Stats, video and objective measures can only tell you so much. Sometimes, the hockey whisperer has to go with his gut.
Ask the men who play for Ottawa Senators head coach Paul MacLean, and they’ll tell you his competitive advantage boils down to a willing ear and a Maritimer’s gift of gab.
“He’s got a good feeling for when to talk to you and when not to, and what to say at certain points,” defenceman Erik Karlsson said.
When the Senators’ playoff push was in danger of stalling in late March, MacLean had a meeting with key veterans after a road loss in Montreal, and, mostly, he listened.
“Paul wanted to know what we were feeling, what the mood of the dressing room was … he’s done a great job of having that relationship with us,” forward Jason Spezza said.
The Senators duly spun off four wins in a row.
In his first season as an NHL bench boss, the man from Antigonish, N.S., has taken a 13th-placed squad and fashioned it into a playoff team. He should earn a coach of the year nomination for his trouble.
Asked if his roots had anything to do with his ability to communicate with his charges, MacLean said: “Well, when you go to the ceilidh, you can’t just sit around and listen to the fiddle.”
MacLean and his staff have righted the Senators ship with communication, teaching and a dash of old-school motivating. As team captain Daniel Alfredsson put it recently: “He’s done a great job of making everybody feel part of this group.”
In conversation, MacLean cites the influence of his father and hometown minor-hockey coach, Irving McGibbon, he credits Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, under whom he served as an assistant for nine years, with helping him understand how to handle today’s NHL players.
“They want to be invested in what you’re doing, they want to know why you’re doing it, and if you can show them how you’re going to be successful, it’s way easier to demand the expectation that they do it,” MacLean said.
Born on an Canadian Forces base near Grostenquin, France, in 1958 – he moved to Nova Scotia as a child – the winger really made his name in Winnipeg, where he had three 40-goal seasons alongside Dale Hawerchuk.
“I understand how hard it is to get here, but I also understand what it’s like to be the everyday player that’s expected to score … I don’t think that pressure has changed. I think that gives me a little bit more of an insight on how to approach the players – I’ve handled that. Poorly at times, and well at times,” MacLean said.
Familiarity is also a factor for MacLean, who worked for Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray as an assistant coach in Anaheim. His relationship with assistant coach Mark Reeds stretches back to their playing days with the 1980-81 Salt Lake Golden Eagles of the old Central Hockey League. (Reeds would later room with a youngster named Claude Julien and play with another named Alain Vigneault.)
That was also the season MacLean met Dave Cameron, another of his assistants, who was playing for the CHL’s Indianapolis Checkers. Perhaps that closeness has encouraged MacLean to embrace a philosophy that swims against the prevailing tides of the new NHL.
“I don’t think you can just defend your way to the Stanley Cup, you have to be able to score your way to the Stanley Cup,” he said.
To that end, MacLean has preached a system based on quick transitions, aggressive fore-checking and lots of skating. The result: Ottawa was fourth in the NHL in scoring this season. MacLean’s approach has paid spectacular dividends for players such as Spezza, who finished fourth in scoring, and Karlsson, who at 21 has put up Norris Trophy-worthy numbers.
“[Maclean]has a good way of explaining it to everyone and letting everyone know what he expects of them and what he wants them to do out there,” said Karlsson, who had 78 points in the regular season.
MacLean, whose penchant for having four players on every offensive rush has helped make Karlsson nearly impossible to defend, also has a novel approach to mistakes: he doesn’t automatically punish them with reduced ice time.
“He teaches you when you do things wrong, but at the same time, gives you the confidence to go back out and play your game by learning from your mistakes, as opposed to being scared to make mistakes,” centre Kyle Turris said. “The biggest thing a coach can do is create confidence … he’s done a great job of that.”