After Lemaire, Hitchcock could fit with Devils 

April, 27, 2010

There's something that seems right about the Montreal Canadiens' gaining a huge playoff win on the same day that former Habs star turned savvy head coach Jacques Lemaire decided to retire. After all, as a player, he was a part of eight Stanley Cup winners in Montreal.

On Monday morning, hours before the Canadiens' stunning win over the Washington Capitals, the 64-year-old Lemaire cut short his second stint behind the bench in New Jersey, simply saying, "It was time."

Lemaire's departure leaves the New Jersey Devils in the same situation they were in last spring when Brent Sutter unexpectedly opted out of Newark. The Devils are seeking a new coach once again. Of course, GM Lou Lamoriello has a lot of experience shopping for coaches. In the five seasons since the lockout, the Devils have had five different men in that role, including Lamoriello himself on two occasions.

Despite the lack of head-coaching stability, the Devils have finished each regular season with no fewer than 99 points and have won the Atlantic Division in four of the five postlockout seasons.

In the postseason, however, when NHL teams are ultimately judged, New Jersey has won just two playoff series in the past five seasons and has been eliminated in the first round in each of the past three seasons. To make matters worse, those three first-round elimination losses all have taken place in the club's shiny, new arena.

That playoff failure can't sit too well with the franchise's relatively new ownership group, which took control just before the lockout. That group has gradually pushed to market the team more aggressively than in the past. In fact, it has delegated those duties to others who don't report directly to Lamoriello.

Now Lamoriello searches for another new coach against that backdrop and as the club must determine whether to make a serious attempt to keep flashy free-agent scorer Ilya Kovalchuk -- a decision that would signal a change in team philosophy.

Although it's never easy to figure out what Lamoriello might do -- there are no leaks in his hockey department -- I suspect he's not quite ready to promote the franchise's former star sniper/minor league coach John MacLean, who just completed his first year as a head coach in the AHL after working as a Devils assistant coach for six seasons.

Nor do I think Lamoriello will opt for any other young or untested coach. That's been the rage in the league in recent months, particularly after the ultrasuccessful run of Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. Still, I just can't see Lamoriello going that way while franchise icon Martin Brodeur is still working the crease.

Brodeur, who will turn 38 on May 6, is coming off another 40-win season. He figures to have a few good years left in what certainly will be a Hall of Fame career. I think Lamoriello will want to maximize his chances for success in that closing window.

That's why I believe he'll go for a bench boss with a winning pedigree. There aren't too many of those guys currently available. The most obvious one is Ken Hitchcock, who led the Stars to a Cup in 1999 as well as a final series appearance in 2000 (when they lost to the Devils). If Lamoriello wants to learn any further background on Hitchcock, he could consult Lemaire. The two men worked together as assistant coaches on the 2010 gold-medal-winning Canadian Olympic team. I have to think Hitchcock would love an opportunity to coach a talented group like the Devils after trying to push a boulder uphill in Columbus for a few seasons.

Hitchcock wouldn't be a sexy choice. He's demanding and can rub guys the wrong way. Then again, I don't remember veteran coach Pat Burns being a sexy choice in 2002. He wasn't thought of as a warm-and-fuzzy guy, either. It didn't stop him from leading the Devils to a Stanley Cup in '03.

Lamoriello is very difficult to read. And I've read him wrong before. But after three straight first-round exits, I don't think he wants to take any chances. Hitchcock is the most decorated coach available on the market. I have to think he'll receive some serious consideration to be the next guy behind the Devils' bench.

Monday's three stars

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.