Blaming Cory Clouston

Cory Clouston, coach of the Ottawa Senators

When a professional sports team struggles, virtually every part of the organization is put under a microscope. That’s certainly the case with the under-performing Ottawa Senators right now.

The Senators have lost nine of their last 12 games and have only scored 17 goals in that stretch. There are a lot of people fans and media can point blame at. While I’m not convinced this isn’t all Spartacat’s fault, one of the more popular people to blame in the Nation’s Capital is Senators coach Cory Clouston.

There are a number of reports that suggest the players have “quit” on Clouston. First of all, that term is so cliché and secondly, I don’t buy it.

When you look at the Senators roster, it looks thin. Thinner than a Michael Bay plot. Obviously that’s not Clouston’s fault. He’s doing all he can with what’s been given to him. Bryan Murray, General Manager of the Senators, is the one giving Clouston the pieces and those pieces don’t fit together. They’re all corner pieces. Clouston is the coach that Murray brought in. He’s the coach with an aggressive style and tight checking systems. Yet several of Murray’s roster moves, or corner pieces, don’t exactly fit with Clouston’s style. Why bring in players that don’t fit into the coach’s system? The players aren’t quitting on the coach, they just aren’t the right guys for the jobs.

Look at the Senators top forwards and ask yourself if they are capable of scoring two or more goals in most hockey games. Then ask yourself if they can outscore opposition on most nights. Saying that group will be effective if 100% healthy (a common explanation for the Senators struggles this year) is like putting lipstick on a pig. Ottawa may have the best bottom six forwards in the league, considering they have around 10-12 players for those roles. Unfortunately, that’s about the extent of their depth.

I like Clouston and what he has accomplished with the Senators during his tenure in the NHL. Posting a career 74 – 57 – 12 record is pretty good when you consider the time he was brought into the organization and the roster he’s been given. Clearly, he has a winning track record. Let’s not forget Clouston isn’t coaching the talented Senators squads Murray, Craig Hartsburg, John Paddock and even Jacques Martin had years ago. He’s got the faded, no-name version of that.

Clouston has been the only coach to bring any kind of stability to the Senators over the last few years. Prior to his arrival, you could argue the Senators chewed through coaches faster than goalies. Clouston’s stabilizing force has gotten things back to normal… the Senators just (still) chew through goalies now. (I couldn’t resist).

If Murray and the Senators fired Clouston tomorrow, would they be any better? Would there be a huge turn around? Probably not… even if Murray himself returned to the bench.

There is no overnight fix for this club in its current state. Although I believe Murray is more to blame than Clouston (read: way more to blame!), a GM change won’t fix the Senators either. The reality is the Senators need a fairly significant overhaul and sooner than later. I think most fans are coming to terms with that, but I doubt the Sens management would agree. Even if the Senators got their act together and found a way into the playoffs this season, would it really be for the better? Can they really make a run and be a contending team year after year with this group of players? Can they compete against the Capitals, Penguins, Flyers and Bruins in the Eastern Conference?

At the end of the day, you can’t fault Clouston for where the Senators are in the standings. If Clouston, a winning coach and the best coach the Senators have had in years, can’t win with this roster, I’m not sure any other coach would fair much better. The Senators aren’t what they used to be and Bryan Murray’s roster changes haven’t helped. The necessary changes are and should be far greater than a coaching change.

At the moment, coaching is one of the few area’s the Senators don’t need to fix.

Comments (6)

  1. as a sens fan I agree, the solution isn’t anywhere near as simple as a coaching change. they’re basically at the worst possible stage right now. A middle of the pack team that’s not good enough to challenge in the playoffs but not finishing low enough to rebuild through the draft. I’d rather see them make the playoffs than not, but it’s probably not in their best long-term interest.

  2. I’ve never thought a coaching change was what was needed — not Hartsford, not Paddock, heck, not even that guy Murray had coach in between those two. The problem has always been the guys on the ice.

    However as a GM you do have a problem. As Muckler commented when Jacques Martin was shown the door: “You can’t fire the entire dressing room.” Coaches are the most visible at-will employee the players see under the GM’s control, and firing the coach is the strongest non-trade message that a GM can send his team that he is not pleased.

  3. Kevin: long-long-long-time reader, first time commenter.

    I find this to be an excellent read. Your assessment of the coaching situation is bang-on, as far as I’m concerned. There are not too many guys who can step into a situation like Clouston did, and pull them within points of making the playoffs. And to prove it was not a fluke, he has maintained that winning record over the last season and half.

    And while I agree, in principal, that it is about finding the players to fit the coach, I also believe that Murray is handcuffed by a few things:

    1) A very reactive fan base that expects too much: after the Finals appearance, fans in Ottawa (similarly to Edmonton after ’06) were not asking for too much change. They just figured that our ticket was punched the next year. And while that logic, as we know, is basically flawed (just like Edmonton), a 15-2 start called for no changes to be made. By the time the chinks in the armour were showing, it was too late. And even with that, Murray’s hand was forced, in my opinion, resulting in the Stillman/Commodore & Lapointe trades in an effort “to make things work.” This fan base has consistently demanded results, and Murray has probably been forced to appease to those demands on some level.

    2) An unknown salary cap system. Keep in mind that when Murray was signing guys to long-term deals–the supposed core of the team–there was no handbook on how to manage a team in the cap system. It was only 2 years after the lockout when he inked Fisher, Spezza, Heatley, Alfredsson, Phillips et al to long-term deals, thereby setting the future core of the team. At that point, the Penguins and Blackhawks and Kings systems were but a twinkle in hockey fans’ eyes. I think it’s safe to say that we now know how a team should be run in this salary cap system, but Murray didn’t have that luxury at the time. And I’m sure he’s counting the days to get $15-20 Million off the books this summer.

    With that that said, there’s still the final point. It has been written and spoken about at length, but the cupboard was bare when Bryan Murray took the helm. He has done an excellent job at drafting and restocking the system for Ottawa. And while there may not be any game changers in that system (like a Kadri *editor’s note: just kidding), a well stocked prospect pool, is, in this salary cap era, much more valuable than highly-paid, high-end players.

    As I said Kevin; this was a fantastic read. Your objectivity speaks volumes for someone who has obviously followed this team for some time.

    Well done.

  4. While I’m not one to blame Clou Clou entirely for Ottawa’s recent struggles, we can’t honestly sit here and say he is without blame, either. He gets the final say in regards to the makeup of Ottawa’s PP, for example, and it has been underwhelming, and at times (shorthanded breakways aplenty) counterproductive. He clearly had Gonchar playing the wrong side, has underutilized Kovalev in the worst way, and by allowing the top guns to constantly miss practice/play injured, has failed to allow the PP to gel.

    I’m a Clouston supporter, and am certainly a long ways away from calling for his head. The thing is that he, much like every other facet of the organization, from management to the players on the ice, has plenty of room to improve and plenty of mistakes to correct. It starts and ends with the power play for me, because scoring goals would go a really long ways towards getting team confidence back.

  5. Guys, thanks for reading the post. I (and the fine folks at The Score) really appreciate it.

    @ guest99 – We’re on the same page. Essentially it’s the same thing the Leafs did several years in a row.

    @ David – I love that line “You can’t fire everyone in the dressing room.” That’s such a Muckler thing to say, although in the case of the Senators, it’s very accurate.

    @ GreenSide Bunker – Thanks for the uber long comment. I have to say a GM of any sports team has to be able to weather fans demands for the good of the franchise. Hell, that’s why he’s the GM and we are the fans. I know what you are saying, but I refuse to believe any GM should make decisions because of that. If Murray is still around beyond this season (I think he probably will be), it will be interesting to see how he spends that extra cap room. The Kings/Hawks aren’t perfect either, and the very chinks you speak of will eventually appear for them too. I like some of Murray’s moves to “stock the cupboard” too, although I wouldn’t call it an excellent job yet. Let’s see some of these players (Bobby Butler, Andre Petersson, Robyn Lehner, Jared Cowen, David Rundblad etc…) develop first. None of them have made any NHL impact (yet).

    Thanks for the terrific comment!

    @ JP – Someone else mentioned something similar to me and I have to agree – Clouston isn’t perfect either. Last year, he made tons of in game changes/adjustments, but this year — especially during the San Jose game when the Sharks top line ate up Ottawa’s D — he hasn’t. He’s sort of left his roster to deal with the action on the ice. Part of that applies to the PP, for sure.

    Again, thanks for the great comments on this post guys. Awesome.

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