In each of his first two seasons with the Ottawa Senators, head coach Paul MacLean has been nominated for the Jack Adams Award. After securing a playoff spot despite significant injuries to key players during the 2012-2013 season, MacLean claimed top coaching honours for the first time.
MacLean might be the most popular coach in team history. The success of the team while rebuilding is undoubtedly part of that popularity; but it is also MacLean the man that has led to his standing among Sens fans.
Paul MacLean is lauded for his communication skills.
His ease with the media is an extension of that skill. His performance during Ottawa's first round series against the Montreal Canadiens was a master class in media relations. MacLean's measured post-game comments contrasted with those from Canadiens bench boss Michel Therrien's overwrought pleas to the media. While Therrien's incensed commentary was a calculated attempt by the Habs boss to change the narrative about his team's play, MacLean's responses were every bit as calculated. The infamous "player 61" remark cast blame on Habs defenseman Raphael Diaz's suicide pass rather than Sens defenseman Eric Gryba's "wrong route" on the series-defining Lars Eller hit had the Canadiens talking about respect and Brandon Prust calling MacLean "a bug-eyed, fat walrus".
MacLean's response played to his strengths: "I don't even know who No. 61 is on my team. Are you going to hold that against me? I'm from Antigonish, N.S. It's a small town". For anyone other than Andre Benoit, MacLean's appeal to his small town roots was a humorous dismissal of the case Therrien had painstakingly built against the Ottawa coach. Yet it is part of MacLean's self-consciously projected image. When questioning the validity of the spin-o-rama shootout move at the start of this season, MacLean underscored his belief that the move was unfair by stating "[b]ut that's me, I'm only a fisherman from Nova Scotia. So I don't know nothin' about nothin'".
But he's not only a fisherman from Nova Scotia.
After junior hockey, he spent a year at Dalhousie University, playing for the Tigers and helping the team reach a national final. The following year, he joined the Canadian national team and represented his country at the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid. He spent the 1980-81 season playing for the Salt Lake Golden Eagles in the CHL and was almost a point-per-game player. He made his NHL debut that year, playing in one game for the St. Louis Blues (the team which drafted him in 109th overall in 1978). A trade to the Winnipeg Jets in the summer of 1981 kicked off a successful 10-year career. He scored 40 or more goals three times. He finished with 30 or more goals on five occasions. He missed the 30+ goal mark in just two seasons; both seasons were marred by injuries.
He's not just a former player.
Paul MacLean had a long apprenticeship before becoming Ottawa's ninth head coach. Immediately after retirement, he spent three seasons as a scout for the St. Louis Blues. In 1993 he began his coaching career by stepping behind the bench for the Peoria Rivermen, St. Louis's affiliate, in 1993. In his second season he was named minor league coach of the year. He was an assistant coach with Phoenix in the NHL for the 1996-1997 season. He moved to the IHL for a head coaching position with the Kansas City Blades for three seasons before joining Quad City of the UHL for two. He joined Bryan Murray in Anaheim in 2002 as Mike Babcock's assistant. The trio would reach the Stanley Cup Finals in 2003. Babcock brought MacLean to Detroit in 2005. The pair reached the Stanley Cup Finals in consecutive years and won it all in 2008.
One of MacLean's strengths is that he uses humour with the press. It's part of the same measured response he presents behind the bench. This is where the moustache and the eyes come into play. While "bug-eyed" isn't an accurate description of MacLean's appearance, the "walrus" moniker has been bandied about during his time in the capital. MacLean's moustache has been his trademark for more than 30 years; he grew it in 1981 during his rookie season. His chestnut duster was ever-present during his playing days and has endeared him to fans throughout his coaching career.
Before he was ‘the Walrus' he was 'The Grizz'. With facial hair that often obscures his lips, MacLean's expression, his intensity, is often conveyed through his eyes. Friend and former boss Howard Cornfield said of MacLean, that "[i]t's hard to explain, but we came to call it 'The Grizz Look' as in grizzly bear. He looked you in the eye and you knew he was being very honest. He was speaking from the heart. He had incredible intensity and you walked away saying, 'This guy is serious.'" Cornfield hired MacLean to coach the Quad City Mallards of the United Hockey League in 2000 because of it. MacLean promised Cornfield a championship. In his two seasons behind the Mallards bench, he had a record of 112-27-9 (.787) and the team won the 2001 Colonial Cup championship. He became a folk hero in Quad City.
Part of MacLean's appeal in Iowa was the club's marketing of ‘The Grizz Look': a caricature of MacLean with his characteristic moustache and stare was shown on the scoreboard, after every Mallards goal, it broke into a big grin. Dubbed ‘The Happy Mac' by fans, the graphic smiled a lot more than the man behind the bench. Sold on t-shirts and pucks, the popularity of ‘The Grizz Look' merchandise prepared "the fisherman from Nova Scotia" for the walrus t-shirts in Ottawa. It also gave him the knowledge that his small-town, straightforward image carried a lot of currency with fans.
MacLean challenges his best players.
When MacLean was hired in 2011, some had grown frustrated with the output and attitude of Jason Spezza. Many still viewed the 28-year-old former second-overall pick as a goofy or "impish" offensive threat who rarely "displayed the gravitas of a leader" (Farber). MacLean targeted that aspect of Spezza's game for development. MacLean recognized Spezza was ready for more responsibility.
At the start of MacLean's tenure in November 2011, the new coach noted that Spezza was ready for more: "I think he wants to accept the leadership role and everything that goes with it. Not the I'm-going-to-have-the-Halloween-party-at-my-house-and-I'm-going-to-host-the-team-barbecue, the social director part of team leadership." The Senators had a difficult start to that season, suffering two blow-out losses. The losses challenged the club's leaders and in MacLean's eyes, Spezza stepped up: "it was really hard to be a leader on this team for those four or five days. That was our first test of leadership, not only mine but theirs, and it tested our ability to work together to solve the crisis. And Jason accepted that responsibility. He was a big part of changing the direction of the team."
Not all leadership challenges are resolved with closed-door players' meetings. MacLean expects his captain to play at the highest level. In the deciding game of the 2012 playoff series against the New York Rangers, the rookie coach, irritated with Spezza's play, benched the playmaker. Early into his captaincy, Spezza finds himself playing second fiddle to Kyle Turris and with makeshift line mates who have included anyone from Milan Michalek and Mika Zibanejad to Colin Greening and Chris Neil. Neil's inclusion on Spezza's wing is more about challenging Spezza and MacLean illustrates he expects more from his captain.
MacLean has issued similar challenges to Erik Karlsson. Karlsson played just 4:16 in the first period of Saturday's game against the Florida Panthers. The defender committed a costly turnover that resulted in a Panthers goal and the coach showed his displeasure by benching him for the rest of the period. When asked about Karlsson's ice time after the game, Paul MacLean responded "I thought he was playing for both teams and possibly a little more for their team than for our team, so I felt we can't have that." If that statement sounds familiar that's because it is. A month into his reign as coach, MacLean had this to say about his then 21-year-old budding superstar Karlsson: "I'd like to play him 30 minutes a night, but we'll only play him 14 if he's playing 14 for us and 16 for them." The MacLean regime has always stressed Karlsson needs to be strong in his own end as well.
For fans, these moves can be frustrating. At times, MacLean's decisions regarding Spezza and Karlsson make little sense, such as the playoff benching of Spezza. MacLean holds Spezza and Karlsson to a higher standard that ignores the poor play of some teammates. MacLean was a top line winger in his day. He was a physical winger who averaged 35 goals and 100 PIMs each season. Three times he reached the 40 goal mark. MacLean has one regret from his time in Winnipeg, a regret echoed by then-Jets GM John Ferguson. Ferguson told the rugged winger that "whoever plays with Dale Hawerchuk should score 50 goals". MacLean's response shows a measure of self-awareness: "I said Fergie, ‘you're right, they should.' But I get you 40." MacLean was aware of his limitations as a player and aware that a future Hall-of-Famer like Hawerchuk deserved better.
MacLean knew he wasn't that guy. Just as he knows Chris Neil is not that guy for Jason Spezza.
It's a challenge to his captain.
Jason Spezza has been challenged before. As a teenager at his first NHL training camp in 2001, his conditioning was called into question and then-coach Jacques Martin told the teen star that the NHL is a "men's league". Spezza has been told to improve his defensive game, he's battled injuries, and he's heard boos on home ice. But MacLean's challenges are different. His challenges are part of an attempt to groom Spezza, the star centre, into Spezza the star, leader, and captain. MacLean insists Spezza needs to be better this year. MacLean often talks about playing a 200 foot possession game. Despite his point totals, Jason Spezza hasn't been doing that so far this season. But MacLean's criticisms aren't catchy one-liners, designed to be noticed by members of the media. MacLean's criticisms won't follow Spezza for the rest of his career like Martin's comment still follows Spezza 12 years later. The development of Kyle Turris has insulated Spezza as well. Spezza can continue to develop as leader while Turris takes on more of the offensive burden. MacLean's comments are part of an on-going dialogue between a coach and his captain. His comments are part of a relationship between a former player who played next to a Hall of Famer and a veteran trying to fulfill the role he has always aspired to.
MacLean's emphasis on communication and possession-based hockey have garnered him support inside the dressing room and in the stands. While his distinctive moustache has always been his trademark, the development of Jason Spezza as Ottawa's captain might come to define MacLean's time in the capital.