OTTAWA – The jobs of Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray and head coach Cory Clouston are safe until the end of the season, but the same can’t be said for some of the players on the struggling club.
After getting a vote of confidence from owner Eugene Melnyk over the weekend, Murray says the underachieving squad can’t have any doubts about who’s steering the ship for the rest of this disappointing season.
“I’ve said some of (the players) complain about little things that are out of their control, they feel they have an excuse the odd night,” Murray told a media gathering Monday. “They’re stuck with us, like it or not, they’re with us for the balance.”
“They can listen and conform to the coach, or they can sit on the sidelines.”
Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson says it’s a plus to have rumours of imminent firings put to bed.
“It’s kind of good to know what to expect and I think the coaching staff probably feels that way, too,” Alfredsson said. “We can just focus on trying to improve and go in the right direction.”
Veteran defenceman Chris Phillips, whose name has surfaced in trade rumours, says the players’ focus remains on the ice, regardless of front-office talk.
“Nothing changes for us. We’re going out on the ice and trying to win games,” Phillips said. “We haven’t done a great job of that this year, but that focus doesn’t change.”
The Senators suffered a 6-2 loss at Philadelphia on Thursday night, followed by a 7-1 pasting at home to the Montreal Canadiens on Friday. Those defeats left Ottawa (17-25-7) in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, 27th overall and likely out of the playoffs for the second time in the past three seasons.
That fuelled speculation with the all-star break coming, that Murray and/or Clouston. Both men are out of contract at the end of the season.
But with the air now cleared, Murray says how the team performs in its final 33 games will go a long way in determining who sticks around.
“I think it’s the same as always. We’re just going to try to win. I know there’s some people that think otherwise,” Murray said. “Being competitive down the stretch, I think for a lot of our guys, is going to be very important.”
Although further speculation has Murray linked with a move into a consultant’s role with the team when his current deal expires, he took issue with reports of his early professional demise.
“I know as a normal general manager, I hope to retain my job at the end of the year,” Murray said. “I’m not sure why everybody’s in such a hurry to get me out of here, but if that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is.”
Likewise, Clouston will see out the season despite repeated suggestions that he will be fired and Murray, a long-time coach, would go behind the bench to finish the schedule.
“My job hasn’t changed. I’m going to do everything I possibly can to win (Tuesday’s home game against Buffalo),” Clouston said. “And the players, basically what they need to do is to go out there and just execute and perform to the levels that they can.
“I’m not going to say (the rumours) didn’t hurt,” he added. “It shouldn’t take the comment, a statement from our owner, to make us play better.”
With an aging and underachieving roster, Melnyk stated the Senators will undergo a rebuild during the off-season. With the trade deadline approaching on Feb. 28 and the team likely to finish in lottery spot for June’s NHL entry draft, there’s hope for the future.
Murray intends on being part of Melnyk’s project, but hasn’t written off this season just yet.
“We’re going to play with some pride and compete every night,” he said. “We are definitely going to try in every game, better than we did in a couple of games lately.”
The Senators have several player contracts expiring after the season, including bigger-money deals with under-performing forward Alex Kovalev and oft-injured goaltender Pascal Leclaire that will free up plenty of salary cap space.
More importantly, Murray says with the young players developing in the AHL, junior and in Europe, a return to the playoffs won’t be far off.
“I don’t think we’re very far away from being a good hockey team,” Murray said. “Obviously, you have to make some changes when you perform like we did, but I think it’s one year. I think we can back as a real competitive team real quick.”
Questions have also arisen about Murray’s involvement in helping with any rebuilding project. If he is on his way out, how much allowance will he have in making decisions, particularly as the trade deadline approaches?
Murray insists he won’t be a lame duck GM and his hands won’t be tied, giving an indication he is part of the team’s future plans.
“In my conversations, I have the ability to be a general manager and I’ll try to continue to be that and, despite some people, I will do the best I can,” Murray said.