Sabres Coaching Search Profile: Paul MacLean
The Sabres are in need of a head coach, so we'll detail some of the top candidates for the position. Today it's former Senators head coach Paul MacLean.
Last NHL job: Ottawa Senators head coach (2011-15)
Biggest accomplishments: 2013 Jack Adams Award winner
NHL Head Coaching record: 114-90-35 (.550 win%)
Connection to Tim Murray: Assistant in Anaheim while Murray was the Ducks' Director of Player Personnel, hired by the Senators during Murray's time as Ottawa's assistant GM
Two years ago Paul MacLean was named the league's top coach. Now, he's out of a job. Did Tim Murray like what he saw while the two were with the Senators and Ducks enough to give him another chance?
MacLean is a man who has coached for a long time, at many different levels. The 11-year NHL vet got his start as the head coach the Peoria Rivermen when the team was in the IHL in 1993. His teams were incredibly successful in the regular season, winning 51 of their 81 games in both of his two seasons seasons.
In 1996 MacLean joined Don Hay's staff for the inaugural season of the Phoenix Coyotes. The Coyotes didn't have a terrible debut, finishing 38-37-7 in their first year in the desert, but decided to let Hay and his staff go after one season.
MacLean returned to the IHL as the head coach of the Kansas City Blades following his release. He spent three seasons in Kansas City, making the playoffs twice. In 2000 he moved to the now defunct United Hockey League to coach the Quad City Ducks (no relation to the ECHL team with the same name). He led Quad City to their second straight title in his first year behind the bench. He lost in the second round in his second season.
In 2002 he'd return to the NHL as an assistant. This time, he stuck. The Sabres didn't get Mike Babcock. How about hiring someone who coached under him for eight years instead?
MacLean joined Babcock's first NHL staff in Anaheim, then when Babcock left after two seasons followed him to Detroit. He coached the Ducks team that lost in the Stanley Cup in 2003 and won the Stanley Cup in 2008. He'd stay alongside Babcock until taking the Senators job. He missed the playoffs only once, his second season in Anaheim, during this run.
MacLean was named the Senators head coach on December 14, 2011, his first and only NHL head coaching job thus far. Their general manager Bryan Murray and Tim Murray were both with the Ducks during MacLean's time as an assistant.
His team in 2011-12 was much improved from the year prior, winning nine more games and making the playoffs. The Senators took the first seeded New York Rangers to game seven, but were unable to complete the upset. MacLean was nominated for the Jack Adams Award, which was won by Ken Hitchcock that season.
The Senators took another step forward in 2012-13, winning 25 games in the lockout shortened season. Ottawa defeated the second-seeded and hated rival Montreal Canadiens in the first round. They lost to the Penguins in five games in the second round.
There weren't enormous expectations placed on the Senators, who lost Jason Spezza for all but five games and Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson for half the season. At the center of their success was a new emerging youth core. Kyle Turris led the team in scoring. Mika Zibanejad and Jakub Silferberg were fourth and fifth.
In his third season MacLean would fail to make the playoffs for the first time, missing by just five points. After an 11-11-5 start this season the Senators fired the former Jack Adams winner. Bryan Murray said the firing was due to consistent turnover trouble and a lack of communication between the coach and his players. The Senators replaced him with assistant Dave Cameron, who the Senators owner specifically hoped to promote to assistant when MacLean was originally hired. Cameron never wore the interim tag, as he was named the head coach immediately.
There were rumors during the season that the Devils would hire MacLean following the dismissal of Peter DeBoer within the month. Rich Chere of NJ.com even reported that he'd be introduced as New Jersey's head coach only two weeks after his firing in Ottawa. Obviously that never happened, as the Devils decided to run with the combination of Adam Oates and Scott Stevens instead.
Bruce Garrioch reported on Monday that no one had asked the Senators for permission to talk to either MacLean or Binghamton Senators coach Luke Richardson.
Q&A with a Senators Expert
We talked to Silver Seven Sens writer Ary about MacLean's time in Ottawa.
1. How would you describe MacLean's coaching style?
When MacLean was hired back in 2011, it was primarily for three reasons: 1) he's a winner, 2) he came from a fantastic system (Detroit), and 3) he was a fantastic communicator for young players, really relating to them as a former player himself. I'd say that for the first two years of his tenure, Ottawa got exactly that - he took a ‘meh' roster to the playoffs twice and helped young talent like Erik Karlsson and Kyle Turris blossom into the players they are today.
That all fell apart last year, and there's been a ton of rumors floating around about MacLean being closed off, not communicating on how his players need to improve, a rift with some leaders, etc. From my understanding, MacLean is a smart thinker and always gave interesting post-game answers. If the Sens lost but outshot/outchanced their opponent, he would cite attempt (Corsi) numbers and say that the team is doing the right things. He was also clearly frustrated that the team couldn't play to the system that he wanted, with some of the defenders on the team saying that new coach Dave Cameron simplified things dramatically, making it easier in the defensive zone.
2. What are his strengths and weaknesses?
MacLean's strengths are his offensive systems. The Senators were consistently an offensive threat and played a high-event game. Sure, there was some skill on this team with Spezza, Alfie, and Karlsson, but young players from the Sens AHL team could consistently come up and contribute in some manner under MacLean. Of course, high-event hockey also flows the other way as well, and MacLean's weakness tactically are his defensive systems. Some of this is personnel, with the Senators D corps being underwhelming due to bad veterans and underperforming young talent, but the Senators gave up a ton of shots every single season under MacLean. The team was generally a positive possession team under MacLean, meaning that their offensive performance was a bit better than their poor defensive game, but it's still something that needs to be remedied if the Sabres would like to be contenders.
3. The Senators took a serious step forward in each of his first two years in Ottawa, going from missing the playoffs the year prior to losing in the first round his first year and losing in the second round his second year. What made MacLean's teams so successful early on?
This is a really interesting question, and I don't know if there's a definitive answer I can give you. MacLean's ‘fun' style was a drastic change compared to the always growling Cory Clouston, and the young players took to the leash he gave to offensive creativity. Two players in particular that helped the team to their surprise Eastern conference playoff spot were Jason Spezza, who was the league's 4th leading scorer, and Erik Karlsson won his first Norris despite playing with Filip Kuba, a guy who was out of the league a year later. It also helped that the Sens farm team, Binghamton, won the Calder Cup in 2010-11, so the best players from that squad came up with the Sens and performed admirably in depth roles throughout the lineup. It's hard to tease out how much of the "putting young players in important positions" philosophy was from the organization, as Ottawa was just beginning their rebuild, and how much of it was MacLean, but he surely pressed the right buttons and put players in the right spots.
The lockout season was even more impressive, which is why MacLean won the Jack Adams, because the Senators had a ton of key injuries: Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza, Craig Anderson just to name a few. In a shortened season though, goaltending can win many games, and Anderson put up a .941 in his 24 games, Lehner put up a .936 in his 12, and Bishop a .922 in his 13 before he was traded. Three highly touted tenders can cover up a lot of defensive mistakes, and I felt like this was surely the case this year. MacLean deserves credit for motivating his team to never give up, but it's hard to know how much influence he had beyond that. One creative coaching solution that showcases his analytical side was when Erik Karlsson went down, the team called up Eric Gryba, a defensive defensemen, to play top-pair minutes with Karlsson's usual partner, Marc Methot. MacLean buried the two of them and opened up offensive minutes for the second pair of Patrick Wiercioch and Sergei Gonchar, which ended up being a great move instead of having a really good pair (Methot - Gonchar) and a bunch of nothing.
4. It seems that many strong prospects developed in Ottawa during his time there, players like Turris, Zibanejad and Silfverberg. Did MacLean like using his young players in key situations?
I alluded to this before, but I guess my answer is: yes, MacLean liked using his young players in key situations. How much of that was him and how much of that was pressure from the organization to play their young players is unknown to me. He does deserve a lot of credit for NOT bottling up Erik Karlsson, though. MacLean could've easily been like Michel Therrien and punish Karlsson (like MT did to Subban) for offensively risky plays. Instead, Karlsson was thrust out there no matter what and his mistakes were "lived with" because the team knew his offensive ability was otherworldly.
5. MacLean had really an incredible fall from grace, from two-time Jack Adams candidate and one time winner to getting fired two years later. What changed?
I'm going to be shameless and self-promote a piece I wrote two weeks before MacLean was let go, on how MacLean loved to set up roles based on expectations which might've been unfairly put on certain players.
In short, MacLean often played lesser skilled players like Zack Smith, Chris Neil, Chris Phillips way more than they should've been played, likely because a) coaches hate risk and these players usually make the safe play, even though it might cost them in the long run and b) it's easier for ‘veterans' and ‘grinders' to do their jobs (be safe) than it is for skilled players to put the puck in the net.
Some potential rumours floating around was MacLean being unfair during practices, not being open with his players regarding what they had to do to be better, a rift between him and former Captain Jason Spezza, and not involving his assistant coaches much, but it's really hard to say how much of this is true because all of this only came out after he was fired.
6. What was the sentiment in Ottawa when MacLean was fired?
The staff at Silver Seven had an ‘Email Hotstove' with our immediate thoughts after MacLean was fired, and frankly, it was a bit of a mixed bag. There were a lot of reasons to like Paulrus (our affectionate term for MacLean due to his moustache and the Brandon Prust comments from the 2013 Sens-habs series), as he was charismatic, had success here, and seemed to be a smart thinker. It also didn't help that his replacement, Dave Cameron, is someone that owner Eugene Melnyk personally selected for a role as MacLean's assistant in 2011, leading to a lot of skepticism. People also didn't blame MacLean and instead, took it out on the roster and Ottawa's budget issues. For those in favour of firing MacLean, the evidence was centered around the team's disappointing start (~47% Corsi instead of the usual 51-52%), second chances being given to players who didn't deserve one (Jared Cowen, Chris Phillips, Zack Smith, and the rift in the room (wrote about excellently here).
7. The Senators went on their late season tear this year to make the playoffs. How much of that was really on Dave Cameron, or was it simply having hot goaltending in Hammond?
Make no mistake, what Andrew Hammond did was miraculous and record-breaking. It was the most unlikely events of all the unlikely events: a barely AHL-calibre free agent signee out of Bowling Green taking the disgruntled Senators, 14 points out at one point, into the playoffs. Now Hammond's save percentage, especially to get the team going in California, was through the roof, but by the time April rolled around, Hammond was regularly posting NHL average numbers of .910-.915 nightly.
Despite this, the Senators kept winning, and a lot of that is Cameron using his lines right (giving Mika Zibanejad consistent second line minutes) and getting a stable second pair (Patrick Wiercioch instead of Chris Phillips, Jared Cowen). The big question we're asking ourselves here is how much of this was intentional, as the Senators were also lucky by having their objectively worst players (Phillips, Neil, Smith, Cowen) being injured for a significant period of time, forcing the younger, better players into prime roles. It's a good sign that many of these players were healthy scratches in the playoffs in favor of the youngest, least experienced lineup (average age: 26) because it means that Cameron isn't afraid to go all-in with skill. The Senators were notably better in the offensive zone with a really aggressive forecheck and good back check presence, but despite a simpler defensive system, the Senators still gave up ~31 shots a night, which will have to change. Next season will be a fun experiment though!