If the Ottawa Senators needed further proof that they punched above their weight class this season, they have it in NHL award nominations.
With first-year NHL head coach Paul MacLean named Monday as one of three finalists for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year, the Senators have completed a hat trick of sorts.
Earlier, captain Daniel Alfredsson was nominated for the Bill Masterton Memorial Tophy for dedication and perseverance, and Erik Karlsson was among the three finalists for the Norris Trophy as top defenceman.
Those trophies and more will be handed out at the NHL awards gala in Las Vegas, on June 20.
“It’s a little bit humbling,” MacLean said during a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon. “Taking this position, you don’t do it for this. The first thing that comes to my mind is the play of our players, how well they took direction and how hard they worked as a group.”
If the award to a rookie head coach is “humbling,” as MacLean says, he remained humble himself, crediting not just his players but also the efforts of coaching staff Dave Cameron, Mark Reeds, Luke Richardson, Rick Wamsley and Tim Pattyson.
Nominated along with MacLean in the vote by NHL broadcasters were Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues — his fourth Jack Adams nomination — and John Tortorella of the New York Rangers. Tortorella is now a three-time finalist who won the award with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004.
“I’ve got a long ways to go to catch up to those guys,” MacLean said.
MacLean is the first Senators coach to receive an Adams nomination since Jacques Martin in 2003. Martin won it in 1999, the only Ottawa coach to do so.
Despite an auspicious debut, MacLean speaks honestly of how difficult the adjustment can be from an assistant to a head coach. Asked if this season was all he expected it to be, MacLean said, “And then harder. And then it was harder again.
“I think any time that you do something for the first time, you can say you’re prepared and ready for everything,” MacLean said. “Once you get into it and do it, you realize this is harder than you anticipated.”
Having said that, MacLean added that he was able to overcome any obstacles with the support and help of his coaches and general manager Bryan Murray.
At the team wrap-up session on Saturday, MacLean said the most difficult task he faced all season was telling players they had to sit out as healthy scratches.
Not much was expected of the Senators in the first year of a rebuilding program, but MacLean said that after a couple of big early losses, including 7-1 and 7-2 routs by Colorado and Philadelphia, the Senators found their identity. It was based on hard work, a tenet of training camp that helped bring the team together.
“Chemistry comes from work ethic, I believe,” MacLean said. “You look beside you and the guy is sweating and going just as hard as you are, you end up pushing each other just to get through practice, let alone a set of games.”
While MacLean, 54, is technically a rookie NHL head coach, he spent six seasons as an assistant to Mike Babcock with the Detroit Red Wings and another two years with Babcock on the staff of the Anaheim Ducks. He brought to Ottawa Babcock’s theory about puck control and what he likes to call a “200-foot” skating game.
MacLean also learned from watching Babcock interact with players, first with a developing Anaheim team in 2002-04, then in Detroit, with an elite lineup.
“He had some really high-skilled players in Detroit,” MacLean said. “How he approached them and how he talked to them about the game was important for me to see.”
The top players on the Senators concur. While the entire team responded to MacLean, stars like Alfredsson and centre Jason Spezza were especially refreshed by the culture shift from a hard liner like Cory Clouston to MacLean’s more inclusive approach.
Even after being benched for part of the third period in Game 6 of the playoffs versus the New York Rangers, Spezza said MacLean had done a “phenomenal” job with the Senators this season and deserved to be coach of the year.
Under MacLean, Spezza delivered his strongest offensive season since 2007-08, and noted how the new coach “empowered” his players.
“The most important thing you can do is communicate with your players,” MacLean said.
MacLean’s Senators were entertaining to watch and got results, with a 41-31-10 record for 92 points, an 18-point improvement over 2010-11. The team leaped five positions to 8th in the Eastern Conference standings.
Murray will draw satisfaction from MacLean’s nomination. After repeatedly failing to successfully replace himself behind the Ottawa bench since 2007 (John Paddock, Craig Hartsburg, Clouston), Murray appears to have finally found his coach in the man with the famous walrus mustache from Antigonish, N.S.