Paul MacLean was but a rookie head coach for the Ottawa Senators in 2011-12 when came on the scene that offseason after Cory Clouston was fired and took a downtrodden squad to the playoffs.
One season later, MacLean was named Coach of the Year.
Less than two seasons after that, MacLean was fired.
It was during the 2012 playoffs when I spoke to a few players about why MacLean was able to engineer such a quick turnaround, how he transformed a 74-point team in 2010-11 into a 92-point team in 2011-12 despite little roster turnover.
The general consensus can be summarized in these quotes from Jason Spezza and Nick Foligno.
"Just his general understanding from being a player, because he's played the game," Spezza said. "He knows the ups and downs that go with it and knows we can get frustrated at times and we know he can get frustrated. It sounds corny, but we've been all on the same page and together all year and I think that's what's made it successful for us."
Clouston, whose playing career ended at the University of Alberta in 1993, never played the game at the professional level, was the inference there.
"He puts it on the leadership group to make sure that they're pushing us as well," Foligno said. "It's been a really good year with that give-and-take kind of thing with the guys."
So what changed between then and now? Did MacLean suddenly forget how to coach?
Part of the answer likely lies not only in those quotes but the players who delivered them.
The leadership group that existed in 2011-12 has all but disintegrated. Spezza was traded to the Dallas Stars over the summer and Daniel Alfredsson left for Detroit before the 2013-14 season after a messy divorce, leaving the team with Chris Phillips and Chris Neil as the only leadership holdovers from that era.
Coaches lean on their leaders in order to achieve accountability in the locker room. Perhaps the combination of new captain Erik Karlsson, Neil and Phillips wasn't serving that purpose as well as the previous group. Just how effective Karlsson, a first-time captain, and Phillips, who may be bitter after being passed over for the 'C' not once but twice, were as leaders is something only they and the players in that locker room know.
Intangible facets aside, this season's team was a fringe playoff contender at best no matter which players were cracking the whip in the locker room.
Not only are Spezza and Alfredsson gone from that 2011-12, but so is Foligno.
There has been a lot of standard roster turnover since 2011-12 and even 2013, but very little of it has served to make the Senators a better team.
Consider the 2013 roster for a moment and how it became what it is today.
MacLean did a masterful coaching job that season, guiding his team to a playoff spot despite Spezza missing 43 games with a back issue and Karlsson missing 31 games with a sliced Achilles' tendon. They came up short against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second round of the playoffs, but it was a level of success few could have expected during the injury-riddled season.
After that, everything changed.
Alfredsson and owner Eugene Melnyk butted heads before the Senators legend signed elsewhere. That led to Jakob Silfverberg being included in a package to acquire Bobby Ryan from the Anaheim Ducks. Sergei Gonchar was allowed to leave, hardly the biggest loss, but have you seen the Senators blue line today?
Before the end of the 2013 season, general manager Bryan Murray used his surplus goaltending to acquire Cory Conacher from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for Ben Bishop. Conacher was waived the following season, while Bishop is among the top goaltenders in the NHL for a second season in a row.
With Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, the Senators have one of the best goaltending duos in the league, but the Bishop/Conacher boondoggle highlights how poorly the team, one that counts every penny, has managed assets in recent seasons.
Could the decline during the past two seasons have something to do with a declining payroll? Here's a look at the Senators' spending the past four seasons.
|Ottawa Senators payroll since 2011-12|
It's nearly impossible to win if the team isn't willing to spend the money to do so.
MacLean isn't without fault, however.
Mika Zibanejad, perhaps the team's most gifted forward, has been a healthy scratch on two occasions this season. When he does play, it's usually about a minute or two fewer than David Legwand, the franchise's laughable response to the departure of Spezza. Heck, there were even times when MacLean felt with his team down a goal late, it was smart to put Neil and his 2,265 career penalty minutes on the ice.
Even with those questionable moves, it's like getting mad at a guy for losing at poker while playing against a guy dealing from the bottom of the deck. MacLean didn't have much of a chance with this roster this season.
Is that a result of MacLean's coaching ability leaving him, or the result of the culmination of poor management decisions and ownership's unwillingness to spend money?
Of course it's the latter, but the next time a coach fires a GM and an owner will be the first time.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.