Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Speaking of coaches on the hot seat...

In the light of Scott Gordon's recent axing, the question the entire hockey world is asking right now is what of the status of Johnny MacLean, coach of the 5-11-2 Devils? Is there any coach in professional sports outside of Brad Childress that's on a hotter seat than Johnny Mac right now? Given the amount of money spent in the offseason and the talent level on this team, to an outsider it's certainly unacceptable for this team to be where it is right now. And if you were to take a poll of impatient Devils fans, I'd bet about ninety percent want the coach axed immediately, if not sooner. With Lou Lamoriello's recent statement that 'everything will be evaluated at the 20-game mark', alarms have gone off all over the state as to what that means for our embattled head coach.

Admittedly I'm not in love with the head coach right now either. Oh, the team has tried for the most part, unlike the end of last year - but also unlike last year they seem to have no discernible direction. Say what you will about Jacques Lemaire's trap, at least there was a plan in place. Granted, the players didn't exactly try hard to execute it after December but the plan was still there. After almost a quarter of the season I can't tell what the Mac system is really, are we attempting to be more offensive? Are we still being defensive? Right now the Devils look more like a semi-organized pond hockey team than anything else.

Plus, fans always like it when the head coach shows emotion and far too often Mac's opted for the puzzled look as opposed to screaming and yelling. Other than the newsworthy scratching of Ilya Kovalchuk for missing meetings and occasional benching of Jason Arnott there haven't been much in terms of consequences for screwing up. He doesn't seem to know what a timeout is, other than something you use at the end of the game to attempt to diagram a play...I was stunned he actually called one against the Sabres after we gave up two goals. And lines-wise, one similarity between Mac and Lemaire is neither seems to like to leave a line together longer than five minutes, although in Mac's case he does have the excuse of guys going in and out of the lineup daily. Plus Mac even took Matt Taormina off the Colin White d-pairing once Anton Volchenkov came back, which was unconscionable considering that was the only d-pairing that was working.

All that said you would think I would be one of the ninety percent of fans calling for the coach's immediate dismissal. And maybe I would be if not for the outlying circumstances. First of all, Lou's spent several years prepping Mac for this job, from having him be an assistant behind the bench to coaching Lowell last year...what kind of message does it send when you have to axe him after less than a quarter of the season? Plus, this team goes through coaches like a kid goes through Kleenex in the winter. Our job is already the most unstable in sports with coaches averaging something like 1.2 years on the job in the last couple of decades, and this same group of players got Lemaire fired last year. How many coaches do they get to go through before Lou finally throws a brushback pitch and shakes up the locker room?

Before Lou does fire Mac, which almost seems inevitable at this point given all the rumors swirling around the arena last week from season ticket holders that Mac needed to win soon to owner Jeff Vanderbeek's likely impatience with shelling out all that dough for a lottery team and an average attendance of around 12,000 for non-Opening Night games (not including the free tickets we've basically given away every night), Lou himself really needs to take a hard look in the mirror.

First of all his coach-picking in itself has been suspect since Pat Burns. He cajoled Larry Robinson into taking the job after the lockout, maybe he had little choice after Burns' cancer relapse finally forced his retirement for good but still it was the wrong decision. After Lou finished out the '05-06 season he hired Claude Julien...then fired him with the team in first place late in the season presumably to clear the way for the guy he really wanted to hire, which was Brent Sutter. Given that it took eighteen months to convince him to leave Red Deer for the Devils, what happened after the end of the '08-09 season is on Lou (as much as Sutter was a snake) since it was predictable Sutter would eventually get homesick and leave. And finally for the coup de grace, he passed over qualified candidates like Peter Laviolette and Dave Tippett to bring back Jacques for a year, which proved to be an utter disaster in 2010 after a strong start to the season in 2009.

Not to mention his FA signings and defections have mostly backfired since the lockout, in more ways than one. Name the offseason, there was usually a bad Lou signing that cost the team money and cap space...2005, need we revisit the three M's fiasco (Mogilny, McGillis and Malakhov)? 2007, remember the immortal Vitali Vishnevski? One year into a four-year deal he got farmed off to Europe. 2008, hello Brian Rolston. This year might eventually prove to be the worst of all with Kovalchuk struggling mightily in the wake of his $100 million contract, not to mention FA signings like Henrik Tallinder and Johan Hedberg.

Almost as bad as the FA signings from without are the decisions from within, both in who we let walk and the cost of retaining some of the people we did re-sign. Admittedly I was all for bringing back Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner when both were free agents at the end of the '05-06 season, but giving Elias a NMC and Langenbrunner a NTC set a bad precedent that Lou's followed with almost half his roster. No fewer than nine players have either no-movement or no-trade clauses in their contract, although we inherited Arnott's when we traded for him. Used to be only Martin Brodeur and Scott Stevens had no-trades, and even than it wasn't written into the contract per se - it was more of a handshake agreement. Throwing around NMC's and NTC's like they were candy have come home to roost this offseason when we were in desperate cap straits after signing Kovalchuk, Volchenkov, Tallinder and Hedberg in a spending spree that was totally unlike Lou.

Of course, the Devils being the Devils there always seemed to be a key defection that we were reeling from every season too. Right after the lockout it was Scott Niedermayer's decision to play with brother Rob in Anaheim. Eventually talent like Scott Gomez, Brian Rafalski and Paul Martin, among others walked out the door for various reasons. For years we've been struggling to fill the roles those players had, specifically a top six center and puck-moving defensemen who made a difference defensively. Replacing Nieds with Malakhov and McGillis was bad enough, hoping Andy Greene and the since-departed Johnny Oduya could fill Rafalski's shoes wasn't too great either and replacing Martin with Tallinder looks horrible right now. Yes, we signed Volchenkov too, one of the few quality additions to the defense in recent years but he doesn't help with our main problem on the blueline which is a guy who can help kick-start the offense.

Aside from Lou's own soul-searching he really has to tackle some hard issues in the locker room. When you have a team that quit the last half of the '09-10 season and still curls up into a ball at the first sign of adversity this year that's not on the coaching. Eventually you have to make decisions for the good of the team even if they're not the easiest ones to make, given the various contracts and NMC/NTC's involved. Getting Lemaire fired should have been the last chance for some fatcat vets who have been a part of declining results since the lockout, with three consecutive first-round losses since Sutter stripped the C from Elias and gave it to Langenbrunner, who sulked his way through the latter part of the '09-10 season after the Olympics.

No random coach firing is going to fix everything that ails this team, especially in light of all the injuries to key players like Zach Parise, Bryce Salvador and the small village of players who've missed time due to major and minor ailments this year. Contending teams don't have three rookies starting on defense, really no NHL team does. And we're surprised the team's been terrible defensively? Offensively there's been massive underachievement going on and I'm sure some of that is on Mac and his system or lack thereof, but at what point do we stop doing what's predictable and start doing what's right?

I'm not even entirely convinced Lou would fire Mac on his own, despite his traditionally itchy trigger finger but I'm sure pressure from Vanderbeek and the season-ticket holders who are staying away in droves will demand it. Not to mention Lou's own competitiveness, there's no way he wants to punt one of the final years of Brodeur's career - and maybe one of the last two years of having Parise here if the winger decides he doesn't want to be on a sinking ship after next season.

How this next week plays out will be fascinating, if stressful. Things start off with a bang in Toronto tomorrow night, with all the accompanying hoopla over Leafs GM Brian Burke's role in the Kovalchuk contract rejection this offseason and the way he stabbed his mentor Lou in the back during the process. Not to mention both teams struggling make for juicy newspaper headlines in each city. Then Saturday we face an improved St. Louis team, where some of their young talent is finally living up to the hype, combined with better goaltending after bringing in last year's playoff hero Jaroslav Halak and signing Ty Conklin last offseason. Even with the Leafs struggling, those will be tough road games to win - espeically if Kovy curls up into a ball in Toronto the way he did in the torrid atmosphere of LA.

Then, we're at the 20-game mark. Right smack before a week back in the tri-state area that features home games against the Caps and Flyers (two almost automatic losses as things stand now) with another home game against Sutter's Flames and a road tilt on the Island - never a kind building for us - sandwiched between them. Something has to give soon, but what is the $100 million question. And if Mac is fired, where does Lou even go? Probably the easiest option would be what he did in '06 and '07...put himself behind the bench and have his presence at least demand accountability. Not as if we're ever going to have a long-term solution behind the bench if we have to pull the plug on Mac this soon anyway.

If you're talking about bringing an outsider in, then Bob Hartley would be a natural fit given that he's coached Kovy before and had success...winning a Cup in Colorado much to our chagrin and even a division title in Atlanta, their only playoff appearance in franchise history. Plus he'll demand accountability and has the hardware to command respect. As much as I like Hartley though, I wouldn't even be in favor of bringing him in because of the favoritism factor. We already gave Kovy all this money, supposedly promised a more up-tempo system, built a marketing campaign around him and now we're bringing in a coach Kovy presumably likes? What kind of message does that send to the locker room, assuming they aren't already fed up with the Kovy rules?

Still, part of me wouldn't mind seeing an outsider come in. Maybe part of the problem is our last two coaches have both had such close ties to the team, as did Larry. Under Sutter it at least looked as if the players were held accountable, right till the end when Sutter himself didn't stay to finish the job. So maybe from that perspective you could sell me on a Mac firing if Lou shifted course and brought in an outsider - but it's hard to see Lou doing a 180 when the main reason he gave Mac the job was because 'he knows our personnel better than anyone else'.

Decisions, much as I've criticized Lou's job since the lockout, I wouldn't want to have it this week either.


Sambone said...

Great writeup Hasan, and you comment about wanting to see an outsider come in to me is dead on: I think there is a core on this team that runs the show (Marty being the ringleader) and it has become comfortable..sometimes, that is a bad thing. They need another voice outside of this circle to stir things up a bit.

Derek Felix said...

Yeah, I couldn't agree more with what Hasan wrote here. There's a lot that meets the eye that we don't know about. And I'm also in line about Vanderbeek running more stuff, which has created chaos.

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