Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Should All Players Backcheck?

Last weekend, there was a major ripple made by the New Jersey devils when new coach benched new superstar for a game for undisclosed reasons.

The precise reasoning behind the decision is still in the ether, but speculation probably rightly points to the reluctance of Ilya Kovalchuk to conform with Devils Constitution.

Kovalchuk, you see doesn't particularly like to backcheck. The Devils have been built on a smothering backcheck among other things for a couple of decades. It's making Martin Brodeur unhappy, as he middles in the stats page and it happens to coincide with a losing skid for the team.

The obvious reaction from the hockey community has been one of scorn for Kovalchuk. He, after all, is just a greedy player who took the best money out there without consideration for anyone or anything. Apart from this being a complete fallacy (Kovalchuk turned down more more over less seasons), it's a surprising unwillingness to see the other side of the equation.

The question I choose to ask from all this is:

Should all players who don't backcheck be necessarily molded to conform?

I know what you're all thinking. I've lost my mind. I don't think I have. While it's true that ever since the Devils won an unlikely dynasty through trapping that coaches have taken more than a few lessons from the Book of Lemaire, it is also true that winning methods are not limited to trapping alone.

In those early years, the Devils were a prime example of making the most of the assets one has. With decent scorers and outstanding parts at the back, the team designed a system to exploit their squad's strengths. Yet, as the team has changed over the years, the recipe has changed little. Now, a team with a drastically different make up (probably the two best LW in the league, if not three with Elias) is battling to make a cake with unfit ingredients rather than stirring up the recipe their ingredients would better suit.

In my opinion, it is a failing of the Devils to devise a system that fits Kovalchuk (the most consistent shooter in the league) rather than a failing of the player. Why can't MacLean look at a plan to spring his wingers from their back end duties? Probably because he fails to see the possibility.

This square peg into round hole syndrome is something we have seen for years with the Canadiens now. Andrei KOstitsyn, a known talent for years, has only recently been granted the freedom he craved because he grudgingly accepted defensive duties. The Canadies currently lack a second line because their coach values conservative goal prevention over proactivity.

With Martin, it seems that it may be too much to ask to change his ways after 25 years of doing things his way. It's not a valid excuse, but it's one that we should have anticipated in hiring a less innovative coach. But what is MacLean's excuse? Just that devils hockey is all he knows, I suppose.


There is burgeoning excitement around the hiring of Guy Boucher simply because he seeks to break the mold. I am convinced that there's plenty of room for other "innovative" coaching ideas out there, ones that truly recognize the best ways to get performance from a team's players.

You don't sign Ilya Kovalchuk to be a 60-point two-way strength. You sign him to terrify opposing coaches, goalies and defences. The onus should move at least somewhat to the coaches in this league on points like this, and away from the punishment of offensive-obsessed players.

I say bench MacLean until he produces an original thought.

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