M is for Martin, Murray, and MacLean, as in Jacques Martin, Bryan Murray, and Paul MacLean. This coaching trio represents the shifts the modern franchise has undergone in its 20 year history: Martin took over a perennial loser and oversaw their progression to yearly contender; during Murray's reign the club reached the Stanley Cup Finals, and has never been closer to having their names engraved on Lord Stanley's mug; Paul MacLean's tenure has seen the club exceed expectations and confound experts who believed Ottawa's rebuild would take them back to the terrible memories of the team's early years.
It's hard to say what Jacques Martin's tenure in Ottawa is most remembered for. His first success as a head coach came in 1986, when he won the Memorial Cup at the helm of the Guelph Platers. Martin was an assistant with Quebec/Colorado before leaving mid-season to join the Senators organization as head coach, missing out on Colorado's 1996 Stanley Cup win. To say that the Senators team Martin took over was bad is an understatement. In three and a half years of Rick Bowness/Dave Allison (1992-1996), the Sens had a winning percentage of .158. To put that into perspective, the worst team by far this season, Columbus, has a winning percentage of 0.315. Still not good, but twice as good as the Sens era of futility.
Martin's success with the team came quickly. In his first full season behind the bench, Martin led the Senators to a 3rd place finish in the Northeast division and the team's first-ever playoff appearance. The following season, the Sens recorded their first winning record and returned to the playoffs, upsetting the Devils in the first round for their first playoff series win. In 1998-99, the Sens won their first division title and broke the 100 point plateau for the first time. The club's jump from middle contender to elite team earned Jacques Martin the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's top coach in 1999. Two more division titles and the Presidents' Trophy would be added during Martin's time with the club. In his eight full seasons behind the Ottawa bench, the club never missed the playoffs.
Yet Martin's teams quickly became labeled as "underachieving". It was during the Martin era the "Battle of Ontario" took place and the Sens lost all four installments. His "defense first" philosophy paid immediate dividends for the team, but did not bring playoff success. The 2002-03 team was arguably the best Sens team ever: first overall in the regular season, winning the Presidents' Trophy, making the Conference Finals for the first time, and coming one win away from playing for the Stanley Cup. However, the Sens inglorious first round exit the following year, at the hands of the Maple Leafs, sealed his fate and Martin was fired. The "underachiever" label still haunts the club. Martin's all-time coaching record with the Sens: 692 games, 341 wins, 234 losses, 82 ties, 20 over-time losses, and a .592 winning percentage in the regular season; 66 games, 31 wins, 35 losses, and a .470 winning percentage in the playoffs.
Martin's replacement behind the bench was Bryan Murray, an established coaching veteran in the NHL. Murray's job was to get the Sens past the Martin-era playoff futility. In some ways, his job was considerably easier than Martin's. The team he inherited was GOOD. John Muckler added Dany Heatley to the mix before the season started and Murray put Heatley together with Spezza and Alfie and created one of the most dominant lines in the NHL. In Murray's first year he tied the the single season Sens wins record and points record, while losing in the second round, and the following season, guided the team to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. His coaching record in those two years: 164 games, 100 wins, 46 losses,18 overtime losses, and a winning percentage of .610 in the regular season; 30 games, 18 wins, 12 losses, and a .600 winning percentage in the playoffs.
That's when the good times ended. Failure in the finals meant Muckler lost his job and Murray replaced him as GM. I don't think I'm the only Sens fan who's wondered what the following seasons would have looked like if the management team had been keep in place and Murray behind the bench. The horrific coaching carousel that was Paddock-Murray-Hartsburg-Clouston probably wouldn't have happened and the past few years might have been much more stable. Murray has spent five years as the team's general manager and his management work now overshadows his coaching tenure. The success of the Senate Reform now seems to be what Murray's legacy with the team will be and what he will be judged by in the future.
Of the three, MacLean is the least controversial. Expectations were low going into the season (and should remain tempered as we near the playoffs), and the mentality is that this is still a rebuilding team. MacLean has time on his side: the hiring process was deliberate this time and management has committed to a multi-season rebuild. In some ways, MacLean's first season is reminiscent of Martin's early years: a team that had been dreadful, a coach with a new system, and a regular season that confounded expectations. Ultimately, MacLean will need to be more successful than either Murray or Martin if this team eventually achieves consistent playoff success.