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MacLean hopes to add new perspective to Blue Jackets power play

New assistant coach brings wealth of experience to Columbus staff

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

Nick Foligno couldn't help but do a double take.  

As the Blue Jackets captain was around the team's locker room in Nationwide Arena earlier this week -- sitting out the end of his three-game suspension rather than playing -- he saw what appeared to be a familiar face. 

But … it couldn't be his former coach, Paul MacLean, could it? 

"It's funny, actually," he said. "I was sitting there reading the board (in the locker room) because I wasn't playing, and I look over and I was like, 'That guy looks like Paul MacLean.' I didn't think anything of it, like, 'Why would he be here?' Then Torts comes over and was like, 'Hey Nick, why don't you say hi to Paul? He's going to possibly be working with us.' I was like, 'Holy (crap), hey coach!' 

"That was pretty cool. It shows you how small the hockey world is. You work with people, then you go eight years without seeing him. It's just great. You pick up right where you left off. It's neat." 

While it's a great personal reunion for Foligno and the man who coached him for a year in Ottawa, there's also a business aspect to this transaction. 

MacLean was officially announced Thursday as the team's new assistant coach/special teams, a role that will feature him focusing in particular on the team's power play while pitching in with a new voice and perspective on other matters impacting the team. He joined the team behind the bench Thursday, a game in which the Blue Jackets went 2-for-5 on the power play in a 5-4 win against Detroit.  

"He's been in charge of many successful power plays around the league," general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "He has a lot of experience both as an assistant and a head coach. It gives us another experienced view of things and what we can be doing better." 

MacLean spent 719 games in the NHL as a player, suiting up for St. Louis, Winnipeg and Detroit over his 11-year career. He's also a decorated coach, having won a Stanley Cup as an assistant in Detroit and the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's top head coach in 2012-13 with Ottawa. In all, he led the Senators for three-plus seasons and has been an NHL assistant for 11 seasons, last in 2017 with Anaheim.  

When MacLean was an assistant with Anaheim in 2015-16, the Ducks had the NHL's best power play. As he watched games of late with the eye of a coach, MacLean studied what he feels works with teams on the man advantage, and now his goal is to fit that within the talents possessed by the Blue Jackets players. 

"You're seeing what is effective and what works, but at the same time, what works for one group might not work for another group," he said. "It all depends on the skill sets you have and the quality of the players that you have that you can run different systems. If you're putting square pegs in round holes, you're not really going to have a lot of success and have a lot of frustration. 

"I try to be open-minded and try to understand all the things that everyone is doing on the power play, and when it became specific that I was coming here, I started to look at what type of set up and what kind of things can you do with the Columbus Blue Jackets players that are going to help them be successful?" 

MacLean said his biggest immediate charge to the Blue Jackets' players was to go over the boards with a purpose and try to make a difference. More specific changes will be implemented over practice sessions in the coming days and weeks -- "You can't build Rome in a day," he said -- but Oliver Bjorkstrand said the tweaks through one game were encouraging.  

"There were a few things, kind of staying a little bit closer to the net, having people in front of the net, getting that shot on net," said Bjorkstrand, who scored one of the two power-play goals Thursday night. "There were a few things, but I'm sure we'll see more of it in the future here. I think we're looking forward to working with him." 

Power plays can go up and go down, especially in an era where penalties are down. Ten years ago, Columbus had 308 power-play chances, while a year ago, the Blue Jackets had 221, an average of one less power-play chance per game.  

But that also makes each opportunity that much more important, and for head coach John Tortorella, the decision to add MacLean was influenced by a variety of factors. First, the Blue Jackets had a successful trial a season ago with the midseason addition of Martin St. Louis, who wasn't with the team full-time but was a valuable sounding board for players and coaches down the stretch. 

Secondly, Tortorella has a good relationship with MacLean and thought he'd fit into the dynamic the team has with both players and coaches. And thirdly, assistant coach Brad Larsen spoke of the value a new voice could add when it comes to special teams, particularly the power play that Larsen has overseen over the past few seasons. 

"I respect (Larsen) in where he is a team-first guy, and he's the one who broached the conversation as far as I think these guys need a different voice," Tortorella said. "There's not too many different things you do in a power play, but a different voice and just a different look may help, and that's what he brought up. 

"I look at our 5-on-5 game, too. We're going to lean on Mac for different ideas and just what he sees as we continue to go about our business here." 

The power play has been a constant source of frustration -- at least for the fan base -- in recent seasons. The unit blossomed in the first full season with Tortorella and Larsen in charge, as the Blue Jackets started red-hot and ended up scoring on 19.9 percent of opportunities to place 12th in the NHL.  

But the numbers have petered out over time, with the Blue Jackets finishing 28th in the league at 15.4 percent a year ago. This year, the Blue Jackets were 25th in the NHL at 15.6 percent before Thursday's game, though the team had tallied in 4 of its previous 16 chances over a five-game span.  

For MacLean, that shows potential for a unit that boasts a lot of talent as well as a wealth of experience as well.  

"The exciting part of the Blue Jackets opportunity here is the quality of the players that we have and the youth of the players that they have and the amount of growth potential that is within the whole group," he said. "For me as a coach that likes to coach, it was too good of an opportunity to not strongly consider and take advantage of." 

While the hiring of St. Louis didn't quite turn everything around a year ago -- the unit went from 14.6 percent before the Hall of Famer's arrival to 16.9 percent after -- the power play did heat up in the playoffs, particularly the first-round sweep of Tampa Bay in which Columbus scored on 5 of 10 chances. 

Zach Werenski, a constant piece of the team's power play since arriving in 2016-17, said he welcomes the addition of MacLean much like the hiring of St. Louis a year ago.  

"Everyone sees the game differently," Werenski said. "Having a new set of eyes on our team and a new set of eyes on our power play, 5-on-5, I think everything, our whole game, I think it's going to help us. 

"I think when you hear from someone else and hear it from multiple people, that's when it starts to resonate a little bit more, I think. Maybe with him coming in now, he can be that other voice that helps us go out there and execute and score some big goals for our team." 

Born in France but a native of Nova Scotia -- like former Blue Jacket Jody Shelley, he's a member of the province's Sport Hall of Fame -- MacLean is just the latest addition for a franchise looking to get to the next level. That in and of itself was noticed by Blue Jackets players.  

"It shows the coaches and management are constantly looking for ways to get better, just like us as players," Foligno said. "We're always looking to try to improve our game, and it seems like they're doing that as well. You respect that and you see that they're never satisfied and are humble enough to know that they need to bring a guy in. It just makes us that much more of a solid group, and I'm sure he'll bring a lot to the table." 

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