Thursday, 23 December 2010

The $100M Problem

It was announced today that the New Jersey Devils were making a coaching change after starting the season 9-22-2 under the watch of head coach John MacLean. MacLean did everything he could with this team, in my opinion, but there's a significant white elephant that needs to be addressed that MacLean simply could not overcome: Ilya Kovalchuk. Because of Kovalchuk, John MacLean is now looking for work, and the New Jersey Devils will have Jacques Lemaire guiding the team going forward. I'm not putting the blame at the feet of Kovalchuk entirely, but it's time to call a spade "a spade".

John MacLean had no NHL head coaching experience to speak of, so it's fair to say that he may have been in over his head in his first full season of guiding the ship in New Jersey. MacLean has never been in charge of 22 men day in and day out from the locker room to the ice, so it's fair to say that this job may have overwhelmed him. But to say that he was given an opportunity to succeed is a bit of a stretch when one player on the team is eating up enough money to pay two or three decent stars. And that's where the man wearing #17 should start to own up to the problems he has caused this season in regards to the salary cap.

The Devils have played with just 15 skaters once and 16 skaters on another occasion, something the NHL has frowned upon. The reason for them playing with just 15 players is due to a couple of normal factors: suspension and injuries. But there's also another a reason: salary cap issues. Teams normally can play their way out of that problem by signing players or promoting players from their AHL squad. However, the Ilya Kovalchuk contract handcuffed the Devils from doing that, so into battle they went with just 15 players and 16 players because they found themselves dollars away from breaking the salary cap ceiling. Not good.

With Ilya Kovalchuk having been outscored by 22 defencemen in the NHL as of today's date, there's a significant problem in New Jersey with the $102-million dollar man. And you can't tell me that he was surrounded by more talent in Atlanta when he was scoring 50 goals in a season. While it is expected that Kovalchuk play more of a team game in Newark, you would expect him to still be on pace for another 100-point season, right? With 18 points this season, he's hardly on pace to break 50-points. But it's John MacLean's fault for the slow start, right?

Again, I'm not exonerating John MacLean from blame. He's the man guiding the good ship Devils, and he's ultimately to blame for the problems the team is having because you can't fire players. GM Lou Lamoriello took the easy way out on this, and basically admitted doing so in his quote to the media today.

"I take responsibility for waiting and trying to get it to where it should have been," Lamoriello said to Cam Cole of the Vancouver Sun Thursday, in announcing the change. "Under no circumstances should all of this responsibility be placed on (MacLean). The responsibility lies on the players and myself for what couldn’t be done."

Cole continues with his poignant assessment of Lamoriello:

"Responsibility in New Jersey, though, never seems to rise. Crap runs downhill there, and the smell never clings to the GM. Players are disposable — though at least there’s a trade freeze over the holidays — and coaches even more so.

"But Lamoriello always lives to fight another day, fire a coach, hire a coach, 'retire' him again, when he’s served his short-term purpose, as he surely will do with Lemaire.

"Soon enough, the GM will once again be looking around for someone to take charge of the bench on a more permanent basis, though permanent is probably the wrong word.

"Two pieces of advice for the lucky candidate: rent an apartment or stay in a hotel, preferably a long way from Newark, New Jersey. And don’t buy any green bananas."
So in comes Jacques Lemaire, a man who has been around the New Jersey swamp a few times before.

"I asked him to come back for the second half so we can find out who we are and where we're at," Lamoriello said to Mike Morreale of "I also felt that there is time to get back on track. He's totally committed and will be coming to stay to get the job done."

That's fine and dandy for Lamoriello to say about Lemaire, but the fact of the matter is that Lemaire was cruising with a talented Devils team before the bottom fell out last season. The Devils finished the season at 48-27-7, but went 22-19-6 after December 21 before being eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in five games in the opening round of the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Before the Christmas break, the Devils were 26-8-1. After Christmas, they went 22-19-6. Anyone see a problem here?

Add to the fact that acquiring Kovalchuk did nothing to help the Devils down the stretch, and this only fuels that fire that Kovalchuk, not the coaching, is a large part of MacLean's dismissal. While it's true that the Devils struggled after Christmas last year, they didn't get any better with Kovalchuk's somewhat-friendly salary on the books after they acquired him. And Lemaire couldn't turn around a ship that was taking on a lot of water as they made an early exit from the playoffs yet again.

So I have to ask: why will the third coming of Jacques Lemaire be different when the Devils have less talent than last season, and more problems on both sides of the puck to deal with? They have scored a league-low 60 goals in 34 games, and have given up 108 goals - hardly New Jersey Devils-like numbers for any season.

The Devils are a team that is now stuck between a rock and a hard cap number. They can't sign any free agents because they don't have the cap room, and they can't afford to waive any overpriced talent because there isn't anyone that can step in and replace that struggling, overpriced player. Thanks to Ilya Kovalchuk's albatross contract, this situation will plague New Jersey for the next few years.

I found it funny today when Ilya Kovalchuk said the following to Tom Gulitti of Fire & Ice:
“I’m not the reason (why MacLean was fired). Don’t worry. Everybody has their own opinion, but in the situation that we are, (a coach gets fired). It’s unfortunate, but we have to live with it and move forward.”
So MacLean was fired because his team was performing up to expectations? MacLean wasn't dismissed like Robbie Ftorek or Larry Robinson. MacLean was dismissed because high-priced talent simply wasn't producing. Lou Lamoriello said it, and it's time that a $102-million dollar athlete accept responsibility for his poor play and the circumstances that surround it.

Because after losing 5-1 to the New York Islanders tonight, Ilya Kovalchuk finds himself in a familiar place in the NHL standings at Christmas once again: dead last. And that number won't change with a new coach unless a $102-million dollar scoring threat starts playing up to his contractual obligation.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Unknown said...

Didnt' John McLean at least have some American league coaching experience? So it's not fair to say he didn't have any coaching experience I think?

Teebz said...

That's true, David. I have fixed the text to reflect my thoughts a little better. Thanks for catching that! :o)

Jim BC said...

It's only going to get worse for Kovalchuk now that the King of the Trap Lemaire is behind the bench.

Totally agree with your assessment Teebz. What a brutal signing. I've never been a Kovalchuk fan. Just ask Jarret Stoll what he thinks of him.