Paul MacLean was the Senators’ fall man
The Senators are in a bad way. Firing their coach doesn’t change that, but it lets them pretend like it does.
On Monday, he was fired. Two-plus seasons remained on his contract. So it goes.
“I’ve had some tough days lately,” said GM Bryan Murray, who was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer last month. “This is one of them.”
Hockey can be a cruel business, and few understand that better than head coaches, who are judged more on their recent success than their track records. MacLean’s dismissal came at an odd time, sure, but given the direction the Senators were heading, given all their problems, the move itself wasn’t too surprising.
That still doesn’t make it fair.
We can debate whether MacLean deserved to keep his job long-term, but let’s be honest: the odds were stacked against him. This becomes evident when the Senators’ current roster is compared to those of prior years.
Ottawa was 25th in payroll when MacLean won the Jack Adams. It’s currently dead last. Gone are Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Nick Foligno. Goaltender Ben Bishop was shipped out, too, and the guy he was traded for (Cory Conacher) was waived last spring.
Meanwhile Chris Phillips, Milan Michalek and David Legwand — all under-performing veterans — are making a combined $9.5 million in 2014-15. That’s not a boatload of money, but it’s a significant amount to a cash-strapped franchise.
True, Erik Karlsson was given a long extension, as was Bobby Ryan. Nevertheless, they alone can’t turn Ottawa into a contender. They need a strong supporting cast.
And right now, the depth simply isn’t there.
Of Ottawa’s forwards who have skated in 20 or more games, six have five or less goals. No one has more than nine. Four of the Sens’ regular defensemen — Chris Phillips, Eric Gryba, Mark Borowiecki, Cody Ceci — have been underwhelming at best.
It doesn’t help that Ryan, who is paid to be a star through 2022, is on pace for 48 points this season.
Of course, MacLean wasn’t without his shortcomings. He had a penchant for juggling lines, and his deployment raised some eyebrows. Mika Zibanejad, a 21-year-old forward with loads of potential, has been misused and even scratched at times.
In terms of general strategy, MacLean’s coaching style resulted in high event hockey — meaning lots of back-and-forth action — which has been criticized by analytics writers for its erratic success.
Engaging in “track meets” can work if your team wins the possession battle on a regular basis. Ottawa accomplished that in 2012-13 when it finishing sixth in score-adjusted Corsi. This year, however, the Senators have been objectively bad possession-wise, and are in the bottom-third in the league in almost every shot differential stat.
OTT: season by season FF60, FA60 & Sv% (circle) deviation from average (lower right best, top left worst) pic.twitter.com/UnzYfYeDXH
— Jen LC (@RegressedPDO) December 8, 2014
As of Tuesday, only Buffalo and Toronto are surrendering more unblocked shot attempts against than Ottawa. The Sens were 16th in this regard in 2012-13, when they were also third in generating unblocked shot attempts. Currently, they’re 24th.
MacLean unquestionably deserves some of the blame here. But it’s not like he changed his tune overnight.
The major variable, then, is talent.
One can argue that MacLean should have adapted more as the personnel changed. Maybe he should have placed more emphasis on shot suppression. Maybe he should have been stricter with Karlsson. Maybe, just maybe, he should have allowed his lines to develop chemistry before breaking them up.
Still, when you spend less than everyone else and don’t compensate with fantastic asset management, you’re probably going to fail.
That’s not on the coach. It’s on the general manager and penny-pinching owner. Murray and Eugene Melnyk know this, I’m sure. But they needed someone else to take the fall.
MacLean was an easy choice.