The Pros and Cons of the New Jersey Devils Hiring John MacLean as Head Coach

Meet the new boss of the New Jersey Devils' bench for 2010-11: John MacLean. (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images)

The big news in New Jersey was that John MacLean was announced as the new head coach for the New Jersey Devils.   The reaction and quotes all indicate a lot of positivity - from this FanShot on this site to the articles Matt linked to in this post to Greg Wyshynski at Puck Daddy opening his story on the hire with the following:

John MacLean is the guy in your office that worked his ass off for about a decade, left after a dispute with his bosses, returned to a different cubicle years later to work his ass off again and has been soldiering on for years while waiting for that big promotion.

Which is to say that Lou Lamoriello finally gave him the corner office and the keys to the executive washroom Thursday.

MacLean becomes the first former Devil to be the head man behind the bench. The Devils legend remains as the franchise's all-time leader in goals and he scored one of the most important goals in Devils history.    He now leaves Lowell after a successful, if short, stint in the minors in his first year as a head coach at the professional level.  A replacement, as far as I know, has not yet been named for Albany.

However, I have to bring a little rain amid the sunshine. I really, really hope that the decision didn't include loyalty as a key factor.  Being a head coach is not a position where you "earn" it by being an assistant for a long time.  It's not deserved for someone who's been around for a while, and it's not a reward. I would think Lou made the hire because he felt MacLean could do the job, not because he's been around the organization in some way or form across 3 decades. I would think both parties would agree.

Anyway, my initial reaction to this hire was mixed (Aside: my reaction was "thumb middle," which really meant thumbs in the middle. Sorry for the confusion.), and I'd like to take a step back and level expectations before he starts getting crowned anything.  I also included this poll just to get your reaction, but do please continue after the jump for my argument at least.

PRO: John MacLean understands the organization.  As I noted a little over a week ago, MacLean was a New Jersey Devil as a player from the 1983-84 through 1997-98 seasons and as an assistant from 2002 through 2009.   Lou knows him, the owners know him, management knows him, the players (both NJ and AHL prospects) know him, and MacLean knows all of them in kind.  If anybody is prepared to what to expect in terms of management style, communication, team preferences, and what various players would respond to, it's MacLean. 

CON: John MacLean is from within the organization.  Remember back in May when Jamie Langenbrunner revealed that there were issues with Jacques Lemaire?  I gave my take on Rich Chere's first article about it, and regardless of Lemaire's responses (which I went over here), it seems clear were serious locker room issues that undercut 2009-10's campaign in some way.  Very noticeable in the case of Langenbrunner in the playoffs.   Will the players respond to someone who is essentially a company man?   Sure, Langenbrunner approves the move now per Tom Gulitti; but these views will change in due time. He's now the boss (well, one of them at least). And when - not if - he's got to call someone or the team out for poor play or he does something that the players may not agree with, he's going to have to handle a group of players who've outlasted a lot of coaches.  That he's hired from within could work against him.

PRO: At the same time, MacLean being from within the organization could be a good thing.  A cliche states that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  Well, Lou's last three head coaching hires were from outside the organization. Claude Julien's last job before his short time in NJ was in Montreal.  Brent Sutter was hired out of Red Deer of the WHL, so Lou went outside of the league.  While he was a former Devils head coach, Jacques Lemaire spent at least 11 years away from the team since that time, so I would call his 2009 hiring as going outside the organization.  Lou's figuring that the answer may be from within, John MacLean went down to Lowell specifically to be groomed to be a head coach, he got results there, and now he's giving him a shot. 

Even most of the assistants are from within, according to this Gulitti post. Larry Robinson is returning to an assistant coaching position, Chris Terreri will take over from Jacques Caron, and Scott Stevens will remain as a "roving instructor."  Tommy Albelin and Mario Tremblay will remain in the organization.   There will be another assistant to be hired, and whoever that is may be the only outsider on the coaching staff.  Given that Robinson is one assistant and he'll focus on defense, I would think the second assistant will be more offensive.

CON: However, don't expect the Devils to play all that much different. Jamie Langenbrunner will still be the captain per Gulitti. Moreover, Langenbrunner expects the team's general philosophy to stay the same per this post by Gulitti.  According to this post by Rich Chere's, MacLean's response to questions about Martin Brodeur's workload by stating that "Marty's a great goalie. Marty's going to play." In commenting on what the team has to do, MacLean said this per this Chere article:

When asked if he thought the Devils have been able to adjust to post-lockout hockey in the NHL rather than play their older style, he said: "We’ve won three Cups here. I just think the environment and structure and the commitment somewhere along the way may have gotten lost a little bit. You have to work. You have to work within structure.

"People say, ‘You’re going to play all defense.’ No, we’re not going to play all defense. I was an offensive player. We’re going to have to score goals. There has to be parameters on things, but there also has to be some leeway."

Maybe this doesn't bother you, and there's nothing inherently terrible about consistency (see my next point defending it). However, it should if you felt the Devils needed to make some kind of sea change. That's clearly not going to happen based on the initial reaction and the press conference.  I hate to be an "I told you so," but...

PRO: MacLean not announcing large changes may be for the best.  As much as the early playoff exits suck, this is not a bad hockey team.  They've won division titles, they've beaten top teams, and they're not in the mix as contenders year-in and year-out just on reputation alone.    There's no reason to believe that the Devils need to suddenly play a different style or blow up the roster and start from scratch.   Most of last year's team is coming back next season, short of a massive roster shake up, there isn't a need to teach all of the players something totally new. As Lou said in the press conference, reported here by Gulitti:

"I don’t think it [the team] needs big changes by any means," he said. "Chemistry is a funny word. If you win, everything is right. If you lose, everything is wrong. I always believe that the situation plus the state of mind you have determines the size of the problem you have. So, I know these players too well. There is no question that there could be a couple of changes, but they’re not changes for any other reason than to make the team better. You never make changes for the sake of making changes."

Remember that during training camp last September, Lemaire came right out and said that he didn't want to change the style of play the Devils played under Brent Sutter.  He certainly made his tweaks, there were differences. But the Devils didn't radically play any different than they did prior.  They did not sit in traps all game long. They didn't always rely on the transition game.  Some units - namely Zach Parise's line - strived for and thrived on the possession game. 

CON: MacLean's lack of experience.  When things go south for some period of time for this team - and it will happen at some point - what will MacLean fall back on?  When a player comes to him with an issue, will MacLean have the acumen to handle the issue well for both sides?   These are questions I'm sure were raised, but his inexperience doesn't inspire a lot of confidence at this juncture.  MacLean has been a head coach for Lowell last season and that was his only season of being a head coach in pro hockey.    He's still relatively new and still learning.  Fortunately, the promotion of Robinson, who has been a head coach for several years in LA and NJ, to be an assistant can help and teach MacLean further. 

Still, this team needs a playoff run to last beyond the first round.  On top of that, he'll be expected to maintain success in the regular season, and keeping the players and management content without providing cause to tune him out.  These are high expectations for anyone, much less someone's first job in the NHL.

PRO: MacLean was Lou's first choice.  Per Chere's featured article, he's confident in MacLean to the point where he presumably didn't talk to Mike Haviland (Aside #2: I don't fully believe that based on nothing but a lack of understanding - why wait until now to make the hire then?). That's a lot of confidence in my view.  Given the name of the site, that has to be a pro of some sort.

Ultimately, I'm not as down on this hiring as I initially was with Lemaire last summer, but I can't say that I'm thrilled. I'm somewhere in the middle, per the poll choices. Truth be told, there weren't a lot of great options available; no one that stood out as an ideal candidate.  All the same, my opinion is moot. MacLean's the head coach whether I love it or loathe it.  Besides, I eventually learned to like the Lemaire hire last summer, perhaps that will happen again during the upcoming season.

Either way, I wish MacLean the very best of luck in achieving success in 2010-11 with the Devils, as well as in trying to establish himself in the NHL as a head coach. 

Anyway, let me know what you think in the comments.  Are these legit pros and cons? Are there more I missed? Of course, please feel free to share your thoughts on how you voted in the poll, too.   Thanks to Matt, Tom, and Kevin for jumping on this big news during the day.

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