December 2, 1997 was the day I lost all respect for John MacLean. He never gained it back. As a guy considered an all-time great Devil, he certainly had a way of acting incredibly selfish. You see, back in 1997, the Devils had four big free agents to be on the horizon. Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Doug Gilmour, and John MacLean were all set to test the market (Marty was restricted) on July 1, 2008. From my view as a fan, Marty, Stevens, and Johnny Mac all wanted to stay, with Gilmour looking more and more like a lost cause. In a move some today would consider out of character for Lou Lamoriello, he began negotiating with his big free agents to be during the season. One notable omission however, was MacLean. In December, Brodeur and Stevens inked long term extensions leaving the core of the team intact. However, MacLean viewed his lack of an offer as an insult, and on December 2nd, he requested a trade, saying that he was “dying on a vine.” So Lou did what he had to and shipped MacLean, a player at the time certain to have his number retired, to San Jose. His selfishness banished him to a fate that would see him end his career on bad Sharks and Rangers teams.
Much like Lou has done with other former players, the hatchet was buried and Mac was brought back as an assistant coach. We all know how this ends. Passed over on a few occasions for the head coaching job, Mac finally got his chance in 2010, and was named head coach of the Devils. Unfortunately, selfish John MacLean was in mid-season form.
On opening night against Dallas, we were rolling. Our new super-line of Parise/Zajac/Kovalchuk had 2 goals in the first eight minutes and Kovy hit the post a minute earlier as well. However, the rest of the team appeared to just be watching in awe of how good that line was. Dallas got back into the game and eventually won in overtime. The thing that shocked me was not the loss, but how MacLean handled the team. Changing lines in the 2nd period was a shocker. It was game 1, and he’s already shuffling his units. Our checkers were getting too much time in situations where we needed goals. It came to a head for me a week later, when the team was playing poorly, and Mac kicked them off the ice at practice. At the time we had no idea what we were in for during the next few months, but I can honestly say it was the worst I’d seen the Devils play since the early 80’s. Blame who you want for the struggles. Some have pinned it on Lou for waiting too long to pull the trigger. Some have pinned it on former Captain Jamie Langenbrunner for a lack of leadership in the locker room and an overall attitude that ranged from angry to pouting.
The final nail in the coffin for me with John MacLean was when he scratched Ilya Kovalchuk in a home game in which he also wasn’t starting Marty Brodeur. We’d already lost Parise for the foreseeable future, and now our other two superstars were off the ice. Regardless of what happened Kovy that day, I’m inclined to think two things. 1. Kovy’s attitude and maturity during this season lead me to believe that he can be a great leader, possible captain along with Parise, and all-time great Devils. 2. MacLean’s selfishness has him believing that fans show up to watch him coach rather than watch Kovy and crew play hockey. He could not have been more wrong.
Devil fans for a week have been complaining that Jacques Lemaire was snubbed in the Adams Award voting. The turnaround, even though it came up short, was too great for him to not be nominated. I couldn’t disagree more. But if you want to blame someone for Jacques not being nominated, blame John MacLean. Usually, when a team is losing, people say the team isn’t as bad as the record says. And when that team is winning they say the team isn’t quite as good as the record run makes them seem. Ultimately, people are saying that the team falls somewhere in the middle. And that’s how I feel about Jacques and the job he did with the team. I think he did a great job. He got the players in shape (it was astonishing that they weren’t). He got their confidence back up. He got them playing a system again. Finally, he got our superstar to buy into a system and praise him saying he was the best coach he’d ever played for. I don’t think Jacques Lemaire’s coaching was THAT great. I think it was excellent, but I also think the team was there waiting to be coached. The bottom line is that John MacLean was THAT bad. And I think that’s what the voters saw when they put in their votes for the Adams Award. They saw a team whose coach was SO bad, that you or I could have stepped in and done a better job. And while Devils fans may feel that Jacques got snubbed, I honestly feel he just came in and coached like Jacques Lemaire. Nothing more, nothing less. But at the end of the day, it was job made to look fantastic because of the abysmal job the guy before him did.