Scratching Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night was as balsy a move as any coach has made this season in the NHL. For that, New Jersey Devils Coach John MacLean deserves credit, however clouded as his motivations remain.
But audacity doesn't always breed hope, as the Devils' punch-less 6-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres showed last night. How the decision affects Kovalchuk and his teammates in subsequent games, like against the New York Rangers tonight, remains to be seen. How it affected MacLean's standing as Devils coach may be the more interesting fallout.
For example, it game New York Post tabloid firebrand Mark Everson ("Neverson" to Devils fans) a chance to sharpen his knives:
The rookie coach's bold moves have become bizarre, and just plain bad. Now the Devils have a coach-star controversy that could haunt them the entire season.
John MacLean is knotting his own noose, warming up his own hot seat.
The Devils' coach said last night's shocking scratching of $100 million man Ilya Kovalchuk was his decision. That bold act paid off to the tune of a humiliating 6-1 loss to the Sabres in Newark.
It left the stunned Devils tied for the worst record (.313 point percentage) in the NHL, mired in their longest home winless start (0-4-1) since 1983.
This is the moment when the Devils' all-time leading goal scorer wins or loses this locker room.
First, we have to take the man at his word: MacLean says the scratch was his decision and not manipulated by Lou Lamoriello's puppet strings:
"It was my decision. I made it. He knows. I spoke to him and that's where it's going to stay."
With that on the record, MacLean's steadfast ignorance of, or refusal to acknowledge, the implications of this benching are either incredibly admirable or the first lines of his coaching eulogy.
It was a Saturday night crowd, the Devils' second of the season (they've now been outscored 10-2 on S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y night in Newark). Kovalchuk isn't just a star player; he's the single most divisive decision the team has ever made, costing them players and draft picks and over $100 million over the next 15 seasons without having produced as little as a playoff series victory in his career. He's a left wing told not to play left wing by MacLean; an offensively creative player in a franchise for which that concept is alien.
A healthy scratch with the team coming off a victory in Montreal would seem to reinforce all the "square peg/round hole" talk surrounding Kovalchuk and the Devils; or, at the very least, indicate a rift between coach and player or player and team.
Witness the Hockey Night in Canada Hot Stove discussion here (and ignore Glenn Healy's strange assertion that Brodeur was also benched):
As you can see in the video, the move also reinforces the notion that Kovalchuk was foisted upon Lamoriello, MacLean and the players by owner Jeff Vanderbeek. That his signing, so antithetical to the Devils' dogma, is being rejected like an organ with the wrong blood type.
The optics on this, from a marketing and franchise-direction standpoint, are terrible. It breeds conspiracy theories. But it's either a decision that helps spread the sense of doom some fans are feeling about this team or it's a decision to help stem that creeping dread.
Which brings us back to MacLean.
Should MacLean receive the majority of the blame for the Devils' poor start? In his defense ... well, is the defense: Anton Volchenkov(notes) has played just two games after a broken nose and head trauma, and Bryce Salvador(notes) hasn't played yet after being placed on long-term injured reserve because of a concussion. The Devils have been put into a financial stranglehold by their general manager's cap mismanagement, forcing MacLean to play shorthanded in a few games.
But MacLean also hasn't been able to manage a system that covered up those lineup inequities like Devils coaches before him have. Their team defense, not just the blueline, has been putrid in every game save for the Canadiens' victory. Last season, the Devils had two players with a minus-7 or greater at year's end: Jay Pandolfo(notes) and Niclas Bergfors(notes), who left in the Kovalchuk trade. After eight games, they have four: David Clarkson(notes), Patrik Elias(notes), Jason Arnott(notes) and Henrik Tallinder(notes), with Jamie Langenbrunner(notes) at a minus-6.
Kovalchuk? He's a minus-3, with five points in 7 games.
Is MacLean the right man for this job? Lamoriello's hesitance to give him the shot for years before his hiring lingers on the brain. It's been eight games, with some incredible circumstances beyond MacLean's control coming into play. But MacLean had done little to distinguish himself in those eight games ... until last night's baffler of a healthy scratch.
As I said the other day, MacLean has about six more games to claw his way back to .500, or he's going to get fired. His job is on the line. He made some changes and the team won. Why would Kovalchuk have a problem with the coach after the team won?
Remember Gretzky and Robbie Ftorek? Ftorek wanted his superstars to be accountable. McNall wanted his superstars to be happy. Goodbye Ftorek, hello Tom Webster. But I don't think Kovalchuk is as tight with Lou Lamoriello as Gretzky was with Bruce McNall.
Kovalchuk isn't Gretzky, of course. But he is a shiny new toy that MacLean placed in the chest for reasons known only to him and the player at the moment.
There was another coach recently who scoffed at the hype, at the marketing, at the assumptions aired from outsiders after that coach made a statement about a highly-touted player through his ice time.
The player was rookie was Steven Stamkos(notes). The coach was Barry Melrose. Or, at least he was the coach for 16 games, before management scratched him off the company directory. (Although Stamkos was also a healthy scratch after Melrose departed, his stature as a marketing draw already sullied that season.)
- John MacLean