MacLean Becomes Sens Scapegoat
Sunday’s overtime win against the high flying Vancouver Canucks was not enough to save Paul MacLean’s job as Ottawa Senators Head Coach.
The writing appeared to be on the wall for the former Red Wings Assistant long before the British Columbia franchise arrived in the Canadian capital.
With only a shoot out win against St Louis on November 25th preventing what would have been a 10-game losing skid prior to the weekend, and h an increasing sense MacLean had lost the room, GM Bryan Murray dismissed the former Jack Adams winner on Monday morning.
But the 56-years old fall may ultimately say more about an organisation in decline than his own ability behind the bench.
Hired in June 2011, MacLean was seen as a breath of fresh air for a roster that had grown increasingly unhappy under predecessor Cory Clouston.
The Nova Scotia native led the Senators to a 41-31-10 record in his first season, earning himself a Jack Adams nomination in the process, before going ‘one better’ 12 months later – leading Ottawa past the first round for the first time time in six years on the way to winning the Jack Adams Award.
But the honeymoon period came to an abrupt end last season, as Ottawa missed the play-offs by 5 points amid rumours MacLean had clashed with some of the Sens star players, as life under the clubs strict internal cap began to bite.
Rumoured run ins with Jason Spezza were attributed, at least in part, to the former Captain’s departure over the summer and questions were raised over the usage of Bobby Ryan – with the winger averaging less than 17 minutes per night.
Many were surprised MacLean even survived the summer.
Strong starts from Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner helped Ottawa win four of their first five games; but a downturn in form soon saw a promising opening to the new campaign crumble, as Ottawa slid outside the top eight.
The Senators currently sit four points shy of a wild card spot. Hardly an insurmountable gap, but MacLean’s comments about being scared of who the Sens were playing, and who he was icing, did not go down well – whether they were meant in jest or not.
Taken largely as a shot at the roster available to him; for most it was the final nail in the coffin of a man whose very demeanour seemed to change, for the worse, in Ottawa.
His departure will surely now represent a prime opportunity for the franchise to make excuses – “Look at the bad start we had”, “Dave Cameron (Ottawa’s new head coach) had to undo a lot of bad habits from the old regime” and so on.
It all distracts from some very difficult truths – and perhaps some not so difficult ones – for Sens fans.
Ottawa is dead last in payroll, with no apparent intent to change that. Owner Eugene Melnyk has set a tough internal cap amid what are said to be difficult financial circumstances for the franchise – this in spite of a major regional broadcast deal with TSN and an estimated value of $400m.
It’s one thing to be thrifty, it’s another to prepare for the future (ala Calgary, who will have some top youngsters to re-sign in the coming years); but Ottawa, a franchise in one of hockey’s strongest marketplaces in Ontario, don’t seem to be either of these.
Even the hiring of new Coach Dave Cameron feels like penny pinching – with other, stronger, candidates available, Cameron felt like a surprise choice; but one that almost certainly cost less than former Tampa head honcho Guy Boucher or Binghamton’s Luke Richardson.
Perhaps there is no greater demonstration of the over zealous nature of the club internal budget than the terms under which Daniel Alfredsson departed following a bitter contract dispute, with the Swedish legend feeling he’d been low balled by the club he’d given his entire NHL career to.
And it’s all led to diminishing returns on the ice.
MacLean’s line juggling may not have helped, but the absence of players such as Marc Methot highlighted the clubs lack of depth – turning what was once a decent possession team in to one on the outside of the post season, looking in. With less than stellar goaltending from Anderson and Lehner, which had previously papered over so many cracks, the Sens flaws are now there for all to see.
Ottawa has lost their best player and most influential leader over the past two summers, whilst apparently forming a defence around a D man who cannot defend.
For all Erik Karlsson’s wonderful offensive skills, no club can afford for their #1 D man to be so care free in his own zone – just ask Washington.
The frustrating part is that this isn’t a franchise without hope. Karlsson alone provides for a great transition game (in theory), Kyle Turris has emerged as a strong NHL centre in Ottawa, there’s still time for Mika Zibanejad to blossom in to a force and Jared Cowan is becoming a solid, if inconsistent, replacement for ageing stalwart Chris Phillips.
But the Sens need to add depth if they are to be a regular play-off team again – and that’s going to require opening the cheque book on occasions. Adding Dave Legwand to replace someone of Spezza’s ilk simply doesn’t cut it.
With Zibanejad an RFA this summer, Methot a UFA, and the prospect of claiming a high draft pick seemingly increasing, an opportunity for Ottawa to ‘make a change’ is coming.
But MacLean’s downfall is proof you can’t build a Formula 1 car out of Lego; and while he was certainly fallible, his demise as Sens coach should not be held up as the ultimate reason the club is declining.
The problems go beyond the bench. Perhaps even beyond the General Manager.
In Ottawa, it’s hard not to feel the real problem is at the very top.