Scott Stevens and Claude Lemieux — were ready to win and needed someone to take them to the next level.

Enter Herb Brooks.

One season later, exit Herb Brooks.

Despite that folly, Lou thought he was on to something: in order to win, you must have a proven winner leading the team; and since Messier was across the river, that leader was going to be a coach.

Where better to find such a man than in Montreal.

Jacques Lemaire instilled Hab habits into a franchise that never really learned what it meant to play like a champion. Beyond the psychology, Lou felt Lemaire could finally bring a defensive sensibility to a team that clearly was building out from the crease.

Lemaire's first two seasons saw a conference finals appearance, a Stanley Cup, and the establishment of a defensive system that made Devils fans happy, but sent scores of NHL television and marketing executives crying in their vanilla lattes.

Lemaire was canned in May 1998 after his defensive system began strangling any creativity and alienated the team's offensive players. Lou felt the Devils needed the antithesis of Canadien royalty and defensive restraint, and hired Robbie Ftorek.

In 2000, with the team poised for a run at the Cup, Lou felt Ftorek could no longer communicate with the players and went right back to the Habs' well, promoting popular assistant coach Larry Robinson. A players' coach and a proven leader, he guided the rejuvenated Devils to the Cup.

In the end, he was too much of a players' coach. In a move the echoed the earlier hiring of Tom McVie, Lou fired Robinson in 2002 and brought on the rough, tough, make-no-friends Kevin Constantine. And the hiring of Pat Burns that summer, after Constantine was toppled, echoed Lou's hiring of Lemaire — a hard-nosed proven winner, with distinct vision and a bit of the 'ol Montreal magic. Under Burns, the Devils won their third Cup in 2003.

The rest of the recent coaching changes were emergency situations, due to health issues with Burns and Robinson. Lamoriello naming himself coach was Lamoriello attempting to atone for his own disastrous post-lockout personnel decisions that left the team struggling to even make the postseason. He felt the team wouldn't answer to another coach like they'd answer to him; a historic winning streak, a division title and a sweep of the Rangers later, and it’s safe to say he was right.

Now Claude Julien comes aboard as the 15th coach the Devils have had since 1982. Some have labeled his hiring a surprise, which is laughable — trying to guess Lou's next move is like trying to figure out the plot of an M. Night Shyamalan movie: you'll never deduce it, but as the credits roll you'll realize how obvious it all should have been.

Julien is a Montreal guy, having guided the Habs to the second round of the playoffs in 2004. The last three Montreal guys Lou hired have celebrated in the Meadowlands parking lot with the Stanley Cup.

He's a former NHL defenseman with the kind of defensive philosophical foundation that Lamoriello has built three Cup winners on for the last decade.

But he's also not another Lemaire.

Lamoriello sees Julien, 46, as the next evolution of the Devils' defense: bringing a level of tenacity to match the team's already superb positional game. You can't tell me that Lamoriello watched Carolina play its aggressive and effective style of playoff defense for five games, and it wasn't on his mind when hiring his next coach — especially when the Devils looked like traffic pylons in their own zone half the series. Julien will preach quicker puck movement and generating more offensive chances from the blue line (paging Brian Rafalski…).

Overall, Julien will augment the type of game the Devils have played since 1994: offense from defense, rolling four solid lines, and hoping Brodeur remains Brodeur. But he's not going to reinvent the wheel.

Let's be honest: in the end, Julien is closer to the figurehead coaches Lamoriello brought aboard to dispense his own philosophy than the potential mavericks like Lemaire and Burns. It wouldn't be the first time Julien was a megaphone for his boss's philosophy, having already served that role for Bob Gainey in Montreal.

But Julien's hiring, like all of his others, speaks volumes about where Lou feels the Devils are headed. Claude is a coach who earned accolades as a teacher of young players while with Hamilton in the AHL and during his stint in Montreal. That's great news for the burgeoning talent on New Jersey like Zach Parise, Paul Martin, and David Hale. And it could mean the Devils, whether or not they re-sign Patrik Elias, are ready to turn some of their high-priced accessories from past championship teams (Sergei Brylin, John Madden) into younger, cheaper talent that will keep the franchise moving forward even as it could — potentially, again depending on Elias — challenge for a fourth Cup.

And challenging for that Cup is what it's all about — in Montreal, and in Lamoriello's Montreal South.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

...Great hire by the Islanders by landing Neil Smith. Not only does it take his creepy mug off my OLN, but the timing is perfect: the Oilers are a Cup contender, which means their young stars are ripe for the picking. That is how Smith built the Rangers, isn't it?

...By the time you read this, the Stanley Cup Finals could be all said and done. And if the Carolina Hurricanes have hoisted the Cup, a member of the red-and-black has the Conn Smythe under his arm. Which leads me to this point: if Edmonton did indeed lose, why not still give Chris Pronger the Smythe? He's the reason the Oilers have gone from a No. 8 seed to a Cup Finalist, turning around a career of playoff self-destructions and disappearing acts into an amazing performance this postseason. As of Game 6, he led the team in points (as a defenseman), assists, plus/minus (by a wide margin) and powerplay points. The only thing he doesn't have are the game-winning goals, and I agree that's a legit knock on his Conn Smythe chances. But Carolina, should the Canes win, are a lot like the 2003 Devils: too many heroes to narrow it down to one MVP. Eric Staal, Rod Brind'Amour and Cam Ward could all stake a claim on the Conn. So just like in 2003, perhaps one of the losers gets lucky this time. If you're one of these people who thought J-S Giguere deserved the trophy (and I'm not), then giving it to Pronger isn't all that crazy, is it?

...Talk about Wild: Minnesota hired 24-year-old Chris Snow, a sportswriter on the Red Sox beat for The Boston Globe, as its new director of hockey operations. In other words, he goes from covering Theo Epstein to becoming hockey's version of Theo Epstein.

Well, not quite with that much power: the Syracuse grad, who covered the Wild with the Star Tribune in 2003-04, will be responsible for monitoring rosters and salary commitments of other NHL teams, performing player contract and arbitration research, statistical analysis of hockey at the amateur and professional level, and writing for the Wild's website.

In other words, by no means a general manager's position, but a fantasy hockey geek's wet dream.

We can only hope this is the start of a trend. Can you imagine Kevin Dupont running the Bruins? I mean, in an official capacity? And wouldn't the GM meetings be a hoot if Larry Brooks was wheelin' and dealin' with the New York Rangers? Again, I mean, in an official capacity?

...Finally, after 1,406 drug tests since January, the NHL announced there hasn't been a single positive test for banned substances from any of its players.

NHLPA executive director Ted Saskin said World Anti-Doping Agency chairman Dick Pound, who alleged rampant performance enhancing drug abuse in the NHL, "should be embarrassed by his baseless and uninformed allegations."

And if anyone should know about embarrassment, it's the NHLPA, right Ted?
 


Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com and the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.
 

 

 

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