OTTAWA – Cory Clouston can consider his audition as head coach of the Ottawa Senators a success.
The Senators signed the 39-year-old to a two-year deal Wednesday, removing the interim tag he held since taking over after Craig Hartsburg was fired on Feb. 2.
With the team’s run of 11 straight post-season appearances having come to an end after a dismal start to the season, owner Eugene Melnyk and general manager Bryan Murray sought to lock up the man who’s had a hand in its recent turnaround.
“Cory’s come in and done a remarkable job really,” Murray said during a news conference at Scotiabank Place, where the Senators play their final home game Thursday night against the New Jersey Devils. “He’s made (the players) accountable.
“We’re watching a team now that will make it very entertaining for the fans and maybe even give (the media) something nice to write about once in a while.”
The Senators were 17-24-7 when Hartsburg was fired and replaced by Clouston, a native of Viking, Alta., who had been the coach of the Senators’ Binghamton AHL affiliate.
The Senators are 19-10-3 since he took over. On Tuesday, they beat the Eastern Conference’s best team, the Boston Bruins, to run their franchise-record home-ice win streak to nine games.
“That’s a credit to the players,” Clouston said. “They’re a good group of guys, they work hard, and they want to win.”
With just two games remaining in the regular season, the Senators’ turnaround has given its disgruntled fan base something to look forward to and salvaged a season in which Ottawa appeared to be well in the running for a lottery pick in June’s NHL entry draft.
That’s all changed now. Clouston, who’s still living out of a hotel in Ottawa, can now get settled with a long-term plan.
“I just wanted the opportunity to continue what we started here,” Clouston said.
“I think the biggest thing that I’m looking forward to, and it’s a long way away from now, is getting the next season started.
“How we’re playing right now gives us a lot of optimism.”
After Murray was forced to go behind the bench last season following the dismissal of John Paddock, the Senators were accused of being coach-killers, a talented team that didn’t want to work hard and underachieved.
However, Clouston’s less-defensive system appears to suit the players better. He’s also upped the tempo and frequency of practices, eliminating fitness issues that Murray felt were hurting the team.
“The biggest thing from my point of view is the style of play when you watch,” Murray said. “We play an attacking, puck-pursuit style now where we’re forechecking aggressively.”
He arrived and described himself as anything but a players’ coach, but the Senators have embraced his arrival and hailed the announcement.
“I don’t think it comes as a surprise to us as players,” captain Daniel Alfredsson said. “He’s done a great job turning things around for us and putting us on the right path.
“He’s brought a lot of energy and the system that he’s put in play has worked real well for us for the group that we have. It makes perfect sense to sign him up.”
Of course, for a franchise that’s not used to missing out on the post-season, winning made the decision easy.
“It’s about winning, it’s about creating a team atmosphere and approach,” Clouston said. “I think the big picture is that we have a game plan that the coaches and staff have put together and, fortunately, it’s worked out.”
The Senators were thought to be taking a risk when they promoted him from Binghamton since he was an unknown with little previous experience in the pro ranks.
Prior to joining the B-Sens to start the 2007-08 season, he spent five years as coach of the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice.
However, the gamble paid off.
“If you don’t take risks, you’re not going to succeed,” Melnyk said. “Going outside the box is something I’m used to and this was outside the box, and it worked.”
The decision to pull the trigger on the coaching change also may have saved Murray’s job as GM with still one year remaining on his deal.
The hiring of Hartsburg last June appeared to have not been the best choice for the Senators when they stumbled out of the gate and never got back on track for a team that’s less than two years removed from an appearance in the Stanley Cup final.
Melnyk confirmed Tuesday that Murray would be retained and will be given permission to spend up to the salary cap in an effort to return the Senators to the playoffs.
“There’s no question he’ll be back next year. Bryan’s done a great job,” Melnyk said. “The way you judge a good GM is the way he recognizes a problem and acts on it.
“I’ll give him a mulligan. He recognized a change was required. Think about it. He signed up Cory and look where we are today.”