John MacLean Managing to Make Devils Into a Circus

NEWARK, NJ - OCTOBER 15: Ilya Kovalchuk  of the New Jersey Devils skates against the Colorado Avalanche at the Prudential Center on October 15, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Whatever the issue was with Devils coach John MacLean and Ilya Kovalchuk that led to Kovalchuk being scratched from Saturday’s Devils’ loss to the Sabres, it shows just how raw and unpolished a coach MacLean is.

I’m on the record as being a fan of MacLean.

I thought he would be the kind of coach the Devils would listen to and respect.

What I didn’t factor in was how he would handle a media spotlight that’s amplified by the presence of Kovalchuk.

MacLean felt he needed to scratch Kovalchuk. That’s fine. He’s the coach. It’s his prerogative.

But by hiding why he scratched Kovalchuk, he’s made the scratching into a huge story.

Did Kovalchuk miss a meeting? Is MacLean not happy with Kovalchuk’s play so far? Did GM Lou Lamoriello order the benching?

By not sharing why he chose not to play the Devils’ most expensive player — the player whose signing nearly sunk the team under cap weight — MacLean has invited all kinds of public speculation into what’s going on behind the scenes in New Jersey.

Had MacLean shared why he was benching Kovalchuk, there’d be no idle speculation. This would be a non-story.

But by not providing a reasonable explanation for the scratch, he’s opened the door to the idea of an unreasonable one.

MacLean had a front-row seat to last season’s scratch drama in New Jersey. Jamie Langenbrunner publicly bristled under a Jacques Lemaire imposed benching toward the end of last season. Lemaire claimed he wanted to rest Langenbrunner but the story never rang quite true and the mystery benching followed the Devils into the playoffs, as did Langenbrunner’s dissatisfaction.

It certainly wasn’t a major cause for the Devils’ first round loss to the Flyers (or even a minor one), but it was a distraction.

Rather than learn from Lemaire’s mistake, MacLean seems happy to repeat it.

It’s not about MacLean compromising his coaching principles to keep Kovalchuk happy. If he felt he needed to bench Kovalchuk for a game, he was right to bench him. But MacLean needs to recognize Kovalchuk is a very visible player and his absence will raise questions. Scratching a player like Kovalchuk is not the same as scratching a player like David Clarkson (who actually has yet to be scratched this season).

The scratching of Clarkson would not have attracted the scrutiny that the scratching of Kovalchuk did.

MacLean needs to understand the difference between a player like Clarkson and a player like Kovalchuk from a media perspective.

If MacLean doesn’t want to play Kovalchuk, he needs to explain why.

He took a relatively simple coaching decision and he made it into a circus.

MacLean is now coaching an NHL team. When you’re coaching the Lowell Devils, you can expect a certain amount of national indifference toward your coaching decisions.

But when you have a player of Kovalchuk’s visibility, you have to recognize there’s a heightened interest in your coaching choices.

And hiding the rationale behind your choices does nothing to suppress the interest.

In fact, it only increases it.