Over the course of a hockey season, it can be hard for players to maintain focus--especially young players still building up their confidence in the world's best league. Over an 82-game season, it's always hard to maintain your focus, and a small loss of it can quickly snowball when poor choices add up and compound. Players end up losing confidence and "gripping their sticks too tightly," according to conventional wisdom.
Often times when this happens, a coach will scratch that player to wake him up. The decision is rarely intended as an indictment of the player individually--in fact, it's usually quite the opposite: The coach is confident that player is better than he's looked, and thinks that a step back will help him re-gain his focus and get him back to the basics that have made him successful in the past.
Paul MacLean believes in this idea. That much is clear by some of his roster decisions, including the recent scratching of Marc Methot--after which MacLean said he was looking for more consistency from the hipcheck-specialist.
On the other hand, Paul MacLean himself has made some very odd choices this year. His lineup blender has been in "Ice Crush" for pretty much the whole season, and the lack of success has seemed to make him increasingly desperate to change whatever he can to find some level of consistency from his team. In my mind, he's lost focus, and he's stopped doing the things that brought him success in his first two seasons here: Finding combinations that work and sticking with them, trusting players to fulfill the roles they're best suited to, and rewarding hard work with more ice time and more opportunities.
Although obviously Paul MacLean can't be scratched for a game, I wish he could, because I think his biggest problems are also those that players sentenced to the press box for a night or two share. I'll break them down here.
Simplify your game: There's no simplicity in Ottawa's game today, and there's definitely none in MacLean's coaching strategy. This team, irrefutably, has had to with several problems (often rotating) problems so far this season, but one thing holding them back is that MacLean seems to be trying to solve them all at once, instead of focusing on each one individually and then moving on to the next. Trying to address them simultaneously adds a level of complexity that has prevented any solutions. Instead of trying to get Craig Anderson to re-gain his confidence while also working through struggling defensive play, just run with the vastly better (statistically speaking, anyway) goaltender and let Robin Lehner play a few games in a row. Anderson will come around eventually, and Lehner's got enough confidence to manage even if his defenders make things hard on him. Don't overcomplicate the process by trying to juggle a bunch of things at once; put a couple down so you can focus on the most pressing issues.
A struggling defenceman is told to make the easy play and put the puck off the ice and out instead of risking a defensive-zone turnover; Paul MacLean needs to make the easy call and play the better goaltender instead of risking a team-wide collapse after a deflating goal.
Do what brought you success in the past: Paul MacLean hasn't coached a season without being a Jack Adams Trophy finalist, and he won the trophy last season. He knows what it takes to win. This season, though, he's gotten away from it because he's been trying to do too much.
In the past, MacLean trusted his players to fulfill the roles they were best suited to. This season, though, the struggles seem to have pushed him to adopt a different tack--one that hasn't come close to working. He needs to get back to his original game plan.
Saturday's game is a case in point on this: Jason Spezza is an offensively-oriented player with a relatively weak defensive game. That's not a shot at Spezza; simply a statement of fact. Yet Spezza played over three minutes while short-handed against the Coyotes, second among Senators forwards, and was on the ice for two powerplay goals against. I'm quite sure that Spezza's requested penalty kill time to develop his skills and showcase his leadership abilities, but he's simply not suited to playing a man down. He shouldn't be among the team's top penalty killers.
On the other side of the coin, there should never be a time when a line of Zack Smith centering Chris Neil and Colin Greening play a shift on the powerplay. It's inexplicable. Although it may make sense to have one of the three on with the man advantage to provide net-front presence, putting all three of them is giving the opposition a free pass to clear the puck. They can't maintain possession, and won't be able to grind it out while a man up. Play offensive guys on the powerplay; there are more than enough of them in the lineup.
Paul MacLean knows what he has to do. He's done it before. He just needs to get back to basics and stop over-thinking his player deployment. Defensive players like Smith should kill penalties, offensive players like Spezza should get powerplay time.
Get his confidence back: Too often, Paul MacLean seems to be exasperated in his media availability, expressing his dismay at not being able to solve this team's problems. He has, on more than one occasion, failed to accept responsibility for this team's struggles, saying, "It's up to them now to solve this." He's lost his confidence and his mojo, and doesn't seem anywhere near the man who completely out-coached Michel Therrien in last year's Eastern Conference Quarter Finals.
While what he's feeling is technically true--MacLean can't, for instance, stop a shot or score a goal--he still needs to put his players into positions to succeed. The coach should take a look at his fireplace mantle and realize how impressive it is that he's won a Jack Adams Trophy after just two NHL seasons; he's a good coach. He knows what this team needs. If he can get back to coaching as he has in the past, success will come. With that success, the confidence will come back.
Think less: Although "chemistry" is a nebulous concept among hockey players, it's clear that it exists. Often, chemistry develops between players when they get the opportunity to play with one another over some time. It's virtually impossible to establish is a player's linemates are constantly being shuffled, not even just between games but often between shifts. Although some level of flexibility in the lineup is required (to get away from checking forwards, to gain an advantage--especially at home--on the opposition, and so on), MacLean's roster shuffling is becoming laughable.
It would seem that MacLean thinks he's making a statement by constantly shuffling the lines. He's not, or if he is, it's not a positive one; the only statement that seems to be made is one of desperation. He need not feel that way. Although frustration is to be expected when the team struggles like this, there are some very clear line combinations that have worked before and will work again, when given the time to re-gain their chemistry. Although a coach's ammunition to send a message is limited, MacLean needs to think a bit less and focus on helping his players re-gain their form. The coach and the players should work together rather than against one another.
So please, Coach MacLean, stick with the sensible line combinations. It seems like that may be happening, which is a good sign: The line of Kyle Turris, Clarke MacArthur, and Bobby Ryan played virtually all of Saturday's game together. Jason Spezza played mostly with Milan Michalek and Cory Conacher. And the checking line that's worked so well in the past, Greening with Neil and Smith, has been reunited (although it shouldn't be used on the powerplay, as I said before). The fourth line is a mixed back, especially with Conacher moved up as a result of Mika Zibanejad's injury, and it wouldn't be a bad idea to call up a player from the AHL who can handle more ice time than Matt Kassian to fill it out (my pick is Derek Grant). But in the meantime, if MacLean sticks with these lines and gives them the system-based support they need, success will come. He needs to stop over-thinking the lineup and just stick with the easy choices.
The Ottawa Senators are not a contending team, that much is clear. But on paper, they're definitely a playoff team--in fact, a lot of people predicted them to be well into a playoff spot this season. Although the continuing struggles have made a playoff berth a very difficult task, there's lots that the Senators still have to gain this season with a turnaround. The talent is there on the ice, and the talent is also there on the bench. All parties involved simply need to get back to what brought them to where they are, and I think that starts with the coach and trickles it's way down.