Monday, December 16, 2013

It’s Time Spezza And MacLean Start Helping Each Other Out If Season Is To Be Saved

It’s been a tough season for Paul MacLean, hasn’t it?

The Jack Adams award winner for 2012-13 is more often than not standing in front of reporters that want answers after yet another loss, many of them at home, and his words seem more clipped and brief by the day. We’re not talking John Tortorella brief yet, but for MacLean, a guy who likes to kid around with the “ink-stained wretches” occasionally if things are going well, there’s been little time for jokes in a season gone almost irreversibly sour.

And for the first time, fans are slowly turning on a guy who was actually this team’s biggest hero in last April’s first-round series against the rival Montreal Canadiens. Sure, fans are fickle, especially the brand that stalk Twitter looking to complain about everything even mildly associated with the NHL (“with fans like these…”) but MacLean was sort of a folk hero around these parts with that iconic moustache and old-school attitude, turning this Senators team around after some disastrous seasons under the Little Napolean, Cory Clouston.

The seeming domination of Habs coach Michel Therrien in last year’s playoffs – on the ice and off – cemented his status in this town. You’d see the phrase everywhere on Twitter – “Trust the ‘stache”. Team loses Alfie? “Trust the ‘stache”. Team decimated by injuries to Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza? “Trust the ‘stache”. Twitter accounts were created for his upper lip. A lookalike of Mac became a minor celebrity.

Just having him walk into a room seemed to fix things immediately. But behind it all, MacLean never claimed that status. In fact, he’s said multiple times over his two and a half seasons here that he and his coaching staff are “scared to death” of this team falling off and the possibilities ahead. Finally, those fears have come home in a very real way.

Right from the beginning of this campaign, nothing seemed right. Of course, two of the main reasons for the Senators struggles were out of his control. Losing Daniel Alfredsson and Sergei Gonchar, two future Hall Of Famers, was a blow. Sure, they replaced Alfie with Bobby Ryan, at least stats-wise (intangibles from his presence were not replaced), but the Gonchar loss was never really addressed, forcing other defenseman to play minutes they obviously weren’t ready for.

It’s also not MacLean’s fault that Craig Anderson has come in this season and fallen off a cliff.

Understandably loyal to a goaltender that had a lot to do with him winning the Jack Adams, MacLean has probably now stuck too long with Anderson while Robin Lehner, having played better so far, has been sitting on the bench for important games. The fans complained immediately about Anderson getting starts over Lehner, but you can see why Mac kept going back to him. Simply, Anderson was that good last year. He’s a leader on this team and in the prime of his career. 9 out of 10 coaches would have done the same. It’s almost a “code” for coaches.

But sometimes it just doesn't work. Sometimes that goalie spends a whole year floundering. Tim Thomas once lost his starting job to Tuukka Rask but came back the next year and won a Stanley Cup. Roberto Luongo was once on his way out of Vancouver, now he’s playing incredible again. Goalies can disappear for a while. The trouble is figuring out when they’ll come back. If you get it wrong, a whole season can go down the toilet.

What’s clear now is Anderson needs to give way to Lehner in a hail-Mary attempt to save this season. MacLean spent yesterday “pondering” who was going to start against St. Louis on Monday night, but it’s hard to believe he won’t go with Lehner after Anderson’s two soft goals got him yanked against Los Angeles Saturday afternoon. Mac may be loyal to a fault, but the fault lines are turning into chasms.

The defense. Let’s not talk about the defense…

Now MacLean is raising eyebrows with the sudden decrease in leading scorer Bobby Ryan’s ice-time over the past two games. Ryan played a season-low 11:53 in a win against Buffalo last Thursday, and MacLean liked the effect so much he kept Ryan to 14:38 against Los Angeles, a team Ryan knows intimately from his days with the Ducks and has had a lot of success against. It also bewildered fans because the Senators were behind early in that game but MacLean played Colin Greening and Zack Smith almost two minutes more. Of course, Ryan doesn’t kill penalties and those two minutes of short-handed time make up almost all the extra minutes Smith and Greening played. Still, the notion is out there now that somehow there’s a possible rift between Ryan and MacLean.

Or, more to the point, fans are asking “Has MacLean lost his mind?” Don’t bet on it, but he might have lost a bit of a handle on this season.

More frustrating, from my view, is the fact that he continues to yo-yo wingers around this team’s best centre, Jason Spezza. He refuses to try Ryan there for more than a game or even a few shifts, which means we’ll likely never know if this summertime match made in heaven could even come close to the lethal power of the Spezza-Dany Heatley duo that almost won this team a Stanley Cup in 2007.

Putting Clarke MacArthur with Spezza last week was a strong move and it seemed to work, giving the team two lines that could score. Yet against L.A., MacArthur was moved back with Kyle Turris and Ryan as the mishmash continued. Erik Condra spent time with Spezza again and every time MacLean puts Mika Zibanejad in that spot, Spezza comes alive and the duo have the puck for long stretches.

Who Spezza actually starts with tonight against St. Louis (unknown at the time of writing) will likely not be there by the end of the game and Spezza must be quietly wondering what it all means. He can’t complain, because team captains are supposed to be in lock-step with their coach, even if they don’t agree with everything. Spezza cares more about winning than he does personal stats at this point – he’s said it and I fully believe him – but he must be worried that he can’t help this team win when MacLean doesn’t give him the best tools. I don’t buy that Turris is now this team’s number one centre anymore than I bought Patrick Wiercioch as an immediate replacement for Gonchar.

Spezza needs some stability around him, the same stability that Turris was afforded, but so far MacLean has shown more impatience than a Black Friday shopper looking for a cheap television. Some will say it’s more a story about how Zibanejad has been moved around despite playing some great hockey, but the torch hasn’t been passed yet on Spezza. This is still his team and it will sit on his shoulders just as much as it does MacLean’s.

Somehow, the coach has to get all these mini-controversies ironed out but that’s not going to be easy. I don’t know if he’s “lost his touch”, as many are claiming, but something has gone wrong in that room that we’re not privy to. Even the players probably don’t know what it is. Maybe this is just a mediocre team who overvalued their players, or maybe it was fan expectations that ballooned too quick in what is still a rebuilding effort.

But we’re used to seeing MacLean pull this thing out of the fire. When we don’t see him do it, suddenly he’s more human than we like.

For what it’s worth, I think MacLean will get this thing right again. But as I hear the chorus of panic all around me, it’s getting harder to defend some of his decisions right now.


Paul Medow said...

Great article, I definitely agree with you in regards to MacLean's supposed impatience. I wish he would give Spezza better linemates and not shackle him with Condra/Michalek

Florent said...

Man I love coming on this website and find some new articles :)
Keep it up Milks!

Ragged said...

100% agreed with Forent. My fave Sens blog!

Paul MacLean said...

You're dead meat.