Paul MacLean Speaks: Garbage Bag Day at CTC

With the Senators’ season concluding with the team’s 3-2 shootout victory in Pittsburgh last night, the players arrived at the Canadian Tire Centre to pack up their belongings and prepare for what’s shaping up to be a long offseason.

After the players dutifully conducted their exit interviews with the media, head coach Paul MacLean eventually addressed the media with his own availability this afternoon.

The interview is transcribed below.

As always, my thoughts are in bold.

On why the team struggled this season…

“In the National Hockey League you have to play long enough and hard enough to do that. Why didn’t we do that? I think we’ve documented it many times how we turn pucks over, how we lead the league in penalty minutes, we lead the league in turnovers, we’re third-worst in goals against. We’re, I believe, in the top ten in scoring goals, so we score enough goals, we just didn’t defend well enough and give our goaltenders enough of a chance to win games as a result.”

That’s definitely not a recipe for success, but look at the bright side, at least they were hot enough property (or just available) for Bell Media to pay ridiculous sums of money to procure their regional broadcast rights.

On whether the team’s defensive issues are the result of personnel problems or the effort of the players…

“Well, I think it’s part of the whole team. I think it’s part of the forwards helping the defence, the defence helping the forwards (and) help the goaltenders. We just didn’t make a, I guess, a more or a concerted commitment to doing it. We played well with the puck, but when the puck turned over… when we turned it over below the circles in our zone, it usually ended up in a pretty good scoring opportunity -  which makes it hard for our goaltenders to be the goaltender. And I think a combination of those factors led to our poor defensive play, the amount of time that we played in our zone and the number of penalties that we took.”

The way that MacLean talks, it sounds like he’s certainly up to speed on hockey analytics and how the Senators have been a positive possession team but have had issues with their shot prevention.

On how he would evaluate his own performance…

“Not good enough. I don’t think… it certainly wasn’t… the whole group, there’s lot of blame to go around. Lots of it can be on me. I think that my job as the head coach to find solutions and to make the team better and the solutions that we found weren’t the right ones. And we have to make sure we come back here every day and work at finding those solutions until we find the right thing.”

It’s worth noting that Jason Spezza also shouldered a lot of the blame in his availability today. Deserved or not, if both men return next season (with Spezza, I’m convinced it’s unlikely he’ll return), they’re going to be under a lot of pressure to turn this team around.

On winning the Jack Adams and whether he could explain what his shortcomings were…

“It’s easy to say that it’s the Jack Adams curse, right? But, I think that’s too easy to do and I don’t think that’s true. I think that in the third year as a coach, I made the conscious decision to make and do things differently; feeling to grow as a coach, I needed to do some things a little bit differently. At the same time, the team did some things a little bit differently. As I mentioned earlier, the way that we played – turning over pucks, putting our goaltender and our defensive game under pressure, there’s a lot that stuff that adds up and I have a share in the responsibility, for sure.

Considering the accolades and praise that he received in  the first two years, I’m not sure why MacLean felt obligated to mix things up. There are a few theories to kick around: 1) maybe the did not want complacency to set in; 2) maybe he recognized that this team needed to find another gear to take their game to another level; 3) maybe the absence of Alfredsson, who led by example, put the staff in a situation in which they felt they needed to be the ones to push their players instead.

On who he bounces idea off of to make these changes…

“Well, I use my staff and I use my general manager and I use my captains.”

MacLean would have slayed the room had he responded with, “Hfboards.com”. 

On whether he feels that he pushed the right buttons to get this team to play better defensively…

“Well, I don’t think there’s any one button. I think we just didn’t do a good enough job in finding solutions to the problems that we had – whether or not it was making our players better or finding a better way to play. The bottom line is that we didn’t play good enough long enough to qualify (for the postseason).”

MacLean did a very good job of repeating the same answer to different questions.

On whether he personally worried about his future with the organization…

“I worry about my future every day. I don’t come in here for one day and not worry about my future and that’s the same as when I played. This is a privilege to work in this league whether you’re a player, coach or media or whatever your job is in this league, it’s a privilege to be here and you should be worried every day that somebody wants your job. I have that fear every day.”

MacLean essentially just poured gasoline all over the organization’s #fearless hashtag. 

On whether he felt that some younger players took too much of a role that they may not have been ready for – specifically on defence…

“Under the new CBA, with the rules of contracts and whatnot, a lot of teams are… we’re not like every team in the league… once a player gets to a certain level and they’ve become qualified that they need waivers to get sent to the American Hockey League, you have to make a decision based on ‘can they play on your team?’ or do you want to put them on waivers and potentially lose them? And on a lot of teams, those are good young players that you want to give the opportunity to play and maybe they’re not ready to play right away and they need more time down there. But you can’t give them more time down there because you feel that you’re going to lose them on waivers, so that forces every team in the league to play players that are maybe younger and maybe not ready to play. And now you’re forced to have them learn in this league and this is a hard league to learn in. It’s a very difficult league to learn in to play any position, let alone defence or goaltending – which are tougher.”

To the best of my knowledge, the only young defenceman who had to clear waivers at the beginning of the season was Eric Gryba. Using Capgeek’s waiver calculator, it looks like Jared Cowen and Patrick Wiercioch lost their waiver exemption this season as well – which fits MacLean’s comments that the only way for these players to learn was to play them when they weren’t ready. It’s the best excuse to keep dressing Cowen that I’ve heard all year. 

On his system needing to change or the personnel having to change to fit the system…

‘Well I think under the new CBA, the rules that we work under as a league, very few teams are going to be exactly the same as they were this year. The system that we play, we need to tweak it, for sure. We need to do a better job of concentrating on the defensive zone right from the first day of training camp; making sure that we’re better prepared to play in the defensive zone and we’re better again at the penalty killing side of the game. Those are things on the defensive side that we need to make a major focus coming into training camp and in our preparation for training camp and in training camp is how we play without the puck because we score. We score plenty of goals. We score more than enough goals to win. We need to tweak our system to find a better way to play without the puck.”

That sounds more productive than practicing with upside down sticks. 

On why these tweaks weren’t made during the season…

“The other teams kept scoring on us. Well, I believe we tried (to change things) in practice and through video but it takes time. You’re trying to do something a little bit different and your practice blocks within the National Hockey League aren’t plentiful in this year of the compressed schedules, so it makes it difficult. We thought we came out of the Olympic break with a focus on doing that and our goals against, I believe, is better since the Olympic break than it was before, but it’s a process that still takes time.”

That’s a valid point brought up by MacLean and after the lockout shortened season and the complications created by the 2014 Olympics, I’m already looking forward to the return of a regular schedule.

On whether he has to change his approach as a coach…

“Well I think we have to change our approach and find somewhere in between as a coach. But also, we have to get to what the identity (is) of our team. We want to be a team that plays fast and plays 200’ and works real hard to get the puck back when we don’t have it is what we have to add to our identity, but we have to get to that right away. We can’t be searching for it through training camp and searching for it through the first twenty or thirty games. We have to get to it right away. We have to work very hard defensively to get at least a minimum of fifty, preferably 50-plus goals, off of our goals against. And that puts us only at average in the league if we do that from 28th. So those are two important things that we feel that if we do those things, our penalty killing is going to be better, the amount of penalties that we take should be better and the way that we execute should be better and if we can focus on those things in our preparation into training camp and coming out of training camp, that’s going to give us a way better chance to be the type of team that we fill we are.”

Cutting 50 goals is a monumental goal and Paul MacLean hints later at how his players can get to this magical number, so I’ll come back to this. 

On his philosophy of shot blocking because of where his team ranked in that statistical category…

“Well I think that playing defence is more than just blocking shots. It’s way more than… It is just one aspect of being better defensively is blocking shots. For me, it’s a better structural game within the five players or six players including the goaltender that’s on the ice. And then (defending) the defensive zone is being willing to use your feet to defend and that’s way more important than just blocking the shots. It’s not having them happen to begin with.”

Not having shots happen in the first place sounds ambitious, especially when the Senators have averaged more than 30 shots allowed per game since MacLean took over as coach.

On the absence of Alfredsson took the team out of their comfort zone…

“Well I think the change in leadership, any time you go through that type of change, there’s going to be a time where it’s a little bit unsettled and I think we went through that. But at the same time, we thought that Jason (Spezza) came in and it’s not the kind of year that you want to say he had as the captain obviously, but at the same time, it’s the first time he’s been a captain. It’s a learning experience for him and I believe he learned a lot about being a captain. Any time you’re replacing someone who’s been here for 17 years, that’s difficult to do and it’s a hard thing to do and I don’t think you do it in one year. I think it’s something that’s going to take some time. And again, it’s part of a process of the team continuing to build on the foundation that we’ve had here. This is another year to build on it and moving forward to be elite, we need leadership on a daily basis. But not just from Jason and Chris Phillips and Chris Neil, we need it from everybody. We need it from everybody to have the courage to do the right thing every day.”

More importantly, will the Senators have an easier time replacing a captain of one-year if that’s the route that the organization decides to take? 

On whether he felt comfortable in his third year as he did in his first two years behind the bench…

“I did yes. I certainly didn’t, like everybody else, was not pleased with the way things went as the season went on and the times that we went through. But at the same time, I wasn’t uncomfortable. But, like I said, after 82-games I’d be happy with where we were. I’m not really happy today.”

On whether he feels that he needs to reign Erik Karlsson in a bit and make him commit more to defensive play…

“The commitment to defensive play is the most important thing with Erik and to defend him just a little bit, the injury that he did suffer last year I think had more of an effect on him in a defensive role than it did in the offensive role – where he was just going straight ahead and just being explosive. Where being the size that he is and when he has to defend people, he has to use his feet and when he got into that one-on-one confrontation with the bigger man, you could tell that he didn’t quite have the confidence in his skating and the strength in his leg to be able to defend and that’s something that we’ve talked about moving forward. He’s going to have an opportunity with the two extra months to train and we really feel that he’ll be able to take his defensive game back to the level that it was previously.”

It’s too early to suggest that Erik Karlsson start changing his priorities from offence to defence. As I joked on Twitter yet, Spezza has not even been traded yet. 

On the changes that he made to his coaching style…

“I felt that my third year that I needed to be a little bit more demanding on what I wanted from the group – that was a change that I felt to make that would be good.”

On whether that was too much of an adjustment for the players…

“I don’t think it was too much of an adjustment. It was different though. I will say that.”

It’s worth mentioning that the players were effusive in their praise of Paul MacLean today. 

On which players he saw progress and development in through this team’s adversity…

“Well I think Kyle (Turris) again had great growth. I think Zack (Smith) had some great growth again. Mika Zibanejad not making the team out of training camp and going to Binghamton and coming back and getting 16 or 17 goals for us, I thought he had some great growth. Patrick Wiercioch and Eric Gryba – I thought the two of them and the adversity that they faced earlier in the season in being in and out of the lineup, learning how to play and learning how to practice, I thought that at the end of the season, the two of them played very well for us. Then we had the growth of Robin Lehner playing in the National Hockey League. We challenged him quite a bit and put him in some tough spots and I thought he came out of it in a very positive way. So out of this adversity that we have put upon ourselves, I think it’s a great opportunity for us to take a step forward from the disappointment and feeling that we’re a better team that we are right now – that that disappointment can be a springboard for some serious growth next year.”

It’s another great point by MacLean. Progression does not always have to be linear and good things can come from setbacks.

On how he plans to cut 50 goals from the team’s goals against next season and whether he has the personnel in place to do that…

“To answer the second one first, we’re going to evaluate that, if we do. And how do we do that? We feel that if we have that concentration on our play without the puck right from the first day of training camp that it’s going to become a habit that will make it…. I’m not going to say it’s easy to cut 50 goals off of it, but when we look at some of the goals that we’ve given them up and how we’ve given them up, first of all, if we cut our penalties in half, we’re going to cut 15 of those goals off right away. So, there’s things that we can do to our game that will make it easier for us to take the 50 off, but that’s going to be our goal.”

According to NHL.com, the Senators gave up 265 goals this season. To reduce that number, MacLean mentioned the team’s lack of discipline. It will be interesting to see how the organization attempts to cut its penalty minute totals in half without clearing out the likes of Chris Neil, Zack Smith, Eric Gryba and Mark Borowiecki (on a one-way contract in 2014/15).

Even if the club does manage to cut 15 goals off this total via the penalty kill, if the Senators’ goaltenders improve the team’s save percentage from .907 to something closer to the league average (.914), it would trim another 19 goals from that total. 

Where are the rest of the improvements going to come from?

Hopefully the answer to that lies in better players.

On there being any concern for the illness that kept Mika Zibanejad out of the lineup…

“Every test that he’s had, and I believe he has his last one today, has come back in a very positive fashion and we don’t anticipate that there will be any further concerns about it.”

Excellent news.

On whether Hockey Canada has contacted about him about a role at the World Championships…

“All I’ve heard is speculation that I’m in the mix. I haven’t talked to Rob Blake at any point in time or Bob Nicholson at Hockey Canada at this point in time, but I would go if they called me, if they’re listening.”

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