The Casket’s Gail MacDougall spoke last week with Ottawa Senators head coach Paul Maclean about the 2013-14 hockey season. The Senators did not advance to the post-season.
CASKET: The past season was a disappointing one for you and the Senators. What are your thoughts on the year?
MACLEAN: We’re disappointed that we didn’t make the playoffs but we have to understand we are in the process of trying to become an elite team. Inside that process are setbacks that have the potential to make you better. We believe this year we faced a different type of adversity than last year, which was fueled by injuries. This year it was more self-inflicted, inconsistent things with aspects of our game being adjusted. I believe we’re a good team but at the same time we’re still far away from where we want to be.
CASKET: The leadership of the Senators was something that was called into question. From your perspective did you have good leadership under the direction of team captain Jason Spezza?
MACLEAN: When you talk about leadership it’s an everybody thing, not just the guys wearing the letters. Actually, the leadership of the group starts at the top with Eugene Melnyk, Brian Murray and myself. If you want to talk leadership it’s not just the players but the coaching staff and the management as well. We have to do a much better job of sending the message of what the expectations are. From the players perspective, any time you replace a guy like Daniel Alfredsson, who has been there for 17 years, there is going to be a bit of an adjustment period. Jason has never been a captain before so when you assume that role it’s a different boat you have to steer. I do believe there was some adjustment that needed to be made but at the end of the day, when it came down to leadership, everyone of us didn’t do a good enough job.
CASKET: The play of the Ottawa defense was a topic of concern. What are your thoughts on the play of your defensemen and what plans do you have to address that issue?
MACLEAN: Our defensive zone play was a concern for us and part of that was how we exited our zone. We turned the puck over more than anyone in the league inside our defensive zone and that certainly led to scoring chances for the other teams. Our goalies didn’t have much of a chance on some of the turnovers. Moving forward that’s one of our biggest concerns. We have made some strides in our defensive zone but still have lots of work to do there. We had young defensemen starting the year and we felt we would be able to make the adjustments but just didn’t do it quick enough. At the same time, our veteran players who we felt were going to be able to help the young guys settle down, also didn’t do a good enough job. That’s something that we will have to remedy at the start of training camp this coming season.
CASKET: Erik Karlsson, former Norris trophy winner, could be considered a high-risk defensemen in some aspects of his game. What are your thoughts on his game?
MACLEAN: Erik is one of the best defensemen in the league and ended up with 70 points for us this year. Offensively, he’s gifted. Defensively, his competitiveness was hampered by his continuous recovery from his Achilles tendon injury he had last year. He’s not a big guy so he has to depend on his skating ability and stability on his skates and he didn’t have a lot of confidence in that. In saying that, it can’t be an excuse for some of the shoddy play he had during the season. He is our best player and moving forward he’s going to be an important part of what we do.
CASKET: The Senators were among the top four penalized teams in the league this year. What was done to try to change the lack of discipline on the ice?
MACLEAN: Like every coach we, at times, benched guys, sat them out and at times left it up to the leadership group of the players to decide what the consequences were going to be. The penalties we took in the defensive zone, because of the turnovers, were way higher than most teams. When you keep turning pucks over you’re going to take penalties and create face-offs in the defensive zone. When our play in our zone gets better, then a lot of the penalty problems will be solved.
CASKET: Going into the season you said the identity of the Senators would be to play fast, play hard and play 200 feet. What hampered your success in this area?
MACLEAN: We didn’t do all of those things. Turnovers again didn’t allow us to play 200 feet, didn’t allow us to play fast. We ended up being a slow team and the nights we were good we played fast. We just didn’t get to that point often enough or soon enough in games. A lot of that had to do with our ability to handle the opposition’s forecheck and our ability to execute with the puck coming out of our zone. To get to that identity it all starts by getting out of your zone.
CASKET: Rumours circulated at the conclusion of the regular season that the Senators failure to advance to the playoffs may ultimately cost you your job. Were you concerned about that prior to owner Eugene Melnyk confirming you would return to the club next year?
MACLEAN: I don’t take anything for granted so I worry about my job every day, knowing that there is someone out there looking to take it. That’s the way I was when I played in the National Hockey League and I feel that as a coach. If I’m doing my job, that’s going to take care of things. I understand the intricacies of the league and if things had gone another way, that’s the way it is. I’m still a young coach in the league, with two-and-a-half years of experience, and there are things, when we reviewed the season this year, that we will do differently moving forward. The confidence Eugene and Brian have shown in the coaching staff is a big thing moving forward.
CASKET: In post-season comments you admitted you altered your coaching style, which garnered you coach of the year honours last year, and have become more demanding of the players. Is this something you regret doing?
MACLEAN: I felt going into this year, with the expectations we had for this team, and how we played in the past we needed to be more demanding in terms of the type of play and style we wanted from our team. We tried to be consistent with that and we felt to grow as a coaching staff we needed to add that to the list of things we would do. At the end of the day, it was good for some guys, bad for others. I don’t think that was the only reason why we didn’t qualify for the playoffs, which we missed by three games. I think it was the combination of a lot of things that caused that to happen. In terms of coaching style, the more you coach the more you learn about the game and yourself. If you learn from it, you become a better coach and that’s what we feel we did.
CASKET: Ottawa acquired Ales Hemsky at the trade deadline. Assess his performance with the Senators and can fans expect to see him skating with your club next year?
MACLEAN: Ales brought a dimension of speed and skill off the wing that we didn’t always have and we really liked the way he came in and played. He is coming off a contract that was pretty lucrative with the (Edmonton) Oilers, so the contract stuff is now between Ales, his agent and Brian Murray. We like what he did for our team but whether or not he comes back I think is going to be his decision more than ours. We’ve had some input on the situation and believe he can make our hockey club better but at the same time now it comes down to mathematics. He’s earned the right to be an unrestricted free agent and if he gets something better he’ll probably take it.
CASKET: In terms of personnel how different will this Ottawa team be next year?
MACLEAN: Like every team in the league we have unrestricted free agents who have the right to move around so I would suspect our team will be better by three to seven players. We’re not sure right now who they will be, although we obviously know the players who could leave through free agency. What we could pick up remains to be seen until July. The play of our guys in Binghamton will determine who can come in and help us but we know we’re going to be a different team and we believe we’re going to be a better team.
CASKET: Do you believe it’s important to have Jason Spezza back in the line-up next year?
MACLEAN: It’s very important. Jason is one of the most skilled offensive players in the league and every team can use a player like that. At the same time we’re still in the process with Jason where we need him to work on making some changes in his game to make us a better team.
CASKET: What are the needs of the Ottawa Senators in the upcoming June NHL entry draft?
MACLEAN: I think, for us, we’ll take the best player available at the time. We have a pretty good stable of young players both in Ottawa and in Binghamton but like everyone in the league size and speed will be a priority. Pierre Doiron and his staff are going to pick the best player available because we do have prospects at every position.
CASKET: What are your thoughts on the opening round of the playoffs?
MACLEAN: Nothing surprises you in the first round of the playoffs. I thought the hockey was great and historically the opening round produces the best played hockey because there are so many games going on and so much intensity. Everyone is so excited to be in the post season. This year was no different and the hockey was very exciting with three game sevens. I believe the hockey was outstanding and a great display by both the players and the coaches. As the playoffs move on there are a lot of good teams remaining and anything can happen.
CASKET: The coaching scene in the NHL has changed dramatically in the past few weeks. It’s tough to hold down a position in professional hockey.
MACLEAN: I’m just glad I still have mine. I have tons of respect for the league and the players who play and the guys who coach. I know these coaches and I know they’re good at their jobs and they’re good people. We’re in the business of having results and it’s a tough league. Coaching in the NHL is a great challenge and for me it’s great to come to work every day and have the privilege of working in the league and trying to be one of the best.
CASKET: What’s ahead between now and training camp?
MACLEAN: We’re preparing our training camp plans now and should have that done by the time we get back to Antigonish the first of June. That’s our priority now. I’ll attend the draft and then be in Ottawa for the development camp and free agency.