Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Vindication of Paul MacLean

The stingiest team in the NHL now has the most expensive front office. That is the reality of the Ottawa Senators after the players banded together against their award-winning coach. Instead of rallying around Paul MacLean and venting their frustration on the opposition, the Sens looked inwardly, scapegoating one of the few people in the club who cared more about their fortunes in the standings than at the box office. The mob now rules the bench in Canada's capital.

That is the scene in Ottawa as Bryan Murray begins the honeymoon with the fifth coach in his tenure as the Sens' GM, newly-promoted head coach Dave Cameron gets used to having his chin resting on the guillotine, and Paul MacLean wears the blame for the club's many misdealings and deficiencies.

Looking back, MacLean must've seen this decision coming, and he may even have welcomed it. For his entire tenure in Ottawa, he's been caught in a corporate nightmare: every year he's told that he's expected to outdo his previous accomplishments; every year the organization continues to downsize. MacLean is essentially the hapless victim of the Senators' unofficial de-build.

When Paul the Improbable took over the Sens in the off-season of 2011, no one expected them to be a playoff team. Somehow, MacLean took a club that finished last in its division and 13th in the Eastern Conference in 2010-2011, and helped it finish second in the division and eighth in the conference in the 2011-2012 campaign. Miracle MacLean outdid that astounding finish by taking a team that had been absolutely savaged by injuries in 2013 (including the infamous Matt Cooke incident) and leading it into the second round of the playoffs.

Then the Sens missed the playoffs entirely in the 2013-14 season, and suddenly Eugene Melnyk et al. began to suspect that they had a coaching problem. Never mind the fact that the team lost its longest serving captain in the most acrimonious NHL break up in recent history. Never mind the fact that last summer they traded Jason Spezza and replaced him with no one. ("No one" is the polite way of not insulting everyone involved by suggesting that David Legwand was supposed to replace the club's superstar centre.) Never mind the fact that a team that shed stars quicker than the Perseids was also trading draft picks in order to acquire Ales Hemsky as a rental for a feeble playoff push.

The Sens are an enigma. Management wants to be at the top of the standings while being at the bottom of the NHL's payroll bracket. The scrimp-and-save Sens have recently spent each stingy off-season worsening the roster, and yet management still expects the same level of success as when they invested in players. How can they point fingers behind the bench when they've gotten what they've paid for: a middling group of forwards that does not yet have a single double-digit goalscorer among their ranks this season, and a dysfunctional group of defensemen?

But that's not how managements sees things. The real problem for this club, if we're to believe its spokesmen, is that the former coach had "lost the room."

That's an awfully cheeky thing to say since the room was essentially gutted through poor personnel moves. MacLean must've been bewildered to see Murray haphazardly remodel the dressing room in order to make the roster more cost effective. Given these circumstances, alienating what players remained seems justifiable. If I were Paul MacLean, I'd respond to whoever approached me after missing the 2014 playoffs and whined about wanting "the old Paul back" by telling them that I wanted the old Sens back. You know, the scrappy team that defied all postseason prognostications in back-to-back seasons. Those guys could play.

And it seems that MacLean basically did just that when discussing the terror he felt when being forced to use substandard players this season. That may be the way things are, but that's not what management wants to hear, and so MacLean was dismissed for pointing out the obvious. In case it wasn't clear already, being a yes-man is now part of the job description for the position of the Sens' head coach.

Based on Murray's remarks, MacLean's public castigation of his group was a big part of the factors that necessitated the firing. Had the coach been pampering his players with platitudes instead of casting aspersions on their credentials, he would probably still be behind the Sens' bench right now.

However, that explanation seems unconvincing since less than a week before the firing, the organization ballyhooed a player who infamously scorched the team by publicly expressing his own disbelief in the group's ability to compete. Now some will say that a star player should be given more leniency than a coach, but the Adams Award made MacLean somewhat of a star coach, so shouldn't he get some special consideration as well? After all, he was one of the few stars on a lucklustre bench.

Like Alfredsson, MacLean called out the organization, but unlike the former captain, MacLean lost his risky PR gamble. Or maybe he actually won. After all, Alfie's derision was the prelude to his defection. MacLean's remarks may have been a way of submitting his resignation by unconventional means. If so, I hope that fans laud MacLean for going out as Alfie did: dropping the gloves with management.

And like Alfredsson, MacLean appears to have already won the PR war. I was delighted this week to see MacLean masterfully use the the fallout from his firing to zing his former bosses mercilessly. Is MacLean devastated by the firing? No more so than quoting a catchy Taylor Swift single can manage. Is he bitter toward the Sens? No, he's just confused that they seem to be short on mirth as well as money.

I think I speak for hockey fans everywhere when I say, zing on you crazy diamond!