Team spokesman Todd Sharrock confirmed the firing on Thursday morning after several media reports said MacLean had been let go Wednesday night. Principal owner John H. McConnell, minority owners and team officials met Wednesday and agreed to dismiss MacLean, the architect of a team that had gone 172-258-62 since joining the league in 2000. The Blue Jackets were 33-42-7 this past season.
Led by coach Ken Hitchcock, and with players such as Rick Nash and Sergei Fedorov, the Blue Jackets finished 23 points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Their record this season was 24th among the league’s 30 teams.
Sharrock said team officials would hold a news conference later Thursday.
Jody Shelley, with the team from its first year, said he was stunned by the dismissal despite the lack of success by the team.
“As a player, I’m really surprised,” he said. “You hear the rumours but you just figure it comes with not meeting expectations. Then when the other shoe drops, you’re still shocked.”
MacLean did not immediately return a phone message.
He had two years remaining on a contract that paid him around US$1-million per season, plus incentives.
“I’m unbelievably disappointed about where we are but I think we’ve got an unbelievable foundation in place,” MacLean said after the season. “I’m telling you, I look around the league and how many teams would I trade ours for? Not many.”
MacLean was McConnell’s first hire when Columbus secured the franchise. He supervised all the drafts and trades, some that were overwhelming successes and others that were abysmal failures.
MacLean even dumped the team’s first head coach, Dave King, and took over behind the bench. But the Blue Jackets did not respond under MacLean, going just 9-21-4-3 at the start of the 2003-2004 season before he stepped aside and elevated assistant coach Gerard Gallant.
Gallant was fired and replaced by Hitchcock early this past season after Columbus won just six of its first 24 games.
MacLean, who turned 53 a week ago, coached the Florida Panthers to the Stanley Cup final in 1996. After a 41-31-10 record during the regular season, the Panthers were a fourth seed in the playoffs but pulled off a succession of upsets to advance to play the Colorado Avalanche in the final, where they were swept in four games.
Through trades and the expansion draft before Columbus’ first NHL season in 2000-2001, MacLean acquired club mainstays such as goaltender Ron Tugnutt and forwards Geoff Sanderson, Espen Knutsen, Tyler Wright and David Vyborny. They led the club to a surprising 28-39-9-6 record under King and became only the third expansion team to exceed 71 points, which raised expectations.
MacLean traded up with Florida to grab Nash with the overall No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft. He scored 17 goals and had 22 assists as a rookie, then exploded in 2003-2004 to tie for the league lead in goals with 41. In the two years since the lockout, however, he has scored just 31 goals and 27 goals.
Nikolai Zherdev, taken with the No. 4 pick in 2003, has shown flashes of offensive brilliance while making frequent mistakes and failing to make strides as a two-way player.
Perhaps the biggest move of MacLean’s tenure was the Nov. 15, 2005, trade with Anaheim that brought Fedorov and a draft pick from Anaheim for defenceman Francois Beauchemin and Wright. Fedorov, 35 at the time, was supposed to help Zherdev develop while lending a steadying hand to the offence.
Instead, he fought nagging injuries and his production waned while taking up a large chunk of the team’s salary cap space with a salary of more than $6 million per year. At the same time, Beauchemin has developed into a budding star on the-blue line for the Ducks.
MacLean also signed defencemen Adam Foote and Bryan Berard to expensive free-agent contracts, receiving only sporadic production on the ice in return.
The fans came out regardless of how the team played, with an average attendance of more than 16,000 at Nationwide Arena since the Blue Jackets arrived. Still, discontent had been growing, and the team was frequently booed this past season for its anemic offence.
“It’s a business, but at the same time there’s a human side,” Shelley said. “A guy lost his job today, a guy who was passionate and did some great things for this organization.”