John MacLean spent six seasons as a Devils assistant coach and one as head coach of their AHL affiliate in Lowell.(Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Scott Gordon was the first coach to go this season – banished from the Isle after just 17 games – and you don’t need the Oracle at Delphi to figure out where the next coaching casualty will come from. New Jersey’s John MacLean has led his band of not-so-merry men to an astounding 29th overall placing with five wins through 19 games on the heels of a 103-point, Atlantic Division-winning season.
And things only look to be getting worse. Martin Brodeur re-injured his arm Thursday night when Maple Leafs bruiser Mike Brown barreled his way through the goalie’s blue ice. Brodeur didn’t accompany the team to St. Louis for the final contest of a three-game road trip.
Star winger Zach Parise is also out with a knee injury that doesn’t sound like it’s going to heal anytime soon. Captain Jamie Langenbrunner is also shelved, as are five others. And GM Lou Lamoriello has said he’ll re-evaluate his team at the 20-game mark, which comes Saturday against the Blues.
While the players are noticeably upset and frustrated with themselves, their pattern of play is one that just kills coaches.
“We’re waiting to get down in a game and then once that happens all of a sudden we play better hockey,” said Patrik Elias, repeating a line common after Thursday’s 3-1 loss in Toronto. “A lot of the time we play hard, but you’ve got to play smart, with determination, with excitement.”
That’s not exactly what I’d want to hear if I was MacLean. Elias is a good guy and a pretty straight talker. He was obviously distraught with New Jersey’s performance Thursday, but to be speaking about the season generally using those words? Ouch.
He went on to talk about the need for the Devils as teammates “to pick each other up when it's not going well” and intimated that communication on and off the ice was a problem. Sounds like that was a major talking point during the 20-minute players-only meeting immediately following the Toronto game.
When I asked Elias about New Jersey’s systems and whether players were still adapting to rookie coach MacLean (who spent six seasons as a New Jersey assistant and last season as the bench boss with Lowell of the American League), Elias was quick to reply.
“There’s no new system, it hasn’t changed for many years,” he said. “Sometimes you add new guys, you work with them and it takes some time, sometimes (it doesn’t).”
Adam Mair's new to the team this year and he went even further, saying every NHL team basically plays with the same general principles, but tweaks them here and there to play to strengths or hide weaknesses. What both Mair and Elias are saying is that it’s the players’ fault, not the coach’s. But as the saying goes in sports, “You can’t fire the players.”
Ilya Kovalchuk has a measly four goals this season, not what the Devils expected from their $100-million man. MacLean sat the sniper already for reportedly being late for a team meeting.
It didn’t look like Kovy was offering too much effort out there Thursday. That’s a one-game sample, I know, but when your team is on the ropes, you expect your best players to be just that. Kovalchuk wasn’t against Toronto and, it seems, hasn’t been for much of the season.
So while injuries mount, players become islands unto themselves and the losses pile up, it’s MacLean – in his 22nd season with the Devils franchise in one capacity or another – who’s left for the hangman’s noose. And there’s really little else Lamoriello can do.
“It isn’t fun right now,” said defenseman Colin White.
Just be glad you’re not the coach, Colin. And wait ‘til Ken Hitchcock is.
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