Paul MacLean Speaks — Spezza Return, Ceci, Zibanejad Figuring Out How to Be Successful

The Senators are coming off their first four-game winning streak of the season, head coach Paul MacLean joined Jason York and Steve Lloyd on TSN 1200’s In the Box to discuss the team’s recent string of wins.

If you wish to listen to the full interview, you can do sohere, or via streaming the embedded audio below.

As always, my thoughtsare in bold.

On team’s four-game winning streak and the differences between the struggles earlier and the team’s recent string of play…

“Well I think it’s been our overall team play has gotten better. We’re better coming out of our zone. Our defence, Cowen… all of our defence, their play is much more consistent and our forwards are helping them way better, and so our overall five-man unit or twenty-man unit, whatever it is, all 23 guys that we have here, we are all playing and doing it the same way and I think that leads to success.”

MacLean's point is certainly corroborated and backed up by the numbers. 

On continuing through rough patches and now persevering through adversity…

“Well the patches were way longer. Now the patches they are for a couple minutes space or maybe it’s a five-minute space, but they used to be (for) periods or half a game and forty minutes. We turned the puck over like nobody in the game through the first twenty games of this season. Forwards, defencemen put our goalies in a really tough spot through the first twenty games and we just had guys that flat out couldn’t get it going. They couldn’t get playing for whatever reason, and again, that’s another form of adversity that as you mentioned, some guys go cold for a little bit and some guys struggle for a little bit, but to have six or seven guys all struggle at the same time, that’s a little bit unique. And I think that was the case with us with our defencemen – the young guys coming in have a little bit of struggles like the young players have is what we kind of expected, but we certainly didn’t expect that Marc Methot would struggle and that Erik Karlsson would struggle and then Chris Phillips would struggle or they would start to try and start to do too much instead of just doing what they had to do. So the whole defensive core I thought, and then as a return, our forwards start to leave before they get the puck and so there’s this disconnect between the two of them and they’re not playing as a unit and I think now, we’re much better as a five-man unit on the ice and playing and I think that’s made the biggest difference. Everybody is helping everybody.”

 

With the exception of offseason aditions like Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur, the ones carrying this club for the bulk of the season have been the younger players. Injuries have obviously played a part, but there's no question that the play of its veterans has been disappointing.

On Cody Ceci and the simplicity of his game…

“Well, during the lockout when Cody was here with the 67s, I went to watch him and I would go home. Like, I wouldn’t even watch the whole game. I’d be like, ‘Oh, it can’t be. He can’t be… how could we pick this guy? Our scouts are way better than this.’ But he was playing a different game and a different type of system. And every once in a while you could see it. (Our scouts) told me he could really skate, but you never really saw that with the 67s that year, whether or not beforehand they must have saw it but that year. And then I saw him play with Team Canada in Halifax in the summertime. My son Adrian and I went up to Halifax to watch one of those Russian/Canada things and he had a bad night that night too. So my (report) card on Cody wasn’t very flattering coming into training camp to begin with, but I said, ‘He’s a young player. He has all these tools to put into the toolbox, so don’t overrate him too early.’ And I thought that in training camp, he came in and played very well. He skated and we (said) to him, ‘You need to skate. If you’re not going to defend by using your feet and skate, then you’re not going to have any chance to play in the league.’ And he took to coaching like a duck to water and then he went down with Luke (Richardson) and obviously continued to do the same things down there. He turned himself into, arguably, the best player in the American Hockey League over the strength of October and most of November before we called him up. He was like, the best player in the league and that says a lot. It’s a pretty good league when you get down there and get playing. And he’s come up here and he’s continued to do what he did down there. Obviously he had it in him and we just had to find the right tap to open up and get it to come out.”

Best player in the American Hockey League? That's some high praise for Ceci. It's interesting to note that MacLean reflected on the number of players it would have taken to solve Ottawa's puck-moving problem on the backend. For a time, the Senators were being linked to the New York Rangers' Michael Del Zotto with players like Colin Greening, Erik Condra and Eric Gryba being mentioned as players who could be packaged as a return. Suffice it to say, Ceci's play and Murray's patience to avoid using assets and future assets to address a short-term need has been welcomed.

On everyone waiting for Ceci to hit the wall as a rookie but it not happening…

“I think we’re all the same, yeah. Well, when he called him up, we said, ‘Well, he deserves to get called up.’ Like, we were struggling. We couldn’t get out of our zone, so we needed to do something. Rather than trade two or three guys away, or just do something, we said, ‘Well, he’s just playing so well down there, let’s just bring him up to see what he can do. He’ll last two games or it’ll be three games, but at least it is something and we’re giving someone an opportunity and we’ll play him until it stops.’ It could be 20 years’ time before we stop playing him because of the way that he’s playing right now. But, that’s a credit to him again and a credit to Luke and the work that they’ve put in down there with Steve Stirling and Luke, that he’s able to come up here and he just fit right in. And he’s just kept going and going and it’s good to see.”

Although it has been mentioned before that any incoming GM in Buffalo will have to retain Ted Nolan as the head coach, I can't help but wonder what Luke Richardson's future will be if Tim Murray becomes Buffalo's next GM. 

On Mika Zibanejad and him figuring out what it takes for him to be successful…

“And I agree. His skating has really… his strength and his size is one of his strengths and he’s been good. He’s been through the middle of the rink, like 200 feet, like impressively. He’s really done a good job of getting through the middle of the rink and when you have a centerman that can do that, it makes a huge difference in your offence and what they can bring and how the other team has to defend you and what they need to do to be able to counter what you’re doing. He’s just taken the bull by the horns a little bit now and you’re starting to see him, when he’s playing good, he’ll start getting against better players and challenging them a little bit. But, he’s stepped up and he’s answered those physical challenges when people have tried to get up in his face and tried to get him to back off a little bit. To his credit, he’s come back out and put his foot on the gas pedal and gone right through them.”

Most importantly, his play at the center position, at least during this short period of time has helped ease any concerns about the organization's future at that position should it entertain the possibility that Jason Spezza might not be a part of it when his contract expires at the end of the 2014/15 season.

On the team getting ‘dirty’ goals…

“You can’t score in this league without going to the net – the dirty areas or the hard areas. And the only thing I know where that is, is right around the net. If you’re not going to compete for the opportunity to score, you’re going to spend an awful lot of time reaching from the outside looking in. You better be able to shoot it way better than anybody else in the league because if you don’t get your nose dirty a little bit and compete for the opportunity, you’re going to find yourself standing on the outside.”

On the chemistry of the Michalek, Zibanejad and Conacher line and Conacher’s improved play of late…

“Well I read in the paper (Conacher) got better coaching, but at least he acknowledged it. So the (media) had to go get the tip from there. Cory’s a hardworking, young man. Size is not a detriment. His illness, diabetes, is not a detriment to him. He just comes out and competes every night. I think things… ice has opened up a little bit more for him with the way Mika is skating through the middle of the rink and he has just calmed himself down a little bit too and got himself sorted out. He’s another young guy that came in and tried to do too much. ‘I’ve got to score. I’ve got to score,’ instead of just concentrating on doing the little things in the game: get the puck of your zone; get (the puck) in the zone; make sure you get shots on the net; and make sure you’re finishing your checks. Doing the right things without the puck leads to the puck going in the net for you. I think he’s just simplified his game a little bit and then the three of them are going in a straight line and they’re putting the puck at the net, and they’re arriving there and they’re competing for the next opportunity to put it in the net. And I think it’s the way that we’ve asked them to play that way from day one, but it doesn’t always come out that way and the process doesn’t happen exactly with the speed and punctuality that the coach would like it to have, but as long as it shows up at some point in time.”

Judging by the line combinations in practice today, this line will be kept together for the interim. But, with Spezza's return to the lineup and the chemistry and production that the Greening, Smith, and Condra line had during their time together, it remains to be seen how long MacLean will stick with his top two lines intact.

On Clarke MacArthur’s game winning goals and Erik Karlsson’s decision to dish it off for his empty-net goal and the importance of it to lead up to his game-winner the next night…

“Anytime you can be considered a good teammate, like when your career is over and done and all they say about you is, ‘He was a good teammate,’ then you can be pretty proud of that. You don’t need a ring. You don’t need the money. The reason why, to me, you play the game, is for your teammates. And if a guy can walk away from the game and they say, ‘He was a hell of a teammate,’ I think you’re a rich man. I really do. I think that is really the highest compliment that you can pay any NHL hockey player or any athlete – is that he was a heck of a teammate. And those types of plays that Erik made makes you a heck of a teammate, because you’re not just looking out for you, you’re looking out for your teammate, and another guy that is in the trenches and he might be having a little bit a struggle, and you’ve got it going maybe or maybe not and you just say, ‘Here, you take this.’

"I was impressed with the acceleration myself and it reminded me not of myself at all, but I thought the gesture… to be able to think about it and have that much… the elite players have that ability to just know what’s going on all of the time and know where everybody is. It was just a great teammate play by Erik.”

Erik Karlsson, leader. 

On how quickly Erik Karlsson Processes Information on the Ice…

“You draw him a picture and he can do it. You don’t have to show him on video 50 times and you just have to draw the picture one time and he nods and he goes out on the ice and does it.”

I wonder if this works in reverse as well and Erik Karlsson is some kind of Pictionary savant. 

On the team leaving for Colorado early to get acclimatized to the elevation…

“Well it’s a long way out there and it’s high up. If we can get at least one practice in, historically that’s what we used to find would help a little bit. At least one practice in there so that you get your body used to the elevation. But, these guys now, that was back when I played so we only played at four miles an hour and now that they’re playing at 400, I don’t know if it matters as much anymore. But, I think it’s just an important step for us to get out and realize that hey, we’re out here to do something and that we’re playing a very good team and we better get ready.”

On emphasizing shift length because of the thin air in Colorado…

“Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about for sure starting tomorrow and the next day is that, especially early in the game out there when it usually is the toughest. I think once you get into the game and get going, it’s not really as… it doesn’t seem that it becomes a factor. But early in the game, it could be a huge factor if you don’t get on and off the ice.”

On Jason Spezza playing against Colorado…

“Well he’s the captain of the team and he’s Jason Spezza, so I don’t know why we wouldn’t put him in the lineup just because we won some games with him out. I mean, he makes us a better team. He’s a dangerous player. His game is just like everyone else’s on our team, it’s coming around and we’re excited to get him back.”

Should be noted that if Spezza's playing third line minutes, he should be able to eat up the competition. After watching Zack Smith play with chasers like Colin Greening and Chris Neil, I'm actually eager to watch him play with a guy who can handle the rock like Spez. I've always believed that he's had a higher amount of skill than what we've seen with him playing on a line with Greening and Neil, but like Mike Fisher before him, can Smith be an effective player on the wing? If he can't, the Senators are eventually going to have to make a decision on what to do with their depth at center. 

On whether MacLean was having fun with the media for goofing around with the lines…

“That wasn’t me. I put the list out. You’ve got to call out Mark Reeds and Dave Cameron for that. I skated around the ice and I said, ‘Well alright, that’s not the way that I wrote (the lines) down.’ I think Dave Cameron ended up having fun. I did happen to look up and I said, ‘Oh, the Twitter world, I bet you it’s crazy.’ I saw them passing out the jerseys and I was like, ‘Oh, Dave.’ I went over to Dave and I said, ‘I think you’ve got all the Twitter world abuzz right now.’ But, we did have a bit of a circus trying to get (the lines) sorted out today. Everybody was saying, ‘Well you can’t break up Mika’s line. You can’t break up Turris’ line. You can’t break up Smitty’s line.’ Well poor Pageau, I guess we’ve got to break his line up. Matt Kassian’s played pretty good too, so well, you’re kind of like, ‘Fellas, this is Jason Spezza we’re talking about here.’ We better find a spot for him, so we kind of sorted it out and we put Smitty on left wing and tomorrow we’ll probably try to do something different just to see. Zack Smith played so well for us in that shutdown-like defensive type of role but still adding some offence. Like he scored two big goals for us in Montreal and he’s got ten for the season I think now. Or nine or ten, so I mean, he’s provided some pretty good offence from that position, so you don’t want to take that away from him either because that’s an important role to have, but we’re talking about Jason Spezza. We’re not talking about someone else, so we’re going to experiment with it and see how it all goes. But at the end of the day though, the best players play and we’re going to try and stick with that.”

The return of Spezza means that Kassian will be relegated to the pressbox after playing in the team's last five games. I have nothing against Kassian, but he has five fighting majors in 21 games played this season. Either he's a physical deterrent, or he's simply one of the last remnants of the one-dimensional heavyweight fighter era that the game is moving away from. 

To Kassian's credit, he's played reasonably well given his actual limitations, and it's not like it's his fault that the only reason he's being kept around the organization is because of his one-way contract and ownership's unwillingness to expand the budget and keep around an extra forward from Binghamton who can actually play and contribute at the NHL level.

On Pageau, Condra and Greening practicing together today…

“Well, when we remember those things, we do, but the bingo balls sometimes just come out a certain way. But, there’s not many in the jar today because we had to keep the other three (lines) set the way they were so that there were fewer combinations coming out of it. But yes, we know that Jean-Gabriel, Colin and Erik gave us some really good minutes in the playoffs and again, we’re bringing back a really good player. And actually the opportunity for Mark Stone, who’s healthy and playing really well in the American Hockey League just like Cody Ceci did earlier, we’ve been dying to see him play with Jason Spezza at some point regularly and see if there can be some chemistry there with them. So that’s kind of part of the experiment of stuff going on today as well, but Mark has played really well in the two games that he’s been in there and we look forward to having him and Jason and see what they can do.”

We've already seen a number of players like Mike Hoffman and Stephane Da Costa get extended looks in offensive roles this season, but neither of those players have stuck. Injuries, like Paul MacLean mentioned, have been a problem for Mark Stone. In the past two seasons, he's only played in 73 of Binghamton's 110 regular season games in the past two seasons. Nevertheless, if MacLean is an anxious to see how Stone fares and Stone actually performs well and produces, it will be interesting to see who the organization removes from the lineup to accommodate Chris Neil when he's healthy enough to return. 

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