Not every player fits the mould of the Ottawa Senator that Paul MacLean became “scared to death of,” but it is a truism in the National Hockey League: Other than the greats, or that stay-at-home stalwart who rarely takes a chance and never makes a mistake, the more we see of our players the less we tend to like them.
How many times has a fan base tired of one player’s signature mistake? But then, upon his trade, warmly welcome a guy whose original team had become every bit as sick of his signature mistake? There are no perfect players, except for the new ones.
It happens with fans, it happens with general managers, and it happened to former Ottawa Senators head coach Paul MacLean. Before a game against Pittsburgh, he was asked which he feared most: A hot Sidney Crosby, or a cold Sidney Crosby?
“All I know is I’m scared to death no matter who we’re playing,” MacLean said. “Whether it’s Sidney Crosby or John Tavares or the Sedins, I go day-by-day and I’m just scared to death every day of who we’re playing.
“And sometimes,” he quipped, “I’m scared to death of who I’m playing (in his own lineup).”
That, hockey fans, was a huge tell. It was a variation on a line I have had countless coaches say to me in conversation. If you were to raise your pen to your notepad however, those coaches would request it to be off the record.
MacLean said it to a group of media knowing full well that it would be disseminated. He had stopped caring what people think.
That was Saturday. The next day his general manager met with ownership to confer over the decision, and on Monday GM Bryan Murray fired MacLean.
“That sent a loud message to me, whether it was in jest or otherwise, that he didn’t believe in the group,” Murray said of the quote in question.
How did Murray know that those words were a sign of something bad? We’ve known Murray for a long time. He would have said the same thing — in jest and in private — if he truly felt that way about his club. Probably has before.
In the end, the cold, hard evidence is that the Senators have begun to regress under MacLean, who had them into Round 2 of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs and won the Jack Adams for his efforts. But last year they fell back seven places in the NHL’s overall standings, to 21st, missed the playoffs, and one-third of the way though the current season the Senators are 20th and treading water.
“I’m not sure why we came up short, but we came up short,” Murray said. “We’re sitting seventh in our division. We continue to be a big turnover team in our own zone.
“The chances against our team some nights are atrocious. There is an obligation for a lot of people to perform better, but the leader of the pack is the coach. He’s the guy who has to assemble a system that allows you to be good in you own zone, good defensively.”
The Senators have outshot their opponent in just six of 21 games this season and hold the seventh-worst Corsi For percentage in the NHL. Murray attributes that to a flawed breakout, and the GM clearly tired of seeing the same troubles exiting the Ottawa zone over the past season-and-a-third.
“I don’t think our defence is that bad. I don’t think a couple of young guys have been brought along,” he said, referencing Jared Cowan and Cody Ceci. The forwards were continually jumping the zone, Murray complained, leaving the defencemen with low-percentage hope passes. “Forwards can’t disappear,” he said. “That’s why our turnovers are so atrocious in so many games.”
On top of it all, Murray had firsthand information that MacLean had lost his best player in Jason Spezza, from the many conversations between Murray, Spezza and Spezza’s agent last season, when Murray was pleading with Spezza to sign long-term in Ottawa. Spezza would not acquiesce to staying with the organization that drafted him, and Murray had to make the impossible deal, trying to recoup whatever he could as he shipped his best player to Dallas. Ales Hemsky would follow in the off-season, which may or may not be a blessing for incoming coach Dave Cameron.
Somehow MacLean had changed in Ottawa, which Murray did not deny on Monday. At last season’s year-end press conference, Murray had lamented, “The players like the old Paul. They liked the Paul who sat and talked to them, who treated them in a more easygoing fashion. Who taught, not confronted. There were some mistakes made, obviously. You don’t go to some of your better players early in the year and expect change. The change is usually in the negative form.”
Somehow, MacLean had lost his touch, and that had to scare the heck out of Murray. What if he lost Erik Karlsson? Then what?
An old football coach once told me that when it ends for a coach, it is almost always due to the same two maladies — illness and fatigue.
In the end, the Ottawa Senators were sick and tired of Paul MacLean, and he of them.