|Senators head coach Paul MacLean is all smiles about his team's future in the wake of their seven-game playoff ouster at the hands of the heavily-favoured New York Rangers (Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).
September can't come soon enough for Paul MacLean.
In the minutes after his first season behind the Senators bench ended in heartbreaking fashion, the Ottawa head coach couldn't help thinking about getting started all over again. About continuing to build on a campaign that saw his team come remarkably close to authoring a shocker of a first-round Stanley Cup playoff upset.
"We're real excited going home and looking forward to next year," a smiling MacLean said in the wake of Thursday's 2-1 setback at the hands of the New York Rangers and the seventh and deciding game of what turned out to be a highly competitive Eastern quarter-final that matched the conference's first and eighth-seeded teams.
"I'm really looking forward to getting back to work (in training camp) and getting ready to go."
It's difficult to imagine the series between the Senators and Blueshirts being any tighter. Five of the seven games were decided by a single goal, with New York outscoring Ottawa 14-13 overall. And the Rangers were hanging on by their fingernails as the Senators pressed hard for the tying goal in the dying minutes on Thursday night, with a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden barely able to catch its breath.
Afterward, MacLean was clearly filled with pride about the efforts of a group that started out the season 1-5-0 and was outscored 30-15 in the process — looking very much like the team many experts predicted would wind up near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. But by Thursday night, when they'd emptied their tanks at the 'world's most famous arena,' the Senators made it obvious they'd taken some huge strides since that woeful beginning.
"We're real excited about our team and the steps that we took this season (after) how we started," said MacLean, who is rightly among the top contenders for the Jack Adams Award, presented annually to the National Hockey League's coach of the year (the three finalists will be unveiled on Monday). "We talked all season long about building blocks and building a foundation of winning. In the last month, I thought we really grew as a team and had some real good growth within our group."
As a first-year NHL head coach, MacLean and assistants Dave Cameron and Mark Reeds needed time to figure out exactly what they had on hand in terms of talent. What they quickly discovered was that — in captain Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Chris Phillips and Chris Neil — the necessary veteran leadership core was rock solid. Over the course of the season, young talents such as Colin Greening, Zack Smith, Erik Condra and mid-season trade acquisition Kyle Turris showed they'll be important parts of the Senators' future.
Blueliner Erik Karlsson, with a breakout 78-point season, gave every indication he's on the verge of superstar status. In the playoffs, MacLean and Co. got a first-hand glimpse at forward prospects Jakob Silfverberg and Mark Stone, and both gave evidence of why Senators hockey management is so high on their future. And there are more on the way, most notably Mika Zibanejad, the team's top pick (sixth overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
"I'm really excited about the players we have and the growth we saw in players like (20-year-old defenceman Jared) Cowen and Karlsson and Kyle Turris. I thought Silfverberg was a really good player and showed some good stuff. Mark Stone came in and played real good. Alfie was outstanding. (Nick) Foligno grew. The whole team grew a little bit.
"For me, it's just exciting to look down the road at the players we have. If we continue to do our job and make sure we continue to grow as a group and make everybody accountable, we're going to be smiling one day."
The grit and character the Senators showed against a heavily-favoured Rangers team also adds to that optimism. MacLean is eager to keep building on it.
"When you get near the end of the season and into the playoffs, that's when you find out who can operate under pressure, and who can make plays and do things when you're really under the gun. In the last 4-5 games of the regular season, until we clinched a playoff spot ... and in these seven playoff games, I think we learned tons about ourselves as players and coaches.
"The combination of all of that is going to make us better down the road and we look forward to that opportunity."