Defenceman Jared Cowen has, indisputably, underperformed so far this season. Although he is far from alone in that capacity, his play at even-strength and on the penalty-kill have been, quite simply, bad. He's among the league's worst players in terms of shots allowed at even strength, and he's Ottawa's worst by that metric while short-handed among the team's top penalty killers.
Although there have been periodic glimmers of hope in his play (especially when he jumps into the rush and takes offensive chances), Cowen has largely looked tentative, unconfident, slow, and immobile in the defensive zone. At the beginning of the season, some of those struggles were attributed to the fact that he missed what should have been an all-important training camp after a summer of rehab and conditioning post-hip-surgery, but that's no longer sufficient to explain the degree of his struggles.
Because of those struggles, he was a healthy scratch and missed the game against the Vancouver Canucks a little less than one month ago. It was an overdue move for some (myself included), and should have been an indictment of his poor play and an opportunity for him to step back from the game, re-set his mental state, and get amped up to make an impression upon his inevitable return to the lineup.
Some degree of frustration is to be expected when a player's scratched; these are competitive people who don't want to admit that their struggling, and don't want to be penalized for it. But Cowen's reaction to the scratching seemed, at least to me, overly negative. From the Ottawa Sun:
"I was pissed, I was mad, I was what everyone would feel if they got healthy scratched. [...] I haven't been a healthy scratch before.
"But that's what happens when a team doesn't do well ... a bunch of individuals make up a team, so you've got to take care of different guys and make sure they're playing well. I understand it."
Rather than admitting his personal struggles and the need to improve his game, Cowen seemed to dismiss the move as an indictment of the team as a whole. While I'm not sure what was said to Cowen when he was told the decision, I have to assume that the intention of scratching an individual is to demonstrate to said individual that he's not playing well enough. Whether or not the team is struggling is irrelevant; Jared Cowen can only control what he provides when on the ice, and his coach wasn't satisfied by that. So he was scratched.
Yet he chose to believe that the criticism was of the team rather than the individual, it seems. If that's the case, it reflects an inability to take ownership of personal shortcomings in order to gain traction and get past them.
That thinking is similarly apparent after he was recently suspended for two games due to a check-to-the-head on Zemgus Girgensons. The check, a clear violation of a recently-clarified rule, wasn't legal. Yet Cowen insisted he'd do the same thing again. From the Ottawa Sun:
"I’ll make that same hit over and over again. Just because I had a hearing or suspension isn’t going to get it changed, but it is harder to hit small guys when you’re taller. [...] I wouldn’t do anything differently."
Although Cowen later admitted that he would maybe "move a little to the left an inch or two," this quote still reflects an inability to take responsibility for an action that isn't positive for his team. His tone, as evidenced by this recording of the interview in the Buffalo News, suggests that he hasn't taken the supplemental discipline seriously. You can be sure he'll hear about the comments from the league's Player Safety Department.
And, of course, these odd comments come on the heels of an extended contract negotiation with the team in which Cowen reportedly turned down an offer of the longest contract in the existence of this franchise. As a result, he missed training camp--a camp that was, as I said before, very important for him as an individual who's recently undergone hip surgery, but also as a member of a team that's recently undergone a pretty massive change to its roster.
While I certainly don't blame Cowen for negotiating the best contract he could, the decision to extend negotiations past the start of training camp was a selfish decision that seems to have hurt his play on the ice and the team as a whole. He might have been right to be selfish (sometimes players need to be), but the fact remains.
It also raises the question of just how much Cowen thinks he's worth; negotiations took place at a time when he had played just 90 NHL regular season games under his belt, and had been largely protected in a bottom-pairing role throughout them. Few examinations of comparable players would have projected anywhere near the four-year, $12.4M contract he ended up signing--Scott from The 6th Sens and Travis Yost both projected a two- to three-year bridge deal worth between $1-2M per season, both relying on comparisons to Karl Alzner and Marco Scandella. Cowen's obviously got a lot of confidence in himself, but at what point does self-confidence become arrogance?
Arrogance doesn't have to be a bad thing in hockey players, but it's best balanced with the ability to honestly assess yourself and admit to mistakes--it then allows players the confidence that they can overcome the shortcomings and become better for it. But Cowen seems to be demonstrating a level of immaturity in failing to recognize his own faults; if that's a theory that holds water, then he's simply going to repeat them over and over again.
So what do you think: Is Jared Cowen lacking in the maturity necessary to become the player that the organization hopes he can be? Or am I simply putting too much thought into a few pieces of anecdotal evidence?