Grit, Stats and Draft Choices – An Interview With Doug MacLean

Updated: September 30, 2016 at 2:46 pm by Kent Wilson

FlamesNation reader Cory S had an opportunity to sit down with former GM and Sportsnet analyst Doug MacLean this summer and he was kind enough to share the transcript with us. 

The interview includes a wide variety of topics, including MacLean’s start in the NHL, his experiences in Columbus and his take on things like analytics, the relationship between coaches and GM’s and the Flames negotiations with Johnny Gaudreau.


Cory: Let’s get right into it. Who gave you
your first big break in hockey?

Doug MacLean: I guess my first break
would be getting on with the Summerside Western Capitals in their first year. Three years after that, from the start of the
Caps, I got the UNB (University of New Brunswick) job after spending a year in
London with Don Boyd. Don gave me a chance to go with the London Knights after
the Caps and that helped me get the UNB job.

But I think the biggest break was Jacques
Martin who was the head coach of the St. Louis Blues in 85-86 and he offered me
a job as an assistant coach from UNB. 

So Jacques Martin was a big big break,
but the biggest guy in my career was Bryan Murray who I spent ten years with.
Bryan hired me in Washington, then we went to Detroit together and Florida
together so we spent ten years together Bryan and I. So Bryan Murray was really
the guy that gave me, well he and Jacques really gave me my chance in the NHL,
and lots of people gave me opportunities at the university and junior levels.
So a lot of people.

CS: So you have held pretty much every
major coaching and management position from the AHL through the NHL. Can you
give me some insight as to how all the different relationships work behind the
scenes? For example, how much input does a GM have with the coaches in regards
to lineups, who is being scratched, or when it comes to call ups from the AHL,
who makes that decision?

DM: Don’t ever kid yourself, the GM has
their hands all over the hockey team. His number one focus is dealing with the
day-to-day operations of the team. And that includes dealing with coach. 

coaches have more autonomy; there is no doubt about that with the more
experienced guys. Some GMs don’t like to get too involved. I worked with Bryan
Murray who was hands all over the coaching because he was a former coach and loved
it. When I was a GM I talked to coach on a daily basis. Did I tell him who to
play? No, never would I tell him who to play. Would I make suggestions? Yeah.
But the coach has to make the final decision on the lineup and on who he wants
to play together.

As far as call ups, you rely on the GM in
discussion with the coach in the minor leagues, American Hockey League coach.
The NHL coach also deals with the minor league coach and talks on a consistent
basis. So I think it’s about communication all the way around.

The GM role has changed a
lot. In the old days it was a lot of scouting, there was a lot of contract
work, it was managing. Todays GM is more involved with the actual NHL team. A
limited amount of scouting for the most part. I love when they say “well this
GM made a bad pick”, I’m thinking the GM might have seen that guy play twice.

So the GM job has changed, its evolved. He is spending more time dealing with the ownership,
unless he has a President of Hockey Ops, which is another new position which is
what I call the “fake GM society”.

CS: So that’s Brian Burke’s role with
Calgary right now.

DM: Brian comes from a GM background, so he
comes in. And now all of a sudden you have new coaching staff, you have Brad
Treliving in the GM position and you have Brian overseeing the hockey operations department.
Does he tell Brad what to do? No, but he would be a great sounding board for
Brad. And plus it allows Brad to really
focus on the hockey team and Burkie would look after dealing
with Ken King and the ownership group.

So if you are a GM in the league today and
you have a President of Hockey Operations that’s had great experience as a GM
around the league, that’s a luxury. It’s a luxury especially for a young GM
like Brad. So I like that setup. 

CS: Who did you enjoy working with most
during your time as coach and GM? 

DM: Ten years with Bryan was just an
amazing experience. He is one of the best coaches in the history of the game.
You just have to look up his win loss record, his longevity in the league at
almost forty years. He was an unbelievable guy to work with. 

I got a job with him when I was in my early
thirties, he gave me an assistant coaching job, he gave me an associate head
coaching job, he gave me an assistant GM job, he gave me a head coaching job in
Florida and we went to the Stanley Cup Finals together. Because of that
experience I was given the GM and Presidents role with Columbus. So Bryan and I
were side by side for ten years. 

He is going through a tough time right now, I
spent some time with him in June and every time we get together we laugh and
talk about the old times.

CS: The terms “grit” and “heart” are used a
lot when describing hockey players, but these are qualities that are often
difficult to qualify. What do these terms mean to you, and how important do you
think they are in todays NHL?

DM: Grit and character are very important,
there is no doubt about it. You say grit and character and who does that refer
to? Do you mean Brian MacGrattan who had a solid career as a tough guy? Or do
you say its Towes with grit and character who is also one of the best players
in the NHL? You watch Crosby in the playoffs, unbelievable skill and talent. but all the way he grinded and the character he showed. 

People think it’s just the average hockey player or a below average hockey
player, but to me the character of the player and every time I think about
character I think Tavares, I think Toews, I think of some of the best young guys
in the game that bring that grit, the character, leadership, skill, the whole

CS: Do you think analytics have a very
important role to play in hockey today? In a salary cap league you are limited
as to how much can be spent on players so its important to be looking for
points outside of the box.

DM: To me as time goes on it will
find its place. I think its really important, you cannot be in the league today
and not pay attention to it. You have to. But it’s another tool. 

chuckle when I hear Brian Burke say it doesn’t show you how many times a guy is
hit in the face with a puck when he’s going down to block a shot. Analytics
is an important aspect of it, but you have to be unbelievably careful how much
value you put on it. It should be a tool as other elements of scouting are, as
other elements of breaking down your team and I think if used properly can be
an important value. 

But, it makes me nervous when I see teams going way way
overboard with it. And it makes coaches nervous and it makes some general
managers nervous because sometimes it’s the owners that are the most into it.
So I think it’s really important, I really like it and like using it but it’s
got to be the right balance.

CS: Do you care to share the Gilbert Brule
draft story? I’ve heard rumblings that he wasn’t meant to fall to you
(Columbus) and that there wasn’t a whole lot of scouting done on him by the
club (DM: On Brule?) Yeah, as Kopitar was more your focus.

DM: That is totally false. Brule was as heavily scouted as any player ever in the draft. This is a guy
that was an unbelievable superstar in junior. I
chuckle when I read all the reports about it because we scouted Kopitar
reasonably strong, except with Kopitar the only people that saw him was
myself, Don Boyd (my chief scout) and our European guy. 

We saw him at the World Championships, we saw him in
Europe, but he wasn’t over here playing. So the myth that Kopitar was heavily
scouted by us is wrong other than by three people in our organization.

So we come to the draft and Kopitar was our
number one European on the radar. Brule was probably, well I’ll tell you
exactly where he was on our list. It was Crosby was ahead of him, Bobby Ryan
was ahead of him. I believe it was Jack Johnson and Brule was in that range,
probably at five or so. 

what happens? When we went to make that pick Brule was our
number one North American on our list as the other guys had gone, Kopitar was
our number one European on the list. Kopitar overall was rated ahead of Brule.
He was. And I remember John Williams and Sam McMaster, my western scouts, pounding on
the table saying “We’ve got to take Brule”. Our European guy loved Kopitar, Don
Boyd loved Kopitar, I really liked Kopitar and I really liked Brule. 

The decision was made with Don Boyd and I
saying we’ve got some problems, big problems, with Zherdev. We had taken the
European and it was a problem. And our decision was: do we take the North
American or do we take the Slovenian? And we loved Kopitar. And
we loved Brule. And I remember when we took Brule the excitement on our staff
was over the top.

So it’s a bunch of BS. You know what I
chuckle about? The media makes it sound like Kopitar was the next player taken.
He went eleventh, I was picking sixth. Kopitar went eleventh and everyone makes
it sound like I took Brule and Kopitar was the next player taken. 

Jack Skille
went to Chicago. Chicago has got a reputation of being the best drafters in the
history of the game. Brian Lee went to Ottawa, and Ottawa has a good history.
Neither one of those guys has hardly played in the league. Setoguchi went to
San Jose and all of a sudden he (Kopitar) goes eleventh to LA? Come on. It’s a
joke the way they talk about it. And the media in Columbus they can’t wait to
talk about it. 

Well hey, in hindsight I would have loved to have taken Kopitar
now. But then people say you ruined Brule because you brought him up too young.
He went back to junior, I watched him in the Memorial Cup the next year and he
was the MVP, we was unbelievable. People were sitting in the stands saying how
lucky I was to have Brule. And now it’s the worst draft in the history of

CS: With the benefit of hindsight, are
there any moves or decisions you made as a coach or GM that you hoped would
turn out differently? Or that you regret? 

DM: Obviously there are a couple of drafts.
Would I have rather ended up with Kopitar? Yeah that’s one because it
continually gets thrown in my face. 

The Federov deal
was a bit of a controversial one because I gave up Todd Marchant to Anaheim.
And Beauchemin was a throw in with that deal (to get Federov), he was playing
with our minor league team. He ends up going in the deal along with Tyler
Wright (the money ended up being even because they had to take
Tyler, who was finished). They took Marchants $3.75M, we
took Federov, and they took Beauchemin. 

So Beauchemin goes to Anaheim and starts playing
with Rob Niedermayer and has a really good career. Sergei played ten more
years, but I brought him in to be a mentor for Zherdev. I thought he would help, but
at the end Sergei didn’t want anything to do with him because Nik was so wound
up all the time.

The coaching thing was always an issue. I
had to fire Dave King and I didn’t like doing it. I had to fire Gerard Gallant
and both times it was my owner that came to me and said make a coaching change.
That’s the other thing people don’t realize when you are a GM: Ninety percent
of the time the owner fires the coach. It’s a myth that the GMs fire the
coaches. A lot of the time there is
unbelievable pressure from the owner combined with media pressure. 

I remember
sitting in my office at eleven o’clock at night, getting a call from my owner
after we lost to Nashville and he said “I want you to fire Dave King the next
morning” And I said “Oh really? Who’s going to coach?” And he said “You’re
going to coach” And then I read for the next two years that I fired Dave King
because I wanted to coach.

So sure there are regrets, but overall the
ten years I had in Columbus were the most gratifying of my career starting a
franchise from scratch.

CS: How are you enjoying being an analyst
with Sportsnet?

DM: Would I have liked to get another chance as a GM? Sure.
And I really thought I had a chance in Florida. I interviewed in Phoenix and I thought I had a real chance a few years
ago and it didn’t happen. I interviewed in Minnesota and it didn’t happen. 

you know what, I’m really comfortable. I’m doing three days a week now with
Sportsnet, I’ve been doing it for seven years or so. Do I miss being in the
action? Yeah you miss that there is no doubt about it. But I really think that
at this stage of my career I’m thrilled. I love it. I’m still in the game. It’s
fun. If you are not a GM, it’s the next best job in hockey. 

CS: Do the producers tend to drive what is
being discussed during the intermission panels?

DM: The producers are really good and they
sort of come in with parameters or what the issues are that are going on. And
then we take what the issues are and put them in our own words. 

I’ve never once
at Rogers been told what to say. Never once either on the radio or on TV. And
sometimes I say things that tick off some teams. I know our radio show at noon
can be a little controversial. I know players listen to it as well as a lot of
coaches and managers. And you know what? I think the one thing is I give my
opinion and I try not to make it personal. It’s just my opinion. I like the
trade, I don’t like the trade, good move, bad move, coaching move, but it’s
nothing personal. We get to give our opinion, no doubt about it.

CS: Time to talk a bit about the Flames.
Have you heard anything on the Gaudreau negotiations that you can share? And do
you think he is worth the rumored $8M per season asking price?

DM: I certainly hope they don’t have to pay
him eight million dollars. I’m a Johnny Gaudreau fan, I love the way he plays
the game. I love the fact that they have him and Monahan and now Tkachuk. 

Surely they don’t have
to pay him eight million dollars. I’m sorry, but I don’t see him to be any more
valuable that Monahan. I love Monahan, I love what he brings to the table. But
to me, Gaudreau doesn’t deserve any more money that Monahan. 

But its all
about leverage in those situations where you are in tough negotiations. You
have to take the comparables, work off those and how many years until he hits
unrestricted free agency. You have to give him credit for the points he has
been able to put up, but they didn’t make the playoffs last year and he was one
of the top scorers in the league. That’s not all his fault, but I still think
there is a way to go there and as much as I love him I hope they don’t have to
pay him eight million. To me it’s ludicrous if they have to pay him that much.

CS: What are your thoughts on the Flames
goaltenders, in particular Brian Elliott?

DM: I think it was a weakness for them last
year. It’s bizarre, last
year I thought they had a top five defense in the league. I looked at their
blue line at the start of last season and I absolutely loved it.
With Brodie, Giordano, the Hamilton acquisition. I really liked the mix.
Russell in the five spot. 

And then all of
a sudden the team struggled. You can blame to coaching all you want, but come
on it was the goaltending. The goaltending was simply not good enough. And then
defensively they don’t look great, offensively they don’t look great. For me it
all came back to the goaltending. Is it fair to blame to goalies totally? no.
But they need better goaltending. 

I’ve always perceived Elliott as a top end
back up. Then I watched him last year with St Louis down the stretch and in the
playoffs, he certainly deserves the chance to be the bonafide number one. It’s
an upgrade no doubt about it.

CS: What are your thoughts on the Brouwer
signing? A lot of Flames fans think it’s a overpay for him as he is 31-years
old and generally players start to decline around that age.

DM: You know what, I think he really fits in well
with the Flames. I liked what he brought to the table last year in St. Louis. He
was an important guy in Washington, he was an important guy in St Louis. Yeah so you over pay a little bit, it’s still a good signing and I
think he fits in there really well. 

To me, he fit in real well on the Stastny, Fabbri line. He can play with good players so he fits in really well there. I
think he fits in the Flames top six, but he can also be a top nine guy.

CS: What are your thoughts on the Flames
new coaching staff? And have you spoken to Dave Cameron since he’s been hired?

DM: Glen Gulutzan I don’t really know. I
thought he did a reasonable job in Dallas, it was a good learning experience to
step back as an assistant in Vancouver. I don’t mind the move. Dave Cameron was
a great assistant coach hire. Dave had a good run and he’s been a lifer. I
think he deserves a chance, he and Gulutzan will be a real good combination. 

But again, why does Gulutzan get the job? History with
Treliving, they go back, there is a trust factor there  and Brad felt that he was the guy that fit with this group. 

thought Hartley should have been let go to be quite honest. I thought he had
done what he could do there, he did a good job, but he should not have
been blamed for what happened last year. I didn’t like the fact that there were
conversations that they were not a good enough puck possession team and all
that BS. That was just a cop out to fire the guy. 

But it was time to make a
change. I thought he had started to lose the dressing room there. My inside
information was that it wasn’t a good vibe in the room. Gulutzan/Treliving will
have a good working environment and hopefully Bob gets another job. He’s a good
coach. You know what? Eventually every coach loses the dressing room. 

CS: One
final question, is a hotdog a sandwich?

DM: If I’m hungry enough it is.