Ottawa Senators seem to have rebounded nicely with a 5-2-2 record after nine games.After a tumultuous summer, the
Dany Heatley's trade request and the subsequent swap of the two-time 50-goal scorer to San Jose that returned forwards Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo, as well as a 2010 second-round pick, could have kept the Senators spiraling in the wrong direction, despite being only three seasons removed from a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
But the Senators are one of the pleasant surprises of this young season. Not many were expecting Ottawa to compete for a playoff spot, but they headed into a game at Florida on Wednesday with a 5-2-2 record and one point out of first place in the Northeast Division.
Cory Clouston, who took over as interim head coach Feb. 2 when Craig Hartsburg was fired, got the job full-time in April after he led the Senators to a 19-11-4 record down the stretch. Clouston did his best to make the team play more responsible, accountable, two-way hockey and institute a team-first culture. He seemed to succeed on both fronts and GM Bryan Murray was impressed enough to extend Clouston's contract for two years.
Clouston's changes seem to have carried over to this season and the Senators, with the exception of their last two games -- a 6-5 overtime loss to the Predators and a 4-3 shootout loss to the Bruins -- have been a difficult team to play against.
"There's no question that there has been a carryover," Murray told NHL.com. "I think the players that were here (last season) in particular, understood right from the beginning of training camp that the work ethic and structure was one of the main demands that Cory would have. I think for the most part we've played competitive so far."
Clouston agreed with his boss and has been impressed with the manner in which his team came into camp and approached this season.
"We just wanted to have a continuation from the last part of the season last year," Clouston said. "We had success with it, we know there always needs to be adjustments as the season progresses, but the same ideas and the same concepts were there and we wanted to make sure we were building on them."
Clouston's attitude and the way he approaches the game and his players has impressed Murray and he thinks his team is headed in the right direction under Clouston's watch.
"He's a serious guy and really cares about the players; he's a coach," Murray said. "He makes them work hard. The practices are well-planned; his game preparations are superb, and what I saw last year when he came into the League with his knowledge of the opponents really impressed me. He is a real serious guy, but at the same time has the ability to communicate."
Clouston's efforts to find a role for every player, communicate that role, and also treat each player equally have impressed Murray, himself a former NHL coach.
"I like coaches that spend time with their players, that talk to their players, that allow the role players to be important, and I think Cory does that," Murray said. "We play four lines a lot of the time and play our six defensemen a lot and I think everybody feels good about that and themselves as a result, and that's the effect Cory has."
Ironically, rumors surfaced that Clouston's approach was one of the reasons Heatley wanted out. Heatley felt his role had diminished under Clouston, but according to Murray, that just wasn't so.
"He was the guy, unfortunately, that was put in a tough situation with that because he was the guy that was pointed at as relegating Dany to a lesser role, which was not true," Murray said. "I think maybe Dany played 17 or so seconds per game less than he did before Cory took over.
"But Cory was very professional about the whole thing. He never once complained or pointed a finger at Dany. He was hoping it could've worked out, but it didn't. And when it didn't, he was on my side about moving on and getting what we could for Dany. He also accepted Dany's reasons for wanting to move on and respected them. As an organization we tried to be more than considerate about what went down."
Clouston appreciated Murray's support through what was a trying time.
"Bryan Murray has been very supportive, he has been great to work for," Clouston said. "Everybody did a great job in the organization, Bryan right down to our players. It was not a fun situation. We handled it the way we had to handle it. For any team to be successful you have to do things as a team and unfortunately he didn't want to be part of it. For whatever reasons, Dany didn't want to be a part of it. We had to do what was best for us and Bryan helped us do that. The guys we have here now (Michalek and Cheechoo) are fitting in and working hard and it will only get better with time."