Cryptic Devils coach deepens the Kovalchuk benching mystery

Publish date:

Now, thanks to those wacky New Jersey Devils, we have a corollary to Occam's Razor, which heretofore will be known as MacLean's Razor.

MacLean's Razor posits that if you decline to offer any simple explanation, you make things absurdly complicated.

John MacLean, the Devils' coach, did not dress Ilya Kovalchuk last Saturday for a home game against the Buffalo Sabres because of some apparent indiscretion committed by the winger, who, as you have already heard, has been the tipping point that turned one of the NHL's most stable franchises topsy-turvy because of his bloated $100-million, 15-year free-agent contract. Keeping Kovalchuk in civvies is leaving a ton of beef on the hoof. MacLean declined to be specific as to why he would make one of his best players a healthy scratch, other than noting cryptically that Kovalchuk knew what he had done.

Kovalchuk's misdemeanor seemed to escape the notice of teammates, who said they were surprised not to see him in uniform. Given their pitiful effort in the 6-1 loss to the Sabres, they might have been downright flabbergasted.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with any coach, even a rookie NHL head coach, going after his alpha player if it sends the appropriate message to the team. If the coach is doing this to him, then he could do it to anybody. But in all cases, the message -- the why of the benching -- better be immediately clear not only to the player but to everyone in the dressing room if it is going to have the intended effect.

This is known as communication.

ELIOT:Coaches try to send messages to struggling teams

After a sweeping gesture of authority, sort of a poker all-in gambit, a coach has to pray that his team responds with a sublime effort, precisely what the Minnesota Wild did last week after being put through a tortuous bag skate by second-year coach Todd Richards. For whatever reason, the Devils obviously did not respond.

(Not that MacLean made the Devils' job any easier. He chose that game against the Sabres to give backup Johan Hedberg his first start of the season ahead of a match against the Rangers in New York the following night. If you pay to see your beloved Devils in Newark, you have the right to assume you will be watching Kovalchuk and Martin Brodeur, who was coming off his 112th career shutout two nights earlier. In fact, Devils fans did get to see their future Hall of Fame goalie -- after Hedberg allowed four goals on 15 shots.

Given the Omerta surrounding the benching and the brief time Kovalchuk spent in the N.J. Kennel Club -- he emerged from the doghouse to score in a 3-1 loss, but was in the penalty box on the Rangers' game-winning goal -- you should feel free to take a stab as to the reason for Kovalchuk's absence against Buffalo.

The obvious guess: tardiness. In the NHL, indeed in all sports, punctuality is next to godliness. Kovalchuk might have been late for a morning meeting, so ...

And in the unlikely circumstance that the benching was unrelated to tardiness, the reason is probably something just as relatively benign. MacLean could have explained it away in a simple declarative sentence. Occam's Razor. MacLean wouldn't have been giving away state secrets or even the Devils' breakouts. The coach would have avoided the raised eyebrows and raised antennae that naturally accompany something as newsworthy as Kovalchuk's benching.

But the Devils have had their own way of doing things for almost a quarter of a century. Under estimable president Lou Lamoriello, this has been a furtive, buttoned-down organization. Lamoriello, who is in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder, likes things as black and white as his suit-shirt combinations. All issues such as Kovalchuk stay in house. The tight-ship environment once prompted a prominent Devils forward to jokingly nickname the franchise "The Firm," after the John Grisham novel.

That forward, of course, was MacLean.

There is another puzzling aspect to this episode. At the time of the benching, MacLean declared the decision to be solely his. This has a ring of truth to it, but not the whole truth. There is no GM more intimately involved in the daily -- heck, hourly -- operations of his team than Lamoriello. No detail escapes him. While MacLean decided on scratching Kovalchuk, Lamoriello surely wasn't blindsided.

Again, let's assume the Kovalchuk scratch was vetted and approved by the man who ultimately bears responsibility for having taken a giant leap of faith on the cinch 40-goal scorer.

In a weird beginning to an NHL season that seems to be playing out under a full moon -- fast starts by traditional non-playoff teams, confusion over the new blindside headshot rule, a Vancouver player lightly mussing a fan -- the handling of the Kovalchuk scratch fit the theme.

Kovalchuk seemed to have no problem with his one-game time out, which is hardly surprising. In Atlanta, and during his brief time with the Devils last season, he has been considered a good teammate. He doesn't suck the oxygen out of a room. He is coachable. But with a 15-year contract in his pocket, there is a good chance he will last longer than MacLean.

Of course, like the missed meeting, this is just a guess.