MacLean enjoying first year behind bench

Rookie head coach has Lowell Devils focused on first playoff berth

Wednesday, 01.6.2010 / 4:59 PM ET / Features
By Eric Marin
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MacLean enjoying first year behind bench
MacLean has steered Lowell toward the top of the AHL's Eastern Conference.
A familiar face returned to the Prudential Center ice on Wednesday, when Lowell head coach John MacLean led his team through practice on the arena’s main rink.

MacLean, who served as a Devils assistant for seven seasons, was named to the Lowell post at last year’s training camp. Not yet halfway through his first-ever campaign as a head coach, MacLean has New Jersey’s AHL affiliate in the running for its first playoff berth since they became the Devils in 2006.

His squad was set to face the Hartford Wolfpack Wednesday in the first regular-season AHL game ever to be played at the Rock. The teams meet again at Newark on Feb. 3.

“I’ve been having a good time,” MacLean said. “I enjoy all the aspects of it. We have a good staff there with Kevin Dean, Lawrence (Feloney) our video guy. It’s been fun. I enjoy the challenge every day of being the head coach, and so far so good. The guys have been playing hard night in, night out and that’s all I can ask.”

After 38 games, Lowell is 21-14-3-0 and trails San Jose-affiliate Worcester (46) by one point for second place in the Atlantic Division and third in the Eastern Conference.

One of the Devils’ all-time greats, MacLean topped the franchise scoring list from 1993 through last March, when Patrik Elias surpassed his career mark. A member of New Jersey’s 1995 Stanley Cup championship, MacLean still holds the club mark for career goals (347).

He still follows the NHL Devils when he can, and expressed enthusiasm for what they’ve been able to accomplish in New Jersey this season.

“That’s always good when the teams are winning,” MacLean said. “Within the organization, it’s a contagious thing and that’s what’s expected. They expect to win here, I expect to win where I am, and I’m sure Rick (Kowalsky in Trenton, ECHL) will say the same thing. That’s something that they learn in training camp, and that’s something that’s up to us to keep ongoing. The level of expectation in this thing is about the team; it’s about how well everyone competes together. Team success leads to individual success.”

Under his guidance, the L-Devils have done an about-face from last season’s sixth-place finish of 35-36-2-7. Their power play (23.6%) is tops in the AHL. All-Star defenseman Tyler Eckford is tied for third in scoring among defensemen. Three of their youngsters sit in the top 11 of rookie scorers (Matt Taormina, ninth - 7g-16a; Nick Palmieri, 10th - 12g-10a; Nathan Perkovich, 11th - 10g-11a).

In net, Mike McKenna owns a mark of 12-8-0 to go with a 2.33 goals-against average, .924 save percentage and two shutouts in 21 appearances. Jeff Frazee, who has coped with injury this season, has gone 8-7-0 with a 2.69 GAA, .909 save percentage and one shutout.

Not a bad collection of bright spots for a newbie coach, though MacLean admitted it took a while to get used to his new title.

“It didn’t really settle in until we actually got out of (New Jersey) from training camp to get to Lowell and start making the decisions every day,” he said. “When you’re in training camp here, you’re at the Devils camp and not really at Lowell’s camp. But when we went down there to Lowell’s camp and you do things the way you would want to do it. I can’t change my personality. You add your personality to the team, and that’s what we’ve been able to do so far.”

Asked for this season’s biggest positives, MacLean shared special praise for both Eckford and for center Ben Walter, who leads the team with 27 points in 38 games (11g-16a).

“(Walter) is a veteran,” MacLean said of the 25-year-old. “He’s been around. He’s so smart, intelligent. He plays the game the right way and each night he comes out and competes and gives us something, which has been a good thing for us and a credit to him.”

Eckford was one of several L-Devils to have been recalled in November when New Jersey was hit by a rash of injuries. He collected one assist in three NHL games, and MacLean said there's a bright future ahead for his 24-year-old blueliner.

“He has way too much talent not to be considered as an All-Star,” MacLean noted. “He should be our best defenseman, he should be night in, night out one of the best defensemen in the league. I’ve told him that’s what he should be and that’s what he needs to learn to do, it’s that night in, night out, he has to be that. If he keeps that level of commitment and keeps that going, then that’s how he’s going to move up.”

After notching two goals and 25 assists in 72 games as a rookie last season, Eckford has already compiled seven goals and 17 assists in his first 33 games of 2009-10. The Vancouver native will represent Lowell at the 2010 AHL All-Star Classic in Portland, Maine, on Jan. 19.

“I think it’s a huge compliment,” Eckford explained. “It obviously felt great, but I wouldn’t be there without the way our team is playing. It’s kind of a reflection on our whole team and how we’ve been playing this year.”

Eckford’s stop in New Jersey included manning the point on the power play, as well as some shifts at forward after the injury bug had hit several Devils regulars.

“I came up and was given the opportunity in certain situations: power play, regular strength," he said. "I played forward, and it was good. It didn’t feel awkward. I’ve just got to work hard and get back up here. That’s my goal.”

Center Tim Sestito was up with the big club for nine games this season and compared MacLean to New Jersey head coach Jacques Lemaire.

“They’re similar in that, from my point of view, they’re both like a players’ coach,” said Sestito, who has 10 goals, 19 points in 26 AHL games. “They’re easy to talk to, they explain their points of view. But if you’re not doing the job, they’ll be quick to get on you and let you know. I think they maybe deliver their message a little bit differently sometimes, for the most part they’re pretty easy to play for. They expect you to work hard, and I think players want to work hard for them.”

MacLean indicated that every day can require a different approach.

“I’m whatever is called for that day,” he said. “If it calls for teaching and being nice or if it calls for breaking a stick and yelling and screaming, then that’s what it calls for that day. Overall, it makes it a lot easier when they give the effort, which they have consistently all year. It just makes it so much easier. I can live with a lot of things other than lack of effort. It’s always been there, which is a good thing.”