Paul Maclean Was Underrated
The ‘Stache deserves recognition as a standout among coaches in Ottawa Senators history.
When discussing the most memorable Ottawa Senators moments of the 2010s, many fans will go straight to either the magical Hamburglar run of 2015 or their incredibly gutsy run to the 2017 Eastern Conference Final. However, while the organization was never quite able to capitalize on the success of Erik Karlsson, there was still plenty of excitement sprinkled throughout the first half of the decade; and at the centre of many of those moments was a man with a magnificent moustache, a man who was never given a crop of players to match.
Throughout his tenure in Ottawa, Paul Maclean led a team that was very much an underdog. Before France’s greatest NHL player was hired at the end of the 2010-11 NHL season, the club had began a rebuild that wasn’t nearly as thorough as the one they’re undergoing right now. Even so, veterans such as Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly were traded, and success on the ice was expected to come three years in the future —on the back of a core featuring Karlsson, Mika Zibanejad, and Mark Stone, as well as future draft picks.
It’s safe to say, however, that Maclean had the team moving in the right direction a lot earlier than expected. After starting the season 1-5-0, the Senators went a six-game winning streak. I was in attendance for one such game against the Blue Jackets, in which Ottawa was down 3-2 with under a minute to go. They ended up winning that game 4-3.
Maclean’s squad posted a 41-31-10 record overall, and as the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, they pushed the New York Rangers to a seventh game before ultimately losing 2-1. It’s safe to say that they gave the fans a lot more than they had bargained for.
Ottawa had some nice representation at the NHL Awards that year, as Erik Karlsson won his first of two Norris trophies, Daniel Alfredsson won the King Clancy award, and Maclean, in his first season as a head coach, finished in the top three in Jack Adams voting.
When the 2013 season finally got underway in January with a new CBA, the Senators, who had made some fairly significant changes, were still expected to be something of a long shot to qualify for the playoffs. They swapped a blossoming two-way forward in Nick Foligno for the ideal partner on defence for Karlsson in Marc Methot, and had a shiny new backup goaltender in Ben Bishop. However, the forward corps were still rather unspectacular, and bulk of the team’s offence was going to come from Karlsson, Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Milan Michalek.
Then, the injuries happened. In the 48-game season, injuries limited Karlsson to 16 games, Michalek to 23, and Spezza to just five. For most of the season, the team’s offensive depth was about as deep as a petri dish. Alfredsson and Kyle Turris were top-six forwards and Sergei Gonchar could handle things on the back end, but the rest of the slack had to be picked up by developing players like Mika Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg, as well as depth players like Colin Greening and Erik Condra.
Despite this, Maclean’s squad found a way to win hockey games on the back of an effective system and strong commitment throughout the lineup. Taking on the moniker of “Pesky Sens”, they fought their way into a tight playoff race for a second straight season. Along the way, a doppelganger appeared in Ottawa.
As the seventh seed, a win against the Montreal Canadiens would be considered an upset. Frankly, it ended up being more like a cakewalk.
To sum it up, the Sens ended up winning the series 4-1, they won two games by a score of 6-1, they went 5-0 in a line brawl that was instigated by a Habs player, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau, the team’s fourth-round selection from the 2011 draft, scored a hat-trick. Maclean added to the fun, infamously calling a timeout in Game 3 with under a minute left in the game. The Senators were officially inside the heads of the entire city of Montreal.
Ultimately, the Senators would be dispatched in five games by their second-round opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the overall performance of the scrappy team earned Maclean his second consecutive Jack Adams nomination. This time, he became the second Senators head coach to win the award, the first being Jacques Martin in 1999.
Let’s dive a bit deeper into the team’s performance in the 2013 season. Notably, goals were hard to come by, both for the Senators and their opponents. At 5v5, they had the second-best save percentage, and the second-worst shooting percentage. All three of their goalies had a save percentage of at least .927, and the only regulars in the lineup to score over half a point per game were Turris, Gonchar, and Alfredsson.
More impressive, however, was their 5th ranked 5v5 Corsi For% in the league at 53.66 (according to NaturalStatTrick.com). The Sens were getting a bit of puck luck, but they were also driving the play. This might be a good time to remind you that the regular lineup on defence was Gonchar, Marc Methot, Eric Gryba, Patrick Wiercioch, Chris Phillips and Andre Benoit. The goaltending may have been world-class, but this seemingly mediocre defence corps made their job pretty easy.
Over at HockeyViz.com, Micah Blake McCurdy’s data model attempts to calculate the individual impact of players and coaches, by accounting for teammates and competition. Here is the isolated impact for Paul Maclean’s system.
A good system as depicted by this model, has a positive number for the offensive zone, and a negative one for the defensive zone. Overall, Maclean’s system had a positive impact at both ends of the ice. Even though the team’s play was rather disappointing in the later years of his tenure, there were serious personnel issues that existed based on decisions made by those higher up in the organization. They never had a complete top-six up front, or a complete top-four on the blue line, and players like Wiercioch and Phillips had poor on-ice results compared to the previous season.
Maclean’s Senators missed the playoffs in 2013-14, and after struggling the following season, he was canned and replaced with Dave Cameron. However, Maclean chose to put a positive spin on it, and made his last press conference one to remember.
Some may remember him as a coach whose success in the NHL was held up by great goaltending, who couldn’t turn the Senators into a competitive club when they were seemingly ready to make the jump. However, the big issues with the Senators back then were a lack of quality drafting to help fuel what was supposed to be a rebuild, and an absence of moves to improve the team depth. That’s not on Paul Maclean. Sure, he didn’t embrace Mark Stone as early as he should’ve. And we all groaned every time he trotted out Colin Greening, Zack Smith and Chris Neil at the same time.
However, with a 114-90-35 record, he was a solid head coach that brought more success to the Senators during his tenure than anyone expected. He was always good for a moment on the lighter side, and was never truly given an exceptional roster to work with. Paul MacLean was underrated.