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THN.com Blog: Devils coach MacLean puts job at risk by benching Kovalchuk

John MacLean's Devils are off to a 2-6-1 start to sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

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John MacLean's Devils are off to a 2-6-1 start to sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

If it’s true that Ilya Kovalchuk was scratched from the New Jersey Devils lineup Saturday night because he has been habitually late for team meetings and was not on time for one Saturday morning, then good for Devils coach John MacLean for making his bold move.

Kovalchuk has made $35 million already during the course of his career and has another $100 million coming to him, so there was no fine MacLean could have imposed that would have had any effect. If MacLean had fined him, Kovalchuk might as well have peeled off a bunch of bills and told MacLean to take an advance on future days when he’d be late.

MacLean’s statement that no player is above the team is at the heart of what has made the New Jersey Devils so successful over the years and was their underlying philosophy before they became one of the most dysfunctional organizations in the NHL.

And while MacLean, a stand-up guy when he was a player, should be applauded for sticking to his principles, he also has to realize the coach never, ever, ever wins when this happens. Butting heads with a star player almost always results in the coach being fired at the best of times. When that player is tied into a 15-year contract with a no-movement clause that basically makes him untradeable, it makes it a fait accompli.

If indeed Kovalchuk was late for the meeting, MacLean had better hope the Russian realizes his mistake and accepts his punishment without carrying a grudge for the coach. If he doesn’t and the situation escalates between them, MacLean might as well get used to the thought of being unemployed by Christmas. After all, he’s working for one of the most trigger-happy men in the NHL (GM Lou Lamoriello) when it comes to pulling the chute on coaches.

The interesting thing about all of this is that public sentiment would most certainly be on MacLean’s side these days. If indeed the Devils continue to flounder and he is fired because of their poor record, most people in the industry would view that as an indictment of Lamoriello and ownership and not MacLean. But by scratching Kovalchuk and possibly creating friction between him and the star player, MacLean might just have given the Devils ready-made justification for firing him.

There have been other curious decisions as well. Everyone agrees Martin Brodeur needs to play less this season, but the same night MacLean scratched Kovalchuk, he replaced Brodeur with backup Johan Hedberg. What made it a head-scratcher was that Brodeur, who had struggled early, was coming off a 29-save shutout of the Montreal Canadiens two nights previous and could have built up some confidence off that victory.

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MacLean has also constantly shuffled the Devils’ lines and a team that should be an offensive juggernaut is having all kinds of trouble scoring goals, in part because their forwards have been unable to develop any chemistry by playing together for an extended period.

But there is little doubt the Devils’ root problems go far beyond their coach at the moment. Always a paragon of stability, the Devils have abandoned any notion of the future, in large part because of an ownership group that wants to win and place people in the seats right now. The fact the Devils sit dead last in the Eastern Conference at 2-6-1 and have drawn three crowds of fewer than 14,000 for their first five home games should give you an accurate indication of how that particular strategy is working out.

The Devils are currently in a place we like to call “Salary Cap Hell,” with no room to make any moves of consequence and icing a team that is falling far short of expectation. Unless, of course, the expectation was that the Devils were going to be one of the worst teams in the NHL this season.

If the trend continues, MacLean will almost certainly be made the scapegoat and will carry the blemish of his first NHL coaching job on his resume. And even if he did it for the right reason, he unfortunately gave the Devils a little more rope when he decided to scratch Kovalchuk Saturday night.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear every Monday throughout the season.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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