Q&A: Paul MacLean on coaching in the NHL, raised expectations and his team’s worst enemy

The Ottawa Senators have been full of surprises over the past couple of seasons.

Q&A: Paul MacLean on coaching in the NHL, raised expectations and his team’s worst enemy
Head coach Paul MacLean of the Ottawa Senators gives some instructions during practice at Canadian Tire Centre, on October 01, 2013, in Ottawa, Ont. (Jana Chytilova / Ottawa Citizen).

The Ottawa Senators have been full of surprises over the past couple of seasons.

In the first year of Paul MacLean’s tenure as head coach – the first full year of what was supposed to be a significant rebuild — the Senators stunned the hockey world by qualifying for the playoffs and taking the No. 1 seeded Rangers to the brink in Round 1.

MacLean earned a nomination for the Jack Adams Award that season.

Expectations were even higher during the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign, until an unbelievable sting of injuries to key players seemed to kill off any hope of a repeat post-season performance. Instead, Ottawa qualified and produced a first-round upset of the Montreal Canadiens.

For shepherding that beat-up squad, MacLean won the coaching trophy.

It was a nice feather in his cap, but he and the Senators are more interested in another piece of hardware, one many prognosticators say they have a legitimate shot at acquiring this season.

Sitting in his ice-level office at the Canadian Tire Centre last week, MacLean reflected on the upcoming campaign and the challenges his team will face in the coming months. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Ottawa Citizen: Many people will be referring to you as the defending coach of the year over the next little while. What kind of pressure comes along with that?

Paul MacLean: I think the job has enough pressure without that adding to it. I think the biggest thing for us and our group as a coaching staff is to remain consistent in what we’ve done, and not think that we’re geniuses and get ahead of ourselves. That would be a problem for us.

OC: Shea Weber has said the reason for Barry Trotz’s longevity in Nashville is his ability to keep the message fresh. How important is it for you to mix things up as you enter your third season here?

PM: I think that’s important, to be able to do things in a number of different ways. But at the same time, I think if you treat players like people, and treat them fairly and tell them what you expect from them on a daily basis and then stick to those expectations, I think that also helps with your shelf life as a coach. But the best thing to be a coach with a long shelf life is you have good players.

OC: Some coaches say their message can only go so far, that it’s important to have a leadership group of players that will carry those instructions to the room and get the team to buy in.

PM: I think it’s vitally important to any coaching staff or any coach. Your players have to decide that what you’re talking about can work. A lot of times, the way that you want to do things sells itself, but at the same time, you still need and extension of the coaching staff (that) has to go through the players and has to go through your leadership group of the team … when the coach leaves the room, there’s always another meeting after the meeting.

OC: You suggested some things are an easy sell. What’s a hard sell for a coach?

PM: I think the hardest sell for any coach is the amount of time you have to take to practice and get things done.

But the hardest thing to do as a coach is to tell someone they’re not playing. I’ve never had an easy way to do it, or a better way to do it. I had dreams, I played in the National Hockey League and I know how great it can be and how disappointing it can be (not to play).

That’s the unfortunate part of hockey. You don’t get to play forever. Sometimes your career is long, sometimes it’s short, and that’s the importance of continuing to try to get better every day, because there might be someone coming along better than you. And it doesn’t take a long time.

OC: Two years in, what have you learned? If you could give yourself some advice back when you started, what would that be?

PM: It would be that it’s really hard. I knew it was hard, and I thought it was hard, but it’s harder. You really have to pay attention to detail.

OC: What do you mean by that?

PM: It’s harder with the level of play in the league, first of all. There are a lot of good coaches and a lot of good players and a lot of good teams, and the skill level of their teams, that’s a real hard part of it. But it’s the everyday, how much time in your day that it takes and the conversations you have to have and keeping track of what’s going on.

And part of this job is being in Canada. It’s the media commitment. That’s a daily thing too. When you’re the assistant coach, and even in Detroit, which is Hockeytown, I’d just (motions waving goodbye after work).

It’s all part of it. Not only having to deal with the media commitments, but the speaking commitments and the fans. I get lots of help coaching my team, which I appreciate, but that’s also something to get used to. When you’re here and the head coach of the Ottawa Senators, you’re on every day. As soon as you leave the house, you’re on.

For me, I went through it a little bit when I played seven years in Winnipeg, a small Canadian market. I had some experience doing it, but still, I’m not sure if you ever get used to it. But it’s also a lot of fun to talk to people and have people come up and say hello.

OC: What are some of the challenges you’re going to have to deal with this season?

PM: The first thing that concerns me the most is that we forgot, we forget, how hard we had to work to have the limited success that we had. It’s success, but it’s limited success, and if we don’t continue to work at what we do and how we do things, we’re going to fall flat on our faces.

Our biggest enemy right now isn’t Toronto, Boston, Detroit or any other team in the game, it’s ourselves. We can be our own worst enemy, thinking that we get picked to be this team, picked to be that team, and now we start getting away from how we had to do things to be successful.

OC: And you’re probably not sneaking up on anybody this year.

PM: No, there’s no sneaking up on anybody, and that’s a good thing. I think that’s a good kind of pressure to have on our team.

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