The New Jersey Devils' pursuit of Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) never really added up, and now that they have made their $100 million man a healthy scratch just eight games into his 15-year contract, it makes even less sense.
The specific reason why Kovalchuk didn't play Saturday night might be a mystery. But whatever the reason, it's clear there are serious issues within what has been a model NHL franchise – issues that probably can't be solved easily.
After the Devils' 6-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres – a loss that dropped them to 0-4-1 at home, a loss that left them in the basement of the Eastern Conference – coach John MacLean told reporters that scratching Kovalchuk was his decision alone. He said it was between them.
"I take responsibility for all my decisions that I make," MacLean told reporters. "That's including that decision and including responsibility for games."
Kovalchuk has a minus-3 rating. But he has five points in seven games (two goals, three assists), tied for the team lead in scoring.
Did this stem from a disagreement between MacLean and Kovalchuk? From something Kovalchuk did off the ice? MacLean declined to elaborate, leaving everyone to guess and speculate, and he wouldn't say whether Kovalchuk would play Sunday night in New York against the Rangers. Kovalchuk and general manager Lou Lamoriello were unavailable for interviews, and players told reporters they didn't know what was going on.
It's hard to buy that scratching Kovalchuk was MacLean's decision alone. He's a rookie coach dealing with the newly minted face of the franchise, and it wasn't as simple as sitting one guy and popping in another. The Devils had to call up rookie winger Alexander Vasyunov(notes) from the minors during the day.
Think about that. The Devils decided to go with a 22-year-old kid who had never played an NHL game over one of the top goal-scorers in the game – after signing Kovalchuk to a 17-year, $102 million contract; after watching the NHL reject the contract and an arbitrator rule that it circumvented the salary cap; after signing him to another mega deal; after seeing that one go through only after the league and NHL Players' Association amended the collective bargaining agreement; after being fined $3 million and losing two high draft picks for their initial transgression; after dressing as few as 15 skaters for a game because Kovalchuk had put them so tight against the cap.
As if that weren't weird enough, consider this: Kovalchuk plays his best at left wing, but the Devils already have two excellent left wings – Zach Parise(notes) and Patrick Elias. So instead of putting their big-money player at the position where he has made a big impact in his career, they shifted him to the right wing.
And after the Devils beat the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night, 3-0, they didn't give goaltender Martin Brodeur(notes) another start after the shutout. They threw in Johan Hedberg(notes) for the first time, only to watch him give up a goal on the first shot he faced and get yanked after allowing four goals on 15 shots.
The fans were not happy. And how could you blame them?
"We all feel horrible about that and horrible about the way [Hedberg] was treated [by the fans]," captain Jamie Langenbrunner(notes) told reporters. "He was out there battling as hard as he can, and he was put in a tough situation. He hadn't played in nearly a month, and you want to go out there and give your best effort for him, and we didn't do that."
There is no question Lamoriello deserves blame. He has painted himself into a corner with too many high salaries and no-trade, no-movement clauses, leaving the team tight against the cap with no room to maneuver.
Some think the Kovalchuk deal wasn't his idea but owner Jeff Vanderbeek's, even though Lamoriello has denied that he was just following orders. Lamoriello has been considered one of the best general managers in the league for a long time. He didn't go dumb overnight, did he?
Either way, the effect is the same. The Devils now have made a massive long-term commitment to a player whom their rookie coach says he decided not to play – after a big road victory, when the team badly needed more positive momentum after a poor start.
If the player is at fault – whatever the reason – that's a horrible sign for the future. What do his teammates think of him? How can the coach get him going after this?
It isn't as easy as simply firing the coach. That sends the message that the $100 million man is really the one in charge, perhaps setting up even more problems. And if the coach were at fault, well, then why would Lamoriello have let him scratch Kovalchuk in the first place?
- Lou Lamoriello