OTTAWA – Mike Fisher doesn’t mince words when describing the state of the Ottawa Senators before the arrival of Cory Clouston.
“We were brutal,” the Senators centre said Tuesday, recalling the team’s first meeting with their new coach last February. “He came in and he said, ‘We’re going to be a good team, this is how we’re going to do it. I want everyone to jump on board. If you do, we’re going to win games.’ And that’s exactly what we did.”
It’s been 41 games since Clouston took over behind the bench in Ottawa, the equivalent of half an NHL season, and as bleak as things looked on Feb. 2 when the Senators fired Craig Hartsburg, they’ve been looking up almost ever since.
“At that point, when Hartsy got fired, we were rock bottom,” Fisher said. “(Clouston) has been good.
“He’s a fair coach and at the same time he expects a lot and has done a great job so far.
“He instilled confidence in us and we went out and won a lot of games.”
Twenty-four of the Senators’ last 41 to be exact. Ottawa was 17-24-7 when Clouston took over and, after going 19-11-4 to finish the season, has started this year 5-2-0.
Critics may argue that last season’s strong finish came after the Senators, all but out of the playoff picture when he took over, were under no pressure to perform. Likewise, they haven’t faced the toughest schedule to open this season.
But in his players’ words, and the win column, the 40-year-old has made the impact on the Senators that Hartsburg and John Paddock, fired the season before Hartsburg, were unable to make on a team that was often lauded for its skill but chided for its heart and work ethic.
“We’re pulling in the right direction in just about every area,” Clouston said Tuesday. “Our penalty killing’s been solid, our goaltending’s been very good, offensively we started to generate more chances and we’re starting to bury some of our chances. We’ve done what we wanted to accomplish and now it’s to just keep building on what we’ve been doing.”
Clouston, a native of Viking, Alta., had spent just a season and a half with the Senators’ American Hockey League affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y., before being promoted to his first NHL job.
The former coach of the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice was a relative unknown. Thanks in part to his ability to get through his daily press conferences without revealing much about himself personally, he remains so.
His approach has been paying off in Ottawa, even if it ruffles a few feathers along the way.
“Cory’s basically all business,” Fisher said. “He obviously takes the job very seriously and he demands a lot from us, but he’s very clear. He’s done a good job of communicating to us what he wants and the system. There’s no grey areas and that helps us as a team.”
During the off-season, Dany Heatley cited his “diminished role” under Clouston as one of his reasons for wanting out of Ottawa. A star player condemning his coach’s approach could have undermined Clouston’s authority, but it didn’t.
In fact, the Senators appear to be a harmonious bunch since Heatley was dealt to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo at the start of training camp.
“I know they didn’t see eye-to-eye, but I think that showed Cory wasn’t backing down,” Fisher said. “He’s that kind of coach that wants to win and he demands a lot of the players and, if they’re not going to give it and they’re upset, then ‘see you later.’
“That’s kind of what happened with Heater.”
The Senators signed defenceman Matt Carkner to a two-year contract extension on Tuesday. The 28-year-old, celebrating his first one-way deal since being drafted by Montreal more than 10 years ago, believes his success is as much about Clouston’s support as it is about his own perseverance.
“For me personally, he just shows confidence in his players,” Carkner said Tuesday. “When you’re playing all right or you’re playing well, he keeps putting you in good roles and that makes you feel like you have the coach’s confidence to go out and do your job. The confidence thing is huge, and he uses it really well.”