MacLean under fire as Devils start on the skids

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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Apparently no one felt the need to tell John MacLean the New Jersey Devils are off to one of their worst starts ever. Rookie coaches have enough problems to deal with and besides, MacLean could have easily figured it out just watching his team's disjointed effort in a 5-2 loss at San Jose on Wednesday.

John MacLean and his Devils are on a tough trip and in a rough spot. (Getty Images)  
John MacLean and his Devils are on a tough trip and in a rough spot. (Getty Images)  
Yet MacLean seemed perplexed by it all during his postgame press conference. Especially when he was asked three different ways if he felt his job was on the line. To no one's surprise, the former Devils player dismissed each suggestion, but they were clearly awkward moments for him and quite likely not the last for the foreseeable future at least.

Then again, denial might be the best approach right now. The organization has high expectations after spending $100 million to re-sign Ilya Kovalchuk for a lifetime and then jumping through hoops to satisfy the NHL's salary-cap limits. In reality though, the Devils have had nothing going for them all season at either end of the ice, and show fewer signs of figuring things out with each passing game.

Meanwhile, MacLean has been trying to apply his grounding in the staid organization as a player and a minor-league coach in a dressing room that has been engaging in gallows humor since training camp.

Kovalchuk's controversial mega-deal was very un-Devils like and made it necessary for the team to move payroll, although GM Lou Lamoriello managed to buy some time at the start of the season because of injuries.

Still, the Devils have been playing at or below minimum roster levels at times this season, and playing not very well at that, and an air of inevitability surrounds the team with injured players set to return.

Making matters worse, Kovalchuk hasn't been much of an impact player on his own, nor have his unique individual talents blended smoothly with those around him. And in larger terms, the Devils have played like a team in search of an identity.

That used to be all about defense, so having Kovalchuk in a lineup that already had Zach Parise and Travis Zajac was supposed to add another dimension. Instead, it seems to have damaged the old one, without the bonus of providing goals at even strength or on the power play.

So after losing to the Sharks, the Devils are in serious danger of digging into an inescapable hole.

The team's third loss in a row wasn't the issue in and of itself, but the game was the start of a tough road trip at the schedule's first bench mark that was supposed to help New Jersey begin resetting the dial. Problem was the Devils came up flat, falling behind early and failing to take advantage of the few opportunities a much sharper San Jose team provided. And MacLean, whose frequent efforts to change line combinations were fruitless, ended up complaining about his team's work ethic.

"We can't have some guys doing it, some guys not," he said.

Especially since New Jersey dropped to 2-7-1, the worst record at the 10-game mark for any Devils team other than the 1983-84 version. More important, it left the Devils dead last in the league's overall standings. With stops in Anaheim, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Chicago still to come on this trip, the Devils could be all but buried in the East by the time they get home next week.

And they don't really have the payroll wiggle room to make a move, which makes it easy to put MacLean on the hot seat right now. And he didn't do himself any favors scratching Kovalchuk for a home game last weekend, a controversial move not only because of the player involved but because it came on the heels of a rare win.

The notoriously tight-lipped organization hasn't disclosed the reason for the discipline but the general suspicion is that Kovalchuk was made an example of by the coach for being late to a meeting. That's all well and good of course, except that the Devils need offense and they need to sell tickets and Kovalchuk is supposed to do both. The rookie coach may have made a statement, but it wasn't a very good one because New Jersey responded by getting blown out at home by Buffalo.

Unfortunately, New Jersey can't seem to win unless Martin Brodeur gets a shutout. His two whitewashes this season are the Devils' only wins, although even the all-time leader in that category can't be expected to do that on a regular basis. Still, Brodeur may have to because the Devils have scored less than two goals a game and MacLean has yet to find lines that work, for the team and for Kovalchuk.

Meanwhile, hockey's conventional wisdom says that teams not firmly in the playoff picture by Thanksgiving won't be at the end. In other words, time is running out for New Jersey, and likely for MacLean. That's something the coach seems to realize.

"If it's not working, you've got to make changes," he said. "You've got to get something going."

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