OTTAWA – Craig Hartsburg became the first major casualty of the Ottawa Senators’ disappointing season Monday – but he won’t likely be the last.
Hartsburg was fired as head coach of the NHL club Monday and general manager Bryan Murray suggested there will be more changes coming as he decides which players are part of the solution or part of the problem in Ottawa.
“We’ve made another coaching change and now we have to watch the players over the next period of time and decide who stays and who doesn’t stay to help us go forward,” Murray said. “There will be judgements made before the trading deadline.”
The NHL team promoted 39-year-old Cory Clouston from the American Hockey League affiliate Binghamton Senators to finish the season in Ottawa.
He becomes the fourth different coach to go behind the Senators bench since the team reached the Stanley Cup final in 2007.
Last year, the team dumped John Paddock on Feb. 27 and Murray took over to finish the season.
Hartsburg, 49, was hired last June and given a three-year contract.
With the Senators struggling badly and failing to live up to expectations in Ottawa, he paid the price after just 48 games.
He leaves with the Senators in 13th place in the Eastern Conference standings with a 17-24-7 record, 14 points out of a playoff spot and headed toward missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said everyone, not just Hartsburg, should be held accountable for the team’s poor performance.
“We’re not going to put the blame on Craig and say it’s his fault,” said Alfredsson. “We don’t feel that way. We know we haven’t performed to the level we’re capable of and hopefully Cory can come in and give us some more energy because that’s been lacking lately.”
During a news conference at Scotiabank Place, Murray said the decision to fire Hartsburg was “sad.”
“Obviously, (it’s) based on the record, the team’s performance lately and the competitive level of our team over a period of time,” he said. “We kept hoping that there would be some change in our performance that didn’t seem to be taking place.”
Rumours over Hartsburg’s future have been swirling for some time.
During the world junior hockey championship that wrapped up last month, reports that Pat Quinn would take over forced Senators owner Eugene Melnyk to issue a statement to quell the speculation.
Then, just last week, Melnyk said he wouldn’t “blow up” the team.
But the last straw for Hartsburg came Sunday in a 7-4 loss in Washington to the Capitals in a game in which the final score flattered the visitors.
Also out is assistant coach Curtis Hunt, who’s been offered Clouston’s old job with Binghamton. Assistant Greg Carvel stays on in Ottawa, as does former Senators defenceman Luke Richardson, who announced his retirement as a player earlier this season to take on a coaching role.
“Maybe I waited a couple of weeks too long,” said Murray. “I felt after watching our game yesterday in particular, but certainly a number of games lately, that we just weren’t making any progress. We were struggling to keep up. We weren’t a very co-ordinated group.”
Murray said he broke the news to Hartsburg on Sunday night.
“He understands, he was apologetic a little bit in that he didn’t get them to play the way he thought he could when he came here,” said Murray.
Murray informed the players of the change Monday morning and they arrived at the rink for a later-than-usual practice.
“Obviously, we were a little bit surprised coming to the rink today, but not all that surprised given the way the season’s gone,” said centre Jason Spezza, one of the team’s stars accused of underachieving and contributing to Hartsburg’s demise.
“We feel a lot of responsibility for it, obviously,” left-winger Dany Heatley said. “It’s never a great thing when your coach gets fired.
“As players if we win, coaches stay, we lose, coaches go.”
Hartsburg promised to make the players accountable for their actions when he was hired and he tried things like breaking up the team’s top line of Heatley, Spezza and Alfredsson and sitting out lesser talents, but had little success in shaking the team out of its funk.
“(Hartsburg) couldn’t get the most out of us,” said Alfredsson. “I don’t know if it was a bad time for him to come in. He’s a good coach. I think he will come back.”
Despite the coaching carousel, Alfredsson and Spezza scoffed at suggestions the players are developing a reputation as “coach killers.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Spezza said.
Now it’s up to the players to save their own places in Ottawa, which is why Murray said the change had to be made now.
“We have 34 games remaining in the schedule, approximately a month until the trading deadline and we have some big decisions to make,” he said.
Murray was coy when asked about his own future and said that he’s only had one draft as GM to be evaluated on, but admitted he takes his share of responsibility for the situation the team is currently in.
“I’ve changed the coach, but it definitely is on my shoulders, everything that happens here I take full responsibility for and I should,” he said.
Less than two years ago, the Senators were being hailed as one of the best teams in hockey. Now, after going through four different coaches since losing the 2007 Stanley Cup final, the question that’s being asked is what went wrong?
“That’s what we want to find out,” said Murray. “I’m not sure how this happened totally.”
Despite its underachieving, Ottawa has been reluctant to pack in this season and enter a rebuilding mode by trading any of those key pieces. So instead, the Senators will find out if coaching really was the problem.
“You feel for Craig, he’s a good man, a friend of mine and a very good coach,” said Panthers coach Pete DeBoer, who was also in the running for the job in Ottawa before winding up in Florida. “A lot of this job is circumstance. I know having had talks with Craig when we played, he was doing everything he could to get that team turned around. It’s unfortunate.”
Murray said Senators owner Eugene Melnyk gave him the green light to hire a veteran NHL coach, but he elected instead to stick within the organization in hiring Clouston, who joined Binghamton in the summer of 2007 from the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice.
“He knows our players, he knows our prospects and I know he gets max performance out of his players in the American Hockey League,” Murray said.
“I asked one of his players the other day what he thought of Cory and he said, well, he’s got this winning mentality, which means he’s not very nice some days and I kind of like that answer.”
He’s described as a no-nonsense coach by members of the Senators who’ve played under him in Binghamton, where he had the B-Sens in a playoff position with a record of 25-16-3-3.
“I don’t think you’d probably describe me as a players’ coach,” Clouston said in describing himself.
Shortly after being introduced, he was on the ice with the players, barking orders during his first practice.
His first test comes Tuesday night when the Los Angeles Kings visit Scotiabank Place.
After practice, he said his priority right now is “just showing the team I’m going to do anything possible to make them succeed.”