They stopped listening. Not all the players, but enough of them. And that’s when Jacques Lemaire, the only coach the Minnesota Wild have ever had, knew it was time to go.
“I think they will be better without me,” he said.
That startling revelation followed the formal portion of Lemaire’s farewell press conference this morning at the Xcel Energy Center. Lemaire announced he was quitting Saturday night, minutes after the Wild’s 6-3 victory at Columbus ended a frustrating season that saw the defending Northwest Division champions stumble along and miss the playoffs by two points.
Addressing a small group of reporters on Monday, Lemaire said he is too friendly with certain players to push them as hard as they need to be pushed without straining the relationship. And other players, he said, will benefit from another voice leaning on them.
“It’s time to leave my whistle to somebody else and go on with life,” he said. “I think all the players will need this. The team needs this.
“It’s not that I can’t go back and work with them and try to push them again, and this and that. That’s not the case. The case is, I know this team will be better with another guy …because some guys will get better, and the ones that are good will stay good.”
Lemaire would not say which players stopped listening. But he agreed with the notion, comparing the relationship between coach and player to a father and a son. You can tell your son something until you’re blue in the face, but he tunes you out because you’re, well, Dad. Somebody else says the same thing, and he embraces it. Why? Who knows? But that’s why Lemaire said he let assistant coaches Mike Ramsey and Matt Shaw lead the way in team meetings late in the season.
“The previous seven years, I ran the meetings, every one of them, because I wanted to make sure that they got it from me,” Lemaire said.
Now, if some players won’t listen to a coach who won 11 Stanley Cups as a player, coach and executive and ranks ninth in NHL coaching victories, why should we think they’ll listen to the next guy? Unless general manager Doug Risebrough hires Scotty Bowman or raises Herb Brooks from the dead, the next coach won’t have credentials or credibility like Lemaire.
And that puts Risebrough on the firing line, where a lot of disgusted Wild fans think he should be. Lemaire’s departure eliminates the last safety net for Risebrough and the organization. Any failures from here on out are on Risebrough alone, which makes this a hire he dare not botch.
Complaints about Lemaire’s dreadfully dull defensive style rolled off him because it kept the team competitive most nights. Lemaire coached to win games 2-1 instead of losing 7-5, the proper call given some of the stiffs Risebrough gave him to work with. (Chris Simon, anyone?) Too many nights, this team was unwatchable. Still, with Lemaire, you always figured something good could happen because of his smarts, talent and energy, and the imaginative ways he found to motivate players. Nobody pulled more rabbits out of more hats than that guy.
Now, that’s gone. Risebrough said Monday it may take two months or longer to hire a coach, and he refused to speculate what kind of style he’s looking for. Andrew Brunette and Mikko Koivu believe the Wild have enough talent in house to be a playoff team, which seems a stretch knowing the Wild will get nothing for Marian Gaborik if he leaves in free agency.
Since their unexpected run to the 2003 Western Conference finals, the Wild made the playoffs only twice in five seasons and lost in the first round both times. About a year ago, a former Wild minority owner asked me if that run might have been the worst thing that could have happened, because it raised expectations too soon. To these eyes, it gave fans hope the team was on the right track and bought management a couple of more years of goodwill.
The critical comments popping up on fan and newspaper message boards the last few months show that the goodwill has long expired. Risebrough is staking his future on a development system that, since 2004, hasn’t landed as many good players as the Wild drafted their first four seasons. After bringing in Gaborik, Koivu, Brett Burns, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Nick Schultz, Stephane Veilleux and Josh Harding from 2000 to 2003, the most productive player the Wild drafted and kept since 2004 is grinder Cal Clutterbuck.
Maybe players like James Sheppard, Benoit Pouliot and Colton Gilles, all drafted from 2005 on, will get better. And maybe with Lemaire gone, free agents who wanted no part of his defensive system will give Minnesota a look.
But I can’t help thinking that losing Lemaire can’t be good for this franchise. It’s hard to imagine any coach reaching a player who won’t respond to Lemaire’s steely, blue-eyed stare, but Risebrough’s future in St. Paul depends on finding one.