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Who is Accountable and When?

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This week's benching of Damon Severson has brought the topic of accountability to the forefront of Devils talk. How are decisions about who is benched being made and do they make sense?

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

For the Devils and for hockey teams around the NHL in general, fans, analysts, coaches, and management all tend to have differing viewpoints on how to manage rosters and get the most out of them on a nightly basis. Decisions to start and sit players are often scrutinized closely and fans second-guessing which players are being started and which are being sat is as old as sports fandom itself. This week in New Jersey, this familiar and polarizing topic has reared its head and the conversation is surrounding a particularly polarizing player for the Devils. John Hynes’ decision to sit down Damon Severson this week has been met with strong criticism from a large portion of the fanbase (and, for what it’s worth, cheering from some others).

Upon seeing the reports that Severson was out of the lineup, my first reaction personally was that he must have some type of nagging injury or tweaked something and needed a maintenance day. When it emerged that John Hynes was benching him for his play and inserting Ben Lovejoy into the lineup in his place, my reaction was less than positive. The word “accountability” was brought to the forefront by this decision. Hynes was unhappy with some of the mistakes made by Severson in the previous game(s), so Severson was directed to the scratch suite to send a message.

The impulse is understandable, and players shouldn’t be able to make poor plays with impunity, but Severson is a key piece on this team and a player who makes the Devils better. CJ’s post from Wednesday outlines the reasons why Severson is so valuable for the Devils and why benching him is not the most prudent decision for a coach to be making if he’s trying to ice the best lineup possible. That isn’t to say Severson is a player without flaws, or that sitting him for a game or two is going to tear the fabric of the universe asunder. But it has raised the issue of accountability related to lineup decisions and, more specifically, inconsistent application thereof.

Severson had been having a pretty decent month of December and the team was humming along with a fairly extended winning streak heading into New Year’s weekend. A couple of off nights during losses with some turnovers and a third-period penalty against the Caps later, and Severson was banished to the scratch suite. So after the Devils first regulation loss in about three weeks, the decision was made that the lineup had to be shaken up. It feels a little panicky, but it’s at least understandable for a coach to want to shake things up after a poor performance. Benching Severson, though, a guy who is arguably your best puck-mover and all-around defenseman, was a bit unexpected.

It just leads one to wonder who is to be held accountable at what times, because the standard doesn’t seem to be applied entirely consistently. Last night served up an interesting case study in accountability among players and particularly among defensemen. First, with the Devils up 1-0 in the second period, captain Andy Greene let loose an absolute howler of a turnover from behind his goal line. In all honestly, it was one of the better assists I’ve seen from below the goal line in a long while, though it was unfortunately to a guy wearing the wrong color jersey. This is the kind of turnover that would have a more maligned player set adrift on an ice floe. Greene didn’t miss a shift though, nor will he be benched to send a message of any kind. And to be clear: this is fine! Greene remains one of the team’s best defenseman and guys are going to make mistakes sometimes. This was a whopper of a mistake, but sometimes, even the best can lose focus briefly or see a play wrong. No use cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Also during last night’s game, Sami Vatanen orchestrated his own one-man parade back and forth to the penalty box. This culminated with an utterly boneheaded interference penalty he took literally before he exited the box for the penalty he was about to finish serving. This blunder led directly to the Stars converting on the back half of what was essentially a double-minor at that point to gain a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Later in the second, Vatanen would also have a turnover at the blueline on a power play that ended in a goal on a shorthanded rush. The other two players besides Severson who arguably have some stake to the claim that they are the Devils top blueliner pretty much turned a 1-0 lead into a 3-1 deficit on their own.

Neither of those players missed a shift, though, and I am quite skeptical that they will see the scratch suite, and this is an issue I think a lot of people have with the handling of Severson this past week. To be clear: I’m not advocating willy-nilly benching of all of the Devils’ top defensemen when they have off nights. Quite the opposite, really. The Devils were sailing along getting at least a point in every single game for the better part of a month, and the moment that they have an off-night and one of their better defensemen checks in with a minus-2, we’re benching him and icing an inferior lineup because “accountability.”

At this point in a player like Severson’s career, I don’t think benching him for a few mistakes makes much sense anymore. He’s not a rookie, he’s a fourth-year NHL veteran and I’m skeptical that those mind games are going to be particularly effective at this point in his career. Unless he is struggling mightily, I think this message-sending harms the team by icing an inferior lineup more than it possibly helps. Benching one of your best players for a week because he was a minus-2 on the second half of a back-to-back where much of the team looked awful seems counterproductive. Even if it was just the one game versus St. Louis to send a message, I could maybe live with it, but this team is not better with Severson off the ice and benching him for multiple-game stretches for a few mistakes doesn’t make sense to me because these players are all making mistakes and having off-nights.

I didn't originally mean for this to be such a Severson-centric rant at the start, so I just want to say this is just an example of a topic that always seems to apply to someone. Ultimately, the issue is figuring out who gets a long leash and why. Drew Stafford needed two months of entirely ineffectual play to finally miss time. Ben Lovejoy slotted in for Severson on Tuesday and had a meh game where he took a bad o-zone penalty and stuck around. Greene and Vatanen each had nights that some other players would get ground to bits for, and it seems unlikely they will be rotated out. That's fine by me, but I think the same leash should be given to any player who is a key piece of the team like they are. Otherwise, you're just hamstringing yourself to prove a point, which doesn't seem like the best way to win games.