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Today's question: Given what the New Jersey Devils have invested - both in finances and franchise assets - what can head coach John MacLean gain by benching Ilya Kovalchuk?
John MacLean can gain very little by benching Ilya Kovalchuk, in my mind. Yes, I get the fact that as a rookie head coach, MacLean wants to assert his authority; prove that the same rules apply to every player on his roster and that in the grand scheme of things, the Devils will win only if everybody gets on the same philosophical page, defensively and offensively. It all sounds good in theory. In practice, that never really works that way.
Kovalchuk is a creative offensive force in the same way that the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin is a creative offensive force. Accordingly, if you try to rein him in too closely, you risk losing the qualities that convinced you to invest $100 million over 15 years for his services in the first place - namely, his ability to make something out of nothing, or otherwise change the course of a game because of his unique skill set. Better that you coax and cajole a player of that nature and/or calibre, the way Bruce Boudreau handles Ovechkin in Washington, than to bludgeon away with something as drastic as a one-game benching only seven games into the season.
The Devils were coming off a 3-0 win before MacLean's decision to sit Kovalchuk; the timing of the decision just seemed wrong, no matter what message the coach may have wanted to send to Kovalchuk.
It's easy to understand why New Jersey Devils' coach John MacLean would want to bench Ilya Kovalchuk. Maclean's a rookie head man. He wants to establish order. He wants to hold the players accountable, especially the team's best, most expensive player, the guy who can float when the mood hits.
But John, can we talk? You're killing yourself. There are rules and there are players and then there is Kovalchuk. Sure, treating him differently sets a double standard but that's what you inherited when you took the job in Jersey.
Kovalchuk's contract, and the spat he went through to secure it, has put him in another category, the one beyond Superstar Player Who Can Carry a Team a Long Way When He's Feeling It. The franchise - and that would be all those guys above you on the organizational depth chart, John - stuck its neck out to sign Kovalchuk. You pay the man, you play the man. If not, well, all your talk of team play and order goes out the door with you.
Hey, the players are smart enough to read the situation. Give Kovalchuk a verbal blast behind closed doors. Threaten, cajole, call in Lou Lamoriello and let him have a go at Kovalchuk, too.
But don't sit him. That only makes an awkward situation a fireable offence.
To me, nothing. Absolutely nothing.
I do not know John MacLean but I have been watching Ilya Kovalchuk closely since his junior days. He is one of those rare and treasured Russian players who not only fits into a team wonderfully, but leads and plays with a caring and passion that, to some, might seem more Canadian than Russian. This is not an aloof, self-centred player who turns it on when he's interested and off when he isn't.
Perhaps he has had some trouble adjusting to the most-boring style of hockey played in the entire world (New Jersey Devils) and perhaps, just maybe, he is making a critical statement as the team's best player and probable leader: hockey is a game of attack and skill, not 1950s "kitty-bar-the-door" defensive obsession. My vote goes to the player. This is a coaching error.
Simply put, a pink slip.
He works for a GM, Lou Lamoriello, that isn't shy about firing bench bosses. His GM also went to great pains to sign Kovalchuk, and build a 15-skater roster around him. If MacLean can't read the politics on this front, then he's not smart enough to be an NHL head coach.
Y'know, I'm going to take the contrarian view on this.
Sure, MacLean is playing with fire by benching Mr. $100-million, but there's plenty of informed speculation the reason is Ilya couldn't be bothered to show up on time for a team meeting. Quite simply, there can never, ever, be a disciplinary problem of any sort with a veteran guy whose contract has very likely mortgaged the franchise's future (assuming the meeting thing is not all Interweb poppycock - a dangerous assumption, I know).
It may not work, it may shorten the best-before date on his tenure, but hockey culture dictates MacLean had to bring the hammer down - if he lets it slide, the room will nod knowingly and adjust accordingly, and that's it for his authority. Given the vagaries of modern NHL coaching and the Lamoriello hair-trigger he's cooked anyway, but this way he gets to say he did what any self-respecting pro coach would do.
Besides, the team's been crummy to start the year and it's not like Kovalchuk has a lot of credits in the bank because of his sterling play - three goals in eight games for a guy making that kind of cake isn't exactly getting it done.