John MacLean was a naughty, naughty boy this year. He didn’t bring big Santa Lou any wins, he couldn’t coax any effort out of Ilya Kovalchuk, he didn’t find the fountain of youth for Martin Brodeur. And, worst of all, he doesn’t have a degree in kinesiology to cure all that ails the New Jersey Devils in the infirmary.
MacLean received his lump of coal Thursday morning and was fired, according to CKAC, the Montreal-based radio station that first reported the Devils’ decision. The move was then confirmed by multiple media outlets, including the Newark Star-Ledger. General manager Lou Lamoriello later issued a statement, saying the decision “is not one that is pleasant or that we feel good about.”
He’ll be replaced behind the bench by Jacques Lemaire, the ghost of Christmas past in New Jersey. Lemaire takes the reins on an interim basis, returning for his third coaching stint with the Devils. Lemaire’s first run as the Devils’ bench boss went from 1993 to 1998, a highly successful period in which he guided New Jersey to its first Stanley Cup in 1995.
After moving on to coach the Minnesota Wild, Lemaire returned to New Jersey last season, leading the Devils to an Atlantic division championship before an abrupt first round playoff exit at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers. Lemaire then announced his retirement, and MacLean–a former forward for the Devils with close ties to the organization–was named as his replacement in June.
MacLean’s coaching experience came during his time as an assistant in New Jersey from 2002 to 2009, and as a head coach of the Devil’s AHL affiliate in Lowell for one season. He inherited a Devils team this season that’s low on youth (of New Jersey’s top five scorers, only one is below the age of 30), and is therefore low and durable players at key positions.
This applies most to Brodeur, the franchise’s hall of fame goalie who missed 50 games two years ago with a left elbow injury, and has sat out for nine more this year with an injury to the opposite elbow.
Even when he is healthy, Brodeur is rapidly declining. His 2.94 GAA and .893 save percentage show a sizeable drop from previous seasons (even just last year Brodeur finished with a 2.24 GAA, and .916 save percentage). Couple that with a crushing injury to Zach Parise, one of New Jersey’s few sources of youth who remains on the injured reserve with a knee injury, and MacLean was doomed from the start.
Of course, every hockey pundit across the land will give the standard statement that injuries are a part of the game, and a true leader has the instinct to guide his team through such setbacks. Sure, that’s a fair criticism, but a rookie head rookie coach in the NHL isn’t given the tools to manage the colossal distraction of his team’s mega star having a contract standoff that lasted for nearly the entire offseason. Then, even when Mr. Kovalchuk was finally coddled, and the league was satisfied that their favourite grinch Lamoriello wasn’t trying to circumvent the salary cap, there was still one little problem: Kovalchuk didn’t score.
He’s been scoring a bit more lately (Kovalchuk has seven points in his last six games), but two days before Christmas the NHL’s $100 million man has eight goals and 18 points. For those of you keeping score at home, that places Kovy in 143rd in terms of points, and 114th in goal-scoring. It’s both scary and comical to see the list of names ahead of Kovalchuk in the league’s scoring run down. Hold your gut, here’s just a few: Stephen Weiss, Bryan Bickell, Cal Clutterbuck, Martin Hanzel, and Antoine Vermette.
At this time last season, the former Russian sniper had 22 goals, and now he’s on pace for about 20 this year. It’s a pace that’s sure to pick up, but the 12 people who attend Devils games on a regular basis are left with just their hope and sorrow. At an average of 1.73 goals per game, the Devils are firmly in the NHL’s scoring basement, and rank 30th. The 29th ranked team (the Islanders) scores 2.16 per game.
MacLean was a sacrificial lamb, which is certainly not a new concept for coaches in professional sports. It’s just a shame that Lamoriello created a major distraction with the Kovalchuk charade, and his endless summer nights courting a dramatically under-performing superstar.