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MacLean's Sens debut receives NHL recognition

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Paul MacLean is just the second Senators bench boss to be nominated for the Jack Adams Award, presented annually to the NHL's coach of the year. Jacques Martin was a winner in 1999 (Getty Images).

Paul MacLean readily admits he's got a tough act to follow now.

In his first season behind the Ottawa bench, the native of Antigonish, N.S., took the reins of a Senators team that entered the 2011-12 campaign with little in the way of expectations and guided it within one goal of shocking the New York Rangers — the Eastern Conference's top outfit during the regular season — in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

For all of that and more, the 54-year-old MacLean was named today one of the finalists for the Jack Adams Award, presented annually to the National Hockey League's coach of the year. Also in the running for the honour, which is voted upon by NHL broadcasters, are Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues and the Rangers' John Tortorella.

MacLean, a longtime NHL assistant under Mike Babcock with both the Detroit Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks, is the second Senators bench boss to be nominated for the Adams award. He follows in the footsteps of Jacques Martin, who was a two-time finalist and won it in 1999 — the only Ottawa coach to previously earn that distinction.

“My initial reaction is that this is a little bit humbling,” MacLean said on a conference call with reporters. “Taking this position, you didn’t really do it for this (recognition). The first thing that comes to mind is the play of our players and how well they took direction, how hard they worked as a group to make the team have success and individuals have success.

“The coaching staff (assistants Dave Cameron, Mark Reeds and Luke Richardson, along with goaltending coach Rick Wamsley and video coach Tim Pattyson) did a lion’s share of the work and I basically stood in front and took all the credit, but I think it’s a credit to our coaching staff and organization.”

As for finding himself in a group with Tortorella — who won the Jack Adams Award in 2004, the year he guided the Tampa Bay Lightning to that franchise's first Stanley Cup triumph — and Hitchcock, now a four-time finalist, MacLean simply said "I've got a long way to go to catch up to those guys."

The Senators, who missed the playoffs a year ago, entered the season admittedly in the early stages of a rebuilding process. Many pre-season predictions suggested the team would finish near the bottom of the East, with almost nobody suggested it was a playoff-worthy group. And when Ottawa got off to a 1-5-0 start and was outscored 30-15 — they twice gave up "touchdowns", as MacLean often put it in his folksy way — it seemed to validate all of that.

But MacLean, a standout player with the Winnipeg Jets in the 1980s, and assistants Cameron and Reeds worked diligently at their plan to "build a foundation" for future success and brought it to fruition much sooner than many outside the team expected. MacLean's abilities as a communicator resonated strongly with his players, who bought into the plan completely. He also involved the team's leaders in some of the decision making process.

"He's played the game," said Senators centre Jason Spezza. "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've been all on the same page together all year and I think that's what made it successful for us."

Added forward Nick Foligno: "You feel more like a team and feel like you're giving more input on how the game's going because we're the ones who go out there and play. We kind of have a different feel for the game than he does, so he understands that having played himself. It's been really good that way."

True to that sentiment, MacLean took little in the credit for the Senators' eighth-place finish in the East — or the Adams nomination that has followed.

But count Senators owner Eugene Melnyk among those who believe MacLean was a huge difference maker in his first year on the job, and his Jack Adams Award nomination is "well-deserved."

"I can't think of a single player — and I've talked to virtually every one of them — that (won't tell you) they see it as a completely different dressing room. This is a coach, a teacher and a mentor. He knows when to be tough and when to be the educator, and that's what coaching is really about. And he's got two great assistants in Dave and Mark, plus his whole team.

"So that is a well-deserved nomination and that, in itself, is already an award for someone who's taken over a team from scratch and moved it to where we are today."

For both MacLean and the Senators, this season's surprise will quick turn into next year's higher expectations. And the man who'll direct at all is very aware of that coming turn of events.

"I'm real proud of the fact that I got to be a head coach in the National Hockey League and I got to coach the Ottawa Senators and had that opportunity," MacLean said over the weekend. "I guess I give myself credibility and can say that I can do this. Now the hard part is to do it again. I remember when I scored 30 goals for the first time and I was all pumped up about it. And one of the old guys, Floyd Thomson, said to me 'now you've got to do it again.' And I feel the same way today.

"That's a motivator and it also scares me to death, because I know how hard it is and it's hard to do. But I'm looking forward to it and I'm excited about September and getting back here for training camp and getting started again."

MacLean becomes the third Senators team member to be nominated for one of the NHL's main awards. Previously, captain Daniel Alfredsson was named a finalist for the Bill Masterton Trophy, which goes to the player is best exemplifies sportsmanship, perseverance and dedication to hockey, while Erik Karlsson is a finalist for the James Norris Trophy, which goes to the league's top defenceman.

All the trophy winners will be revealed June 20 during the NHL Awards ceremony in Las Vegas.

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