Over his last two seasons, Paul MacLean has walked on water around these parts.
A Coach of the Year nomination followed by a Coach of the Year win. Not a bad way to start his career as a Head Coach. Every button he pushed was the right one. But in year three of his tenure here in Ottawa, Paul MacLean can suddenly do nothing right.
Now I’m not going to pretend to know what goes on in the head of Paul MacLean. But after taking some time to reflect, away from the negativity of Twitter and the comment section, I think I understand a lot of what has gone on this season. Keep in mind this explanation is based on a combination of what I’ve seen with my own eyes on a nightly basis and what I’ve heard from contacts close to the team. I’m not going to say I can justify or even that I agree with all the decisions MacLean has made this season. Just that I understand them.
The first thing you need to know about MacLean is that he can be a tad stubborn. When hired here in Ottawa he came with the reputation of a strong communicator. A coach that could relate to his players and that was always straight forward when it came to what he expected from them on a nightly basis.
Over the last two seasons, that was a strength of this team. Every player knew what they had to do within the system and where they fit in. I don’t know if the guys in the room would say that is the case this season but I certainly have not heard otherwise. When the team is winning, MacLean is a strong communicator. When they’re losing? He’s a stubborn guy who is firmly set in his ways and knows exactly what he wants from each player on a given night.
I honestly believe that MacLean, whether right or wrong, has a tendency to coach his hockey team as a series of individuals. He doesn’t look at the 18 names in front of him and think, “How can I best use these guys to win a hockey game?” The “player usage” critics will read that statement and roll their eyes ferociously. And perhaps with good reason.
I think MacLean looks at the 12 forwards and 6 defenceman he has dressed on a given night and thinks about each guy individually, and his expectations of that player. Chris Neil? Play physical and get to the front of the net. Zack Smith? Defend well and keep things simple offensively. Ales Hemsky? Create offence whenever possible and put the puck on net when the opportunity is there. If in his mind, the individual isn’t doing what they can do on a given night, then they may not play as much.
It’s why so often it seems like there is a message being sent to particular players. And in dealing with his team as a bunch of individuals, I don’t know if he’s necessarily getting everything he can out of the roster. But like he said after the game against the Islanders, he’s “just coaching the team”. Coaching it the way he believes will get the best results.
I get the sense Paul MacLean is a guy that can tolerate mistakes. But what he doesn’t have time for is players that don’t do what they are asked. This is both on the ice, in practice and away from the rink. It’s why we’ve seen so much of Greening-Smith-Neil this season. Why Jared Cowen was sent over the boards so often. And maybe why a guy like Patrick Wiercioch has had a hard time finding a spot in the lineup.
Under this Head Coach, if you aren’t doing what is expected of you and what MacLean thinks is best, then you are likely going to see that reflected in your playing time. MacLean sees 18 skaters and will always play the guys that are doing what they are told. It’s that simple. Now of course, this only works if expectations are clearly communicated with the players.
His “Best Players Play” motto that has infuriated fans at times doesn’t necessarily mean the “best” hockey players on the team will play the most. It means the guys that are doing what is asked of them, effectively playing within their role, are the guys that are going to see the ice most often. I think it’s an approach that can work well with a young, hard-working team. But when you have high end players like Ottawa does now, it’s becomes a little risky.
Now there are a handful of other factors that have probably contributed to a disappointing season for MacLean. It would come as no surprise to anyone to hear that he may not exactly see eye to eye with his Owner. I can tell you the negotiation around his three year extension was anything but straightforward with some “disagreement” over money. There have also been a couple instances this season where maybe the Owner thought he had some good ideas about how the team should be coached. And that those ideas were communicated with MacLean. That is, not ideal.
Mac’s relationship with his GM seems to be…strained let’s say. In general, Bryan and Paul seem to have the same philosophy on things but haven’t really seen “eye to eye” all year. And that’s a problem. A problem that was highlighted during a recent interview Murray gave on TSN1200 where he didn’t exactly give his Head Coach a ringing endorsement heading into next season.
And the third, issue is with the players. This is where the loss of Alfie has hurt more than people realize. Now I’m not in that locker room (and haven’t been since I accidentally stepped on the logo and Chris Neil yelled at me) so I can’t say definitively one way or another, but there has been a pretty steady stream of “rumours” about guys possibly not taking their jobs as seriously as the Coach would like them too. That and a number of lingering injuries to key players.
Add it all up; his stubborn nature, his specific and strict expectations of each player, his less than ideal relationship with his superiors and a rumoured lack of focus and health from some players and you can start to see what makes MacLean tick. This season, anyway.
I mentioned this on Twitter after tonight’s loss, that there was actually a theory making the rounds that Paul MacLean was actively trying to get fired. My reaction to the theory? Complete bull shit. This is a guy working his first Head Coach job in the NHL, on the heels of a Coach of the Year win. It just doesn’t make sense to limit his career here in Ottawa and possibly anywhere else in the league by going all George Costanza in the middle of the season. He’s coaching the team in a way that he believes will be effective, within the current environment he is being exposed to. Do I think his approach is an effective one? Certainly not this season but it worked well last year when he won the Jack Adams. And not bad the year before that.
When things go as poorly as they have this season, fans want someone to blame. And Paul MacLean certainly deserves his share.
Bryan Murray probably deserves some as well. He put this roster together as best he could but hasn’t acknowledged the seemingly obvious defensive shortcomings. At least not publicly, anyway. The players certainly deserve their fair share of the blame. While a couple guys have had “great” seasons, there have been far too many players that have taken an obvious step back this season. And of course, Eugene Melnyk should have plenty a finger pointed in his direction. Not only is his internal budget seriously limiting what this team can do on the ice, the environment he has created within this organization, from top to bottom (and not just on the hockey side either)…is toxic.
Blame is normal after a season like this. But to lay it all at the feet of Head Coach Paul MacLean, without carefully thinking about what might be influencing his decisions in-game and throughout the season, is a tad reckless.
Despite the team’s poor performance this season, there’s no need to panic. There’s a strong (and young) core in place and smart hockey people at all levels. But Players, Head Coach, General Manager and Owner are all going to need to have a long chat when this season ends and hopefully find a way to get on the same page moving forward. There is too much young talent in this organization and quality players on the roster, to let it all go to waste.