OTTAWA - The requirements for the next coach of the Ottawa Senators seem straightforward enough.
They're looking for someone with the ability to connect with the players and get the best out of them, but, most of all, they want someone who can turn the club into a winner.
That was the message from general manager Bryan Murray on Monday as the 32-40-10 Senators closed the books on a disappointing season that resulted in the weekend firing of coach Cory Clouston.
Clouston, 41, paid the price for the Senators missing out on the playoffs for the second time in the past three seasons. Ottawa finished 26th overall, some 19 points back of the New York Rangers for the eighth and final post-season berth in the East.
“Winning is the big thing and that’s the bottom line,”Murray said after meeting the media for the first time since axing Clouston and assistants Greg Carvel and Brad Lauer hours after the Senators’season-ending 3-1 loss in Boston on Saturday.
“In hockey, in sport, and professional sport in particular, the point guy is the coach most of the time and so you point the finger sooner at him than at other people ... We made that decision some time ago,”Murray said.
The writing had been on the wall for Clouston for some time. Since being promoted from the Senators’American Hockey League affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y., after Craig Hartsburg was fired in February 2009, he managed to post a respectable record of 95-83-20 in 198 games behind the bench, but things were never smooth sailing in Ottawa.
His contract was up after this season and when Murray was signed to a three-year extension by owner Eugene Melnyk on Friday, it was clear Clouston would be the fall guy despite a late-season surge that saw the Senators’play improve dramatically with a lineup filled with AHL call-ups.
“(I’m) obviously disappointed. We felt as a staff that the team had played very well the last 27 games under very difficult circumstances. We’d have loved the opportunity to move forward with this hockey club,”said Clouston, who also addressed the media at Scotiabank Place on Monday in his first comments since being dismissed.
Clouston took the opportunity to thank the organization for the opportunity and said he had no hard feelings about the manner in which the announcement was made—virtually at the airport—and one the organization took some criticism over its timing.
“We didn’t talk a whole lot because of the circumstances and the situation where it was done. Bryan said it was a decision he had made that he though was best for the organization and I accept that,”Clouston said.
During Clouston’s time in Ottawa, his all-business approach didn’t appear to endear himself to every player.
Two-time 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley is believed to have butted heads enough with Clouston that he demanded, and ultimately received, a trade to the San Jose Sharks and Alex Kovalev also questioned some of the coach’s decisions at various points this past season before traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Centre Jason Spezza was diplomatic when asked about Clouston’s relationship with the players Monday after the players completed their exit meetings and cleared out the dressing room.
“As players we have our flaws, as coaches there are flaws and everybody’s always learning all the time,”Spezza said.“I think Cory’s learning a lot, too, we’re learning as players and he’ll get better at the things that he lacked in communication and such, but the blame’s never fully on the coach.”
Still, Spezza said Clouston took the fall for the team’s lack of winning.
“It’s always tough as players when you see your coach getting fired, you feel responsible for how the year’s gone,”he said.“We haven’t had the results and we played well in stretches for Cory, we just couldn’t do it this year for the full season and we just couldn’t really stop the slide this year once we kind of got in a downward spiral.”
Captain Daniel Alfredsson said he didn’t see Clouston’s authoritarian approach as being a problem.
“We’ve had obviously our struggles this year with expectations. It’s not the way we envisioned things starting theseason,”he said.“We all tried to work together to right the ship and we couldn’t. Cory did a pretty good job when he came in and took over from Hartsburg.…But this year, (it was) getting off to a bad start and never really recovering for a lot of reasons.”
Murray’s track record of hiring coaches has not been good in Ottawa.
After guiding the team to the 2007 Stanley Cup final himself, he took over as GM when John Muckler was fired and named assistant John Paddock as his successor behind the bench.
Paddock didn’t last the season and Murray went back behind the bench to finish out 2007-08.
Hartsburg was hired the following summer and also didn’t make it past February.
Whoever replaces Clouston will become the 10th coach in the team’s history.
Murray said he’s not concerned with finding either a young coach or an older coach to lead what could be a relatively young and inexperienced team next season.
“I think it has to do with a guy with the ability to coach and to get players to respond. Give players a chance to play to the best of their abilities and, in a couple of cases, overachieve,”he said.“I’m going to try to hire the guy at the moment that I think is the right guy.…There’s no particular profile.”
The rumour mill has Dave Cameron, coach of Melnyk’s Ontario Hockey League team, the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors, in line to take over, while Montreal assistant Kirk Muller has also been linked to the job.
“I think we just a need a guy that understands the players, that players can respect and can respect the players,”Spezza said.“You have to be a tight-knit group. You have to have fun on the ice, you have to work together and that’s the culture we have to try to establish around here going into next year.”
Injuries were the No. 1 reason cited by Murray, Clouston and some of the players for the team’s struggle this year, especially in goal, where projected starter Pascal Leclaire was never able to stay healthy long enough to help the Senators since they traded for him more than two years ago. He appeared in just 14 games this season and his backup, Brian Elliott, floundered as the starter.
Murray said waiting for Leclaire to return and then the team’s lack of salary-cap space prevented them from making a move for a goaltender earlier in the year. By the time they finally acquired Craig Anderson in a trade from Colorado in exchange for Elliott in February, the season was lost.
Injuries also hampered Alfredsson, Spezza, Milan Michalek, Sergei Gonchar, Peter Regin and Filip Kuba to name a few, some for longer spells than others, as well Mike Fisher and Kovalev before they were traded.
In Alfredsson’s case, he was limited to just 54 games, 14 goals and 31 points and looked nothing like the Alfredsson of old. The worry now is that, going on 39 and with a back injury that’s sidelined him since Feb. 7, he may just be an old Alfredsson.
Alfredsson is still hoping to avoid undergoing surgery on the problem and be ready to go by training camp and ruled out the suggestion that it may be bad enough that he won’t be able to continue playing.
The previous season, he was troubled by a sports hernia down the stretch and into the playoffs, so it raises questions over how much he can still be counted on to be a front-line player.
“It’s been a tough couple of years to really stay consistent for me, but if I can get back to health, for sure I will (be effective)”he insisted.