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Sens' MacLean stern and steady

OTTAWA, Ontario -- At the end, when they told Paul MacLean he couldn't play hockey anymore and that he would have to do something else, he had played in 719 NHL games and scored 324 goals and collected 673 points.

More than a respectable NHL career by any standards.

But when it was over, MacLean felt that no one had ever really asked him to do anything more than just put the puck in the net. He wasn't complaining, but at the same time, when he decided that he was going to be a coach, he vowed to make sure his players wouldn't walk away wondering if there might have been something more for them.

"What I wanted to be as a coach was: If a player played for me … he knew what was expected of him," the Ottawa Senators' head coach told ESPN.com. "And if I had to make him do it, I would make him do it. Because when I played, they didn't always make me do things. They didn't always make me be a backchecker. As long you scored goals, everything was fine.

"I didn't want a player to leave and say, 'Well, he didn't ask me to do that. That wasn't expected of me.' That's kind of the credo I had."

Not that MacLean necessarily set out to be an NHL head coach. There was no epiphany along the way. Instead, he basically fell into what would become a passion.

"For me, I never even thought about doing anything else but playing hockey until they told me I wasn't paying hockey anymore," he said. "And that day I was like, 'Oh, I have to do something else? What am I going to do?'"

What he did, initially, was take a job as a pro scout with the St. Louis Blues. At the end of the first season, management asked MacLean if he wouldn't mind popping down to Peoria, Ill., to help out another old Blue, Bob Plager, who was coaching the Rivermen by himself.

"So I did," MacLean said. "We ended up winning the championship, and I got to be involved in the coaching part of it and said, 'This might not be a bad little gig to do.'"

His current GM, Bryan Murray, hired MacLean for his first NHL coaching gig as an assistant to Mike Babcock. He was part of the coaching staff in 2003 when the Anaheim Ducks made it to the Stanley Cup finals and then would travel with Babcock to the Detroit Red Wings and help ice one of the greatest teams of this generation, winning a Stanley Cup in 2008 and going to the finals in 2009.

Adam Oates was on that '03 Ducks team and was also a teammate of MacLean's during a couple of NHL stops. He said everyone was learning during that season in Anaheim, including the coaching staff.

"He was a really good hockey player," Oates, a Hall of Fame forward and now Washington Capitals head coach, said. "I'm sure he can communicate the game very well to his players. I can't say that I'm surprised at his success."

There is no shame, of course, in being a really good assistant coach. Anyone who spends any time around an NHL team understands the crucial nature of the assistant coaches in terms of preparation and keeping a finger on the pulse of a team.

"I had a good job," MacLean said. "I had a real good job."

But did he wonder what it would be like to have his own team? Did he wonder if he could do the job as "the" guy? Sure.

But MacLean is nothing if not patient.

He recalled when he was named the minor league coach of the year in 1991 how there were rumors he would get an NHL head-coaching gig.

"I was the next flavor of the month that was going to be the next head coach hired in the NHL," he recalled.

However, teams started hiring coaches out of the major junior ranks. Then, they started promoting assistant coaches. Still, MacLean resisted the temptation to try and jump on the trend and did what he could to stay prepared and sharp when the call came -- if it was going to come at all.

"I just felt that if I was a good coach, at some point in time the wheel would keep going around and it would come to me … and I'd get an opportunity," he said. "The biggest thing for me was to be ready for the opportunity."

That wheel stopped on Ottawa in the summer of 2011.

The Senators were in a fallow period. They had regressed since going to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals. There had been a carousel of coaches that hadn't worked out, while veteran players had been moved in favor of a youth movement.

"I knew I needed somebody who was going to take a chance with us," Murray told ESPN.com.

The second-year head coach has quickly forged a reputation as one of the top coaching minds in the league.

"My dad always told me to just be yourself. Just be you," MacLean said. "You can't be somebody else. I can't be Scotty Bowman. I can't be Mike Keenan."

"It's hard enough just being Paul MacLean," he added, jokingly. "There's enough issues there."

Being himself has worked out pretty darned well with a Senators team for which expectations were exceedingly low.

At the time of the MacLean hiring, Murray told owner Eugene Melnyk the team wasn't likely to make the playoffs for two seasons under MacLean and that maybe, just maybe, they'd sneak into the playoffs in the third season.

Of course, that's not how it's turned out at all.

MacLean got the Senators into the playoffs last season and they narrowly missed upending the No. 1-seeded New York Rangers, losing in seven games in the opening round.

This season, in spite of crippling injuries to key personnel like Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza and Craig Anderson, the Senators finished with the seventh seed, then whipped rival Montreal in five games in the first round.

They have given the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins all they can handle, coming from behind to win Game 3 in double overtime Sunday night. Game 4 is Wednesday in Ottawa.

MacLean has been nominated for the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year for the second straight season and is a good bet to win it given the job he did with the Sens.

"I'm not one bit surprised by what he's been able to do," Babcock told ESPN.com.

Babcock said that sometimes the players would complain that MacLean was a bit gruff with them.

"But he's 100 percent the opposite," Babcock said. "When you make people accountable, that's a positive interaction."

He recalls MacLean telling players, "When I stop yelling at you, that means I'm done with you."

"Blowing smoke up someone's butt isn't positive, it's hokey," Babcock said. "Paul MacLean's not going to do that."

Every morning, Murray and MacLean meet for coffee and talk about the team, the games, what's going on. He has included his veteran core of Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Neil, Chris Phillips and Spezza in decisions regarding the team.

That has, in turn, created an environment of mutual respect and a healthy buy-in from the players, Murray said.

"When I first started to coach, I yelled and screamed like every fool. And I can still do that a little bit now if I have to," MacLean said. "But to me, some of the best things you do is just having conversations."

If the Senators have exceeded expectation under MacLean, it's largely because MacLean has been able to marry the veterans and the young players who have come up through the system and forged a bond between the two groups.

"I didn't know who they were or what kind of people they were or anything like that," MacLean said of his younger players.

The key was to see if he could get the two groups to both do the same thing. It was, and remains, the key challenge for MacLean. But having won a playoff round together, MacLean believes that the two groups are one.

Big picture, meanwhile, he feels his job isn't necessarily to teach a system or map out a power play. He's got lots of good people to help him do that, he said. MacLean believes his main task is to be creating an undeniable identity for his team -- something he saw firsthand in Detroit.

"This is what an Ottawa Senator is. There's not a whole bunch of things; there's one picture," he explained. "That's what I think my biggest job is to do, is to keep everyone focused on that one picture."