That sounds a little more serious than "doesn't backcheck"

When Terry Murray scratches someone (e.g. Alexander Frolov, Brian Boyle, Teddy Purcell -- I'm living in the past, I know), it's almost always because of a specific lapse, and if it's not punitive (Frolov) then it's a kinder/gentler granting of "perspective" (Purcell). But it's always a hockey problem.

When I read this afternoon that Kovalchuk was a healthy scratch, I assumed he was being Froloved. After all, Kovalchuk is not exactly known for his two-way play. But this article from ESPN makes it sounds like something deeper:

New Jersey Devils scratch $102 million man Ilya Kovalchuk against Buffalo Sabres - ESPN
High-scoring forward Ilya Kovalchuk is in the New Jersey Devils' doghouse. The $100 million left wing was benched by rookie coach John MacLean for Saturday night's game against the Buffalo Sabres for undisclosed reasons. "He knows (why)," MacLean said after the Devils' 6-1 loss to the Sabres. MacLean refused to say what Kovalchuk did to get benched, and he wouldn't say whether the star forward will be back in the lineup for Sunday night's game against the rival Rangers in New York.

"I'll make that decision in the morning," MacLean said.

Kovalchuk, who took part in the pregame skate on Saturday morning, was not in the Devils' dressing room after the game. Team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello didn't accompany MacLean to the postgame news conference. MacLean refused to say whether his decision was related to hockey. "I'm not discussing it," MacLean said. "It was my decision. I made it. He knows. I spoke to him and that's where it's going to stay." [...] Zach Parise, who scored the Devils' goal on Saturday, found out that Kovalchuk wouldn't be playing just before the game. He had no comment on the decision. [...] None of the players seemed to know why Kovalchuk wasn't in the lineup. "You have to ask the guys who make the decisions," Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner said.

It's going to be interesting to read the interpretations of this in the MSM and the blogs in the morning. My uninformed thoughts:

  • I don't think this is about Kovalchuk's performance. He's been playing well enough, from what I've seen. And if it were a matter of correcting some aspect of his game, that's harmless enough; MacLean would just come out and say it, wouldn't he? Because this cryptic "he knows what he did" stuff makes it sound bad.
  • If there had been some insubordination, wouldn't the players know what happened? I'm thinking back to the Sean Avery / Mark Hardy incident. Whatever happened, I don't think it happened in front of the other players.

UPDATE on that point:

The players were left mystified about what happened to the star winger. Captain Jamie Langenbrunner said there was no issue between Kovalchuk and any other player. "No, not at all," Langenbrunner said. "We don't know what's going on."
  • My guess is, Kovalchuk told MacLean (or he told Lamoriello) that this whole "New Jersey hockey" (i.e. defensive system) thing wasn't going to fly. The Devils had won their last game -- 3-0 wasn't it? -- and there was much talk of the return to Devils hockey. I don't think (actually, nobody thinks) Kovalchuk has any interest in playing that suffocating, defensively-disciplined, low-scoring (if not actually a "trap") brand of hockey.
  • As I said the other day, MacLean has about six more games to claw his way back to .500, or he's going to get fired. His job is on the line. He made some changes and the team won. Why would Kovalchuk have a problem with the coach after the team won?
  • Remember Gretzky and Robbie Ftorek? Ftorek wanted his superstars to be accountable. McNall wanted his superstars to be happy. Goodbye stern-taskmaster Ftorek, hello lenient star-friendly Tom Webster.
    But I don't think Kovalchuk is as tight with Lou Lamoriello as Gretzky was with Bruce McNall.
    And Lamoriello has groomed MacLean for years.
    And Lamoriello built the Devils based on that boring "trap" defensive system hockey. It won him three cups. Bruce McNall didn't care about "systems." He wanted stars.
    (As an aside, wasn't the whole $102MM/17 years thing a total Bruce McNall kind of move?)
    Questions about who is steering the ship have already been raised (did Lamoriello want this deal, or was it ownership?). If Kovalchuk, just two weeks into his fifteen year tenure, is in a tug-of-war with the first year coach, I wouldn't even know where to begin to draw the flow chart of that corporation.
    MacLean knows he answers to Lamoriello. I don't know what the relationship between Lamoriello and ownership is. And the $102100MM question seems to be, who does Kovalchuk think he answers to? /

For more, see: Coaching Hot Seat: All John MacLean Edition.