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MacLean's hiring was game changer for Senators

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Paul MacLean waited more than a decade before landing his first NHL head coaching job and he's already making the most of it behind the bench with the Senators (Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).

Twelve months ago, he spoke with enthusiasm about finally getting a chance to be a head coach in the National Hockey League.

A year later, this much surely must be said — June 14, 2011 was indeed a game-changing date, not only in the hockey life of Paul MacLean, but for the fortunes of the Ottawa Senators. It’s an organization that can speak today of a much brighter future than before the day general manager Bryan Murray introduced MacLean as the franchise’s 10th head coach.

On that afternoon at Scotiabank Place, the first question MacLean fielded from the media concerned a certain curiosity that soon became one of his trademarks — his bushy mustache. But by season’s end, talk about ‘The ’Stache’ took a back seat to the coaching job that MacLean did in turning the Senators from a pre-season also-ran in many eyes into an outfit that pushed the Eastern Conference-champion New York Rangers to the limit in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“It goes without saying that Paul was the catalyst for what happened here,” Murray said in assessing the Senators’ massive turnaround (an 18-point jump from 2010-11). “He brought a professionalism with his staff. He allowed the players — a lot of veteran players, in particular — to achieve what they’re capable of achieving. He included them, he gave them some ownership of the team … his game plan, on a nightly basis, gave the guys a chance (to win).”

The post-season was supposed to be nothing but a pipedream for this group, or so the ‘experts’ said. But with MacLean showing the way, the Senators grew into contenders in a hurry, maybe even much quicker than some of his bosses expected. His efforts were surely noticed around the league, with the man from Antigonish, N.S., being named one of the finalists for the Jack Adams Award, presented annually to the NHL’s top coach.

"It's a tremendous honour to be nominated with (Ken) Hitchcock and (John) Tortorella," said MacLean, who'll learn whether he's won the honour at the 2012 NHL Awards on Wednesday in Las Vegas (8 p.m., CBC). "They're two great coaches and, in my first year as head coach, it's a great compliment not only to me but to our entire organization."

It’s a nomination that would no doubt be endorsed in just about every corner of the Senators dressing room.

“He’s played the game,” centre Jason Spezza said of MacLean, a former star with the original Winnipeg Jets in the 1980s. “He knows the ups and downs that go with it and knows we can get frustrated at times, and we know he can get frustrated. It sounds corny, but we (were) all on the same page together all year and I think that’s what made it successful for us.”

Said Murray: “The thing with Paul is, he communicates. He’s a guy who understands what it is like to be a player in the league and he listens, interacts with them, trusts them … and they trust him. He has a little fun with the game because it is a game, and the end result is a real good harmony on the team.”

"He’s played the game. He knows the ups and downs that go with it and knows we can get frustrated at times, and we know he can get frustrated. It sounds corny, but we (were) all on the same page together all year and I think that’s what made it successful for us." - Jason Spezza

From the day the 54-year-old MacLean was hired, he spoke about wanting his team to “get a little bit better every day.” That and building a foundation for long-term success were his mantras throughout his first season on the job, and it can be said now that he’s succeeded on both counts. The Jack Adams nomination is further evidence of that.

"To be nominated is a real stamp of (approval), not only for myself but for a coaching staff that had three first-year coaches on it as well. What it does for us is it establishes ourselves as a good coaching staff in the National Hockey League. If we win the trophy, we're going to have a good time with it."

MacLean’s time was a long time in coming, indeed. He spent eight seasons directing teams in the minors before joining Mike Babcock’s staff as an NHL assistant in both Anaheim and Detroit — a stretch that covered another eight years, and included a Stanley Cup triumph with the Red Wings in 2008.

Along the way, MacLean leaned heavily on a quality that continues to keep him in good stead in Ottawa — even if he’ll tell you it took a few years to acquire.

“When I was a kid, I wasn’t a very patient kid,” said MacLean, who was a finalist for the Columbus Blue Jackets job a year before joining the Senators. “My dad always told me ‘you need to be patient, you need to be patient.’ Finally, at some point in time, I learned about patience and how helpful it can be to you.

“I’ve tried to be patient in getting to this position in the National Hockey League and now that I’m here, I’m not going to be in a big hurry to leave.”

His second season figures to be an even bigger challenge because of one word — expectations.

"The difficult part for us now is we have expectations," said MacLean. "We didn't have them last year. Our expectations starting out were (to finish) 15th. Anything above that was an upgrade. Now the expectations for our team and our group have changed, and I think that's real healthy and real good. That's what we wanted, to raise the expectations for our group and make sure that we responded.

"Now it's up to us to work hard this summer and ... make sure we're ready to respond to what's coming up. We're not sneaking up on anybody (next season). It's our job as a coaching staff to make sure our team is comfortable and ready to work every day."

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