OTTAWA – The first anniversary of Cory Clouston’s time behind the bench in Ottawa is a happy one.
With the Senators riding a franchise-record nine-game winning streak, it’s hard to believe that not so long ago, the team had reached just about the lowest point that any of the current players can remember.
“We weren’t in a very good spot as a team last year before he took over,” centre Jason Spezza said Tuesday before the Senators departed for Buffalo, where they’ll face the Sabres on Wednesday night with a chance to close the gap on their opponents for the Northeast Division lead.
“We were losing lots of games, everyone was real down in the room,” Spezza continued. “It was a tough time, but, since Cory’s come in, we’ve been a little bit more ordered.”
And a lot more successful – certainly much more successful than Clouston’s predecessor, Craig Hartsburg, and John Paddock before him.
Since Clouston was officially introduced as Hartsburg’s replacement on Feb. 2, 2009, the 40-year-old native of Viking, Alta., has compiled a 50-32-8 record in his first stint as an NHL coach.
Ottawa’s recent hot streak has the team earning comparisons to the squad that was able to reach the 2007 Stanley Cup final under now-general manager Bryan Murray, which has been the high point in the franchise’s history.
“Our system’s been great, it’s back to the way it was when Bryan Murray was coaching,” Senators right-winger Chris Neil said. “We’re an aggressive team with aggressive forechecking and that’s what Bryan wanted to see and Cory brings that.”
Despite spending a year and a half with the Senators’ Binghamton affiliate in the American Hockey League, Clouston was something of an unknown around Ottawa at the time of his appointment and largely believed to be a cheap, if not temporary, solution.
Under Paddock and Hartsburg, the general belief was that players had been given too easy a ride.
At Clouston’s introductory news conference, which came the day after the Senators returned from a loss in Washington, he was asked what kind of boss he was by the assembled media. He responded by stating that he was certainly no players’ coach and that he’d be a demanding taskmaster.
He’s lived up to his billing.
He’s all business when it comes to dealing with the media, revealing little about himself personally and rarely cracking a smile, but his effect on the Senators was apparent early.
Clouston’s first game in charge, on Feb. 3, 2009, was a 1-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. His second resulted in a 4-3 overtime defeat to the Boston Bruins. His third game, against the Sabres, resulted in his first victory.
Although they weren’t able to recover enough ground to make the playoffs last year, they did finish with a 19-11-4 mark under the new coach and that provided hope for the new season. Even if it’s taken some time to show in the standings.
Despite an up-and-down start to this season, caused by injuries and inconsistent play, especially from their goaltenders, the Senators have hit their stride and are among the hottest teams in the league over the past month.
“I thought we played well almost right off the bat,” Clouston said Monday. “To me, just the effort and the consistency has been there. We don’t always win, but, for the most part, we play hard, we play well.
“I look forward to coming here every day. We’ve got the team moving in the right direction, we’ve just got to keep it going.”
On Tuesday, Senators president Cyril Leeder officially announced the team’s intent to submit a bid for the 2012 NHL all-star contest.
Meanwhile, they head into Wednesday night’s game trailing the Sabres by just five points for the Northeast Division lead. Although Buffalo has two games in hand, the Senators are 3-0 in the season series so far with three contests still to play.
So these are happy days in Ottawa, and Clouston has a lot to do with it.
“The biggest thing he’s brought is a good foundation for us. He’s been really consistent with his message all of the time,” Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said Tuesday.
“He’s demanding, there’s no question, but I think everybody looks at it in the same way. You know he’s demanding, but if you get results, it’s easy to fall in and follow his leadership.
“And when he says he’s not a players’ coach, it doesn’t mean he can’t talk to us or he can’t smile, but when it comes to practice or games, he’s very focused.”