Sens MacLean should return to 'confidence building' coaching

Sens MacLean should return to 'confidence building' coaching
Posted on November 15, 2013 | James O'Grady | Written on November 15, 2013
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Winning the Jack Adams trophy has changed Sens coach Paul MacLean's approach to coaching. Commentators and fans alike have been shaking their heads about why this year's version of our beloved hockey team is not meeting expectations. And, while I know part of the answer is a result of losing Daniel Alfredsson, the rest of the problem falls squarely on the shoulders of Senators coach Paul MacLean.

Why? Because he has done a 180 in his approach to coaching the Sens. Granted, expectations were low in his first two years behind the bench, while this year great things have been predicted for a team that has so far failed to impress. Expectations aside, where MacLean used to praise his young players despite mistakes--there's no denying the Sens porous defence has been a problem since he came on board--this year he criticizes. Where he used to be patient and level headed behind the bench, building confidence in his young players and instilling hope in Sens fans, now he's impatient, agitated, hyper critical and often bad tempered. Benching and demoting players mid-game and calling out players who may not have played their best game of the night in the post-game press conference.

The 2013-14 version of the Ottawa Senators is still a very young team. While losing Alfredsson is noticeable on the ice as well as at the box office, a young team needs to be handled with kid gloves. You can't treat them like seasoned veterans even though they are making gross salaries, because they simply are not experienced vets. As a school teacher, I don't treat elementary school kids the same way I treat intermediate students. Grade 7 students rolling around on the ground get reprimanded while Grade 2 students are encouraged to use their feet to stand up.

New line combinations every game, juggling lines on the fly--often before the first period is over--does nothing to instil confidence in young players. On the contrary, it achieves the opposite by raising doubts in one's ability. It causes a young player to second guess himself which ultimately affects his morale and translates on the ice, as a group,
into 5-0 whitewashes against weak opponents like the Flyers, because they are afraid to fail.

I had a coach in Switzerland, a Canadian actually, who thought he could get the Swiss to play better by yelling at them in practice. Every time someone missed a pass or made a mental mistake, he would blow the whistle, call everyone together at centre ice and then ream out the offending player in front of his teammates. By game time, my Swiss teammates couldn't do anything right. Their fragile egos had been completely shattered. And, our team that had a shot at winning the championship, fell well short of its goal. Maintaining moral is one of the most important things a coach can do.

MacLean's demotion of new Sens captain Jason Spezza to the fourth line only a few games after Spezza played perhaps the best game of his career in Detroit, was an unnecessary slap in the face. On top of everything else this year, embarrassing our new captain when he is still recovering from back surgery, has made matters worse.

I have never been a fan of coaches who play favourites or of coaches who don't roll their lines consistently. Rolling over four lines consistently, like former Sens coach Jacques Martin used to do--without penalizing players for mistakes--builds confidence. Unfortunately, MacLean has been mixing up his lines almost every period. In the San Jose game I attended earlier this year, MacLean started Turis' line. When Spezza's new line was scored upon in the second shift of the game, Turis' line came back out. Why? What was wrong with lines 3 and 4? Why should one line get two shifts in the first 3 minutes of a game while the rest of the players remain on the bench, cold, concerned... thinking. Thinking is a bad thing in hockey. The game is too fast. When players start to think rather than just play, the puck ends up in the back of the net. As a goalie, I know this to be true.

Fortunately, the remedy that is needed to get the Sens back on track is not that difficult to achieve:

First, MacLean and the coaching staff need to change their attitude. Lighten up behind the bench, smile a little bit and let the players play. And, remember, it's the players who win games not the coaches.

Next, settle on lines and stick with them for 5-10 games so the players can develop chemistry playing together. Only then can you properly evaluate how well they play together.

Why has Turis' line been the best so far? Because they've had a chance to play together and develop some chemistry. Turis' line is the only line that has remained relatively stable. Not surprising, its also the only line that has produced on a consistent basis.

Here are my line recommendations with explanations:

Line 1:

Milan Michalek      Jason Spezza      Cory Conacher

Spezza is the Sens premier player. He has been our top centre for many years and is now our captain. If he is going to lead this team offensively, he needs ice time and line mates to make it happen. No offense to Sens stalwart Chris Neil, but his best offensive days are passed him. Michalek may not be having a great year so far but he has played with Spezza since arriving in a trade for Danny Heatley, and he is a 30 goal scorer if given the chance. Michalek and Spezza play well together. Both have been injured and both are still recovering. They should be allotted the time necessary, 20-40 games, to ramp back up to their premier form.

The only time Spezza produced this year was with Conacher on his line, mucking it up in front of the net. Conacher has great hands and a nose for the net. He compliments Spezza and Michalek well.

Line 2:

Clarke MacArthur       Kyle Turris        Bobby Ryan

MacArthur and Turris have clicked from Day 1. MacArthur's speed is a good a match for Turris. Bobby Ryan was supposed to play with Spezza but because they are the same type of playmaking power forward the Sens are a better team when they are split up. Ryan has been a good addition to the Turris line. With Ryan on the second line, our top two lines become more like Line 1a and Line 1b.

Line 3: The kid line

Colin Greening       Mika Zibanejad      Erik Condra

Zibanejed should never have started the season in Bimmington. Some may say he needed the wake up call, but I believe the Sens we're flirting with disaster in treating their future star centre like a second class citizen, promoting Pageau ahead of him despite Zibanejed's strong season last year and stints in the minors. Zibanejed responded like the champion he is and has earned the right to centre his own line, not play wing. He's a centreman, he should have the chance to grow into the power centre role.

Greening and Condra played very well together when they came up in the winter of 2011 before heading back to Bimmington to win the Calder Cup. I believe these two young players can revive their games if given the chance to do so together and with a solid playmaking centreman of their own age.

Line 4:  The crash line

Derek GrantMatt Kassian       Zack Smith       Chris Neil

Every team deserves to have a crash line. These four brutes can cause havock for any team. Smith is developing into a solid centre. Like Zibanejed he deserve the chance to develop into a power centre with two big wingers to help him unnerve the opponents defence in their own zone.

On defence, I recommend pairing Erik Karlsson with Marc Methot. Methot is our best defensive defensemen. He does a good job covering up for Karlsson when he rushes.

In the second pairing I'd put Chris Phillips and Patrick Wiercioch together. A vet to mentor the future second anchor of the power play, Phillips can help settle Wierchoich's nerves and help him become more consistent and reliable on the back end.

It's obvious Jared Cowen is still recovering from hip surgery last year. His speed just isn't up to snuff yet. As a top four defenseman, he's unable to keep pace. Letting him regain his strength and speed in the third paring with a vet like Joe Corvo or with another hard hitter in Mark Borowiecki will help him regain the confidence he showed in his rookie season. Cowen will be in Ottawa for a long time. He is a franchise player. There is no need to rush him back at this stage of his career.

Stick with these four lines and it shouldn't matter who plays nets. Both our goalies are talented. The Senators have never had four strong centres like they do now. Great teams are built around a strong core. The Sens team defense will improve over time but only when the team is playing with poise and confidence, something they are not doing now.

The Senators should be able to make the playoffs and take a run at the Cup this year if they can regain the composure that has defined their play over the last three years. More positive reinforcement from the coach, like he did in his first two seasons, will help instil the confidence his players need to get our team back to their pesky, winning ways.

James O'Grady

Sens Season Ticket Holder
Nepean Raider and Antigonish Bulldog Alumni


About The Author

James OGrady's picture

I am a social media entrepreneur, communications professional, part-time school teacher and community leader living in Nepean, Ontario. I am also a hockey goaltender, political hack and most importantly, an advocate... More