There’s something fishy going on in New Jersey, something that would make Tony Soprano proud.
It seems $100 million can buy a lot of things nowadays. That’s the infamous salary given to Devils sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, a contract signed this summer which keeps him in New Jersey for the next 15 years. That kind of money puts Kovy well on his way to buying the L.A Clippers, or the entire country of Nauru. Personally, I’d rather own Nauru.
You may have heard something about Kovalchuk’s contract negotiations, because they kind of took a while. Hockey fans and media alike moaned and groaned about the lavished contract bestowed upon Kovalchuk, and the shrewd tactics of Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello, but at least it kept us busy all summer. It was a bitter, ugly battle, but Kovalchuk finally returned to the swamp, and the world kept turning.
And now he’s a healthy scratch.
Prior to New Jersey’s game against Buffalo Saturday night, Kovalchuk took part in the optional morning skate, and he was on the ice for Friday’s practice. Then, without any explanation, the Devils’ leading scorer wasn’t in the lineup, with a team spokesperson only saying he’s a healthy scratch.
Just a thought, but maybe the Devils could have used him since they were steamrolled 6-1 by the Sabres. Of course, we’ve had a summer to learn nothing is ever black-and-white in Lamoriello’s tight-lipped empire. Simplicity is far too boring, and far too easy for Sweet Lou.
Lamoriello is very Belichickian in terms of his dealings with the media, but as easy as it is to haul out your conspiracy theories handbook, it’s difficult to think that Kovalchuk would participate in consecutive practices if there’s an injury to be hidden.
Tom Gullitti of the Bergen Record has been on the Kovalchuk watch since last February when the 27-year-old came to New Jersey from Atlanta at the trade deadline. Gullitti observed Kovalchuk working on his game sticks outside the New Jersey dressing room after the morning skate. Determining when exactly Kovalchuk received word of his demotion to the press box is about as easy as finding out who was on the grassy knoll, but it seems that he expected to play as of this morning.
Kovalchuk has two goals and five points over the Devils’ first seven games. On the surface these are fine numbers, but in the early going Kovalchuk perhaps hasn’t shown the consistency the Devils would like. His scoring has come in bunches, as Kovalchuk has scored all of his points in three games, and has posted goose eggs in the other four. He also has a -3 rating, a category the 2-5-1 are a league worst -11 as a team.
There are times a star player–or even secondary scorers–get benched. It’s the easiest and most obvious way for a coach to send a message, but it’s quite rare. The most recent example may be Alex Kovalev being benched by Guy Carbonneau when he was in Montreal, a reaching comparison if there ever was one. Kovalev was–and still is–on the down slope of his career, while Kovalchuk is still a threat every time he touches the puck, and has scored at least 80 points for three straight years.
Maybe the NHL is having third thoughts about that contract, and Gary Bettman himself pulled Kovalchuk at the last minute. There, that should get the rumour mill going…
UPDATE: Devils rookie head coach John MacLean said he made the decision to scratch Kovalchuk, and he was not under the influence of management whatsoever. However, MacLean would not say why he made this decision, only adding that Kovalchuk was informed that he would not play around mid-day. Kovalchuk was nowhere to be found after the game, and MacLean said he’ll “make that decision in the morning” when asked if the team’s high-priced star will be in the lineup Sunday night against the Rangers.