Six hires before Paul MacLean, there was a man who served as head coach of the Ottawa Senators for just two games.
His name was Roger Neilson and the Senators gave their assistant coach, who was fighting cancer, the courtesy of reaching the 1,000-game level by having him act as head coach for two games, a win and a loss, in the spring of 2002.
It was Neilson, who died a year later, who left behind one of the irreversible laws of coaching, a lesson he had learned while coaching the likes of Mark Messier in New York and Brett Hull in St. Louis: "Your highly skilled superstars can take a lot of time, and they often take special treatment – but the point is, if you don't get along with them, it's going to cost you your job."
In retrospect, it is worth looking again at the Senators' Sunday evening match against the Vancouver Canucks. Not at the score – though Ottawa's 4-3 victory in overtime was a magnificent comeback from being down 3-0 – but at a heated exchange during the game between the head coach and the head player, captain Erik Karlsson. Neither would say what was said; there is no need to know.
MacLean had been pegged for dismissal for more than a week. The Senators were in a five-game skid, the prospects of a playoff berth were dimming and the players were making little secret of their growing dislike of their coach.
This is hardly news in sport. If you're winning, as in Scotty Bowman, the players are welcome to hate you all they wish; you've nothing to fear. If you're losing, the players can turn on you or, more usually, simply turn off.
General manager Bryan Murray, who gave MacLean the news at 9:30 a.m. Monday morning, admitted to not being amused by MacLean's weekend comment in Pittsburgh, where Ottawa lost its fifth in a row, that he was "scared to death" of whom they were playing – something he has often said – but now equally scared of who he was putting out to play.
"Maybe it was in jest," Murray said. "or maybe he didn't believe in the players."
At the end of last season, when MacLean's team failed to reach the playoffs, Murray had expressed his disappointment and said, tellingly, that the players were telling him they wanted "the old Paul" back. The new Paul, in the first season after winning the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's top coach, had changed in their opinion, becoming far more hardline.
"Some of the better players felt singled out a little too often," Murray told a news conference Monday afternoon.
The GM said the organization decided to give the 56-year-old MacLean another chance and re-evaluate after 20 games. It was not that bad, then, but recently the team's prospects had worsened. Murray, himself struggling with cancer treatment, decided to act after talking it over with several players.
"I've had some tough days lately," he said. "This is one of them."
Murray says he believes he has not underestimated his players, that the much-maligned defence is not nearly so bad as advertised. He accepts that any success the team has had is largely due to the high-standard goaltending of Craig Anderson, but he believes the team can improve on its fore-check and puck movement, as well as on cutting down on the scoring chances they give up to opposing teams.
Murray further claimed that Sunday's win may have been directly connected to falling behind 3-0, that the players threw structure into the stands and just "played."
"Our players have to have fun," he said. "It's a game."
Since Murray took the Senators to the Stanley Cup final in 2007, he has hired and fired John Paddock, Craig Hartsburg, Cory Clouston and now MacLean. His fifth hire is a promotion – assistant Dave Cameron is now taking over the head coach position.
Cameron has long been a favourite of team owner Eugene Melnyk, as he once coached Melnyk's junior team, the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors. Cameron, 56, is a former NHL player and had previously been head coach of the Senators' AHL team in Binghamton, N.Y.
He is best known, however, as coach of the Canadian team that so dramatically lost the World Junior Championship in Buffalo in 2011. In the gold-medal game, Cameron's team took a 3-0 lead into the third period, only to be outcoached by Russia's Valeri Bragin, who fired up his team between periods, changed his goaltender and watched as his young squad scored five straight goals to steal the championship from Canada. Critics thought Cameron froze under pressure, failing to call a timeout when he should have and leaving shell-shocked Canadian goaltender Mark Visentin in net to suffer the humiliation.
Cameron now inherits an Ottawa Senators team with an 11-11-5 record and a GM who believes there remains time to take a run at a playoff spot.
He also inherits some remarkable underachievers, chief among them Milan Michalek, who signed a three-year, $12-million (U.S.) deal in July and has all of two goals this season. Colin Greening, on a deal that pays him $2.65-million a year, has zero points and has proved unplayable. Bobby Ryan, the superstar signed to a seven-year, $50.75-million contract extension in the summer, has but five goals – but may be awakening following his three assists against the Canucks.
There is much work to be done and, as always, much discussion as to how much can be done by a coaching change, which is essentially the only tool available to a GM in midseason.
As Bob (Badger) Johnson, another great and late coach, once said, "There are times when I may as well be up in the stands, having a cup of coffee with the press, for all the control I have."