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Devils' fans have been anticipating for years that all-time leading goal scorer John MacLean would be the team’s head coach someday. Seen as a fiery, passionate assistant under … well, we don’t have the time to name all the names, but you get my point. Many believed it was Johnny Mac’s time when Claude Julien was hired back in 2006. They thought it was the right moment again in 2007, when he was passed over for Brent Sutter. When Sutter left in 2009 and Jacques Lemaire was hired again, many felt that MacLean would never be coach.
Such is the life of a Devils fan. Many of the more hardcore conspiracy theorists believed MacLean would never be head coach as a punishment for requesting a trade in his playing days, or as punishment for committing the only mortal sin in Devils land: signing with the Rangers. Of course, this logic is silly. It seems to make so much sense now: MacLean was clearly sent to AHL Lowell last year not to punish, but to groom him as the next coach when Lemaire was ready to hang it up.
That just happened to come quicker than we all thought.
Look, this column isn’t a debate about whether or not MacLean’s ready to be an NHL head coach. He absolutely is for this job. He spent seven seasons learning under guys like Pat Burns and Larry Robinson, and most importantly, Lou Lamoriello. Would I be more hesitant to hire him for a job outside of this system? Maybe, but MacLean is the ultimate ambassador of the Devil Way: a player who managed to become one of the rare offensive stars in New Jersey’s first quarter-century of existence. He’s someone who brings a link to both the Devils past as a “Mickey Mouse” organization and their championship years. If Ken Daneyko is “Mr. Devil” to the community, then John MacLean is “Mr. Devils Hockey”.
The outpouring of affection for MacLean will likely make this the most popular hiring of a coach in Devil history. Despite leaving, he will always be a Devil favorite for scoring the overtime winner on Darren Pang in the final game of the 1987-88 season to lead New Jersey to its first post-season. MacLean will be the first former Devil to be hired as head coach in the team’s history. For that alone, the fans will feel they have a vested interest in their coach, something that helps with the continued (and long-awaited) outreach the Devils are making to their fanbase. Make no mistake, this hiring is as much a crowd-pleaser as the re-hiring of Lemaire was, to many, a crowd-groaner.
But Lemaire quickly became a popular hire by making the Devils a first-place team despite a roster riddled with injuries during the first half of the season. As such, the fanbase just as suddenly called for his head when the Devs were completely listless and abused by the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals last season.
That brings us to the one and only point anyone really needs to bring up about any Devils coach, and especially for John MacLean. It is great that the Devils have hired a coach who is popular with almost everyone, from the organization to the fanbase to the media. However, if there’s another first-round exit from this bunch, MacLean might not survive. The Devils have become as notorious a first-round flop as the San Jose Sharks were since their last Stanley Cup in 2003. They’ve won only two playoff series since then, and its been three seasons since they won any playoff round.
Point is: Johnny Mac, we’re glad you finally got a chance, but the window’s even closer to closing than ever to win with Martin Brodeur creeping closer to both 40 years of age and the end of a contract. It has become abundantly clear with every single move made by this team: Win now, or face the consequences.