For the second straight February, the struggling Ottawa Senators have a new coach.
Last year, John Paddock lost his job on Feb. 27 because he couldn't get the team back on track after a hot start. Sunday night, Craig Hartsburg lost his job because 48 games into his three-year contract Ottawa had accumulated only 41 points, third worst in the NHL.
Cory Clouston, 39, got the call-up from the Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League to take over for Hartsburg for the rest of the season. He ran his first practice after being introduced at a press conference Monday morning and will coach his first NHL game Tuesday night at Scotiabank Place against Los Angeles.
The B-Sens were 25-16-6 under Clouston this season after going 34-32-14 and missing the Calder Cup Playoffs last season.
Ottawa is on the verge of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season. The Senators are 14 points out in 13th place in the Eastern Conference.
General Manager Bryan Murray, who took over for Paddock last season after coaching the Senators to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007, said Clouston will remain on until the end of the season, which is when the organization will re-evaluate everything. Murray stressed they are not giving up on this season. He plans to evaluate the team under Clouston for the next month leading up to the March 4 trading deadline, when he may try to make a move or two to beef up the current roster if the team still has a flicker of hope left of making the playoffs.
"You can't give up on a playoff spot," Murray said toward the end of Monday's press conference. "It's a tough chore right now. We know that. But if we play hard and well and get a good run here for a month or so, who knows? Our fans and organization deserve every possible effort we can to make it."
Clouston, a relative unknown in the professional coaching fraternity, is only in his second year as a pro head coach after spending five successful seasons in charge of the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League. There, he won 209 games and lost only 110 in regulation. Kootenay made the WHL playoffs every season under Clouston, who was twice named WHL Coach of the Year (2005 and 2007). He was also the Canadian Hockey League Coach of the Year in 2005 when Kootenay was 47-15-7-3.
Clouston also served as the Ice's assistant coach from 1999-2002. He has earned the reputation as a tough coach who can crack the whip. He also does not have any friends or foes in the Senators' dressing room right now, which is another reason why he was Murray's choice for the balance of this season.
"I have been an unknown for the most part every level I've coached at. I don't worry about that and I don't care about that," Clouston said. "I'm paid to do a job, paid to work with these guys. When you look at the big picture I'm confident in myself, but I believe in the guys in the dressing room. It was only two years ago that this team was in the Stanley Cup Final. There have been guys that have come in and out of the lineup, but that nucleus is still there."
Clouston plans to both give Ottawa the structure he believes it has been lacking, but is convinced he can get the guys to play harder than they have been. He compared the Senators precarious situation to the Albany River Rats and Norfolk Admirals in the AHL.
Albany and Norfolk rank sixth and seventh, respectively, in the AHL's East Division, but Clouston said neither has given up on the season. He doesn't plan on letting his new team give up either.
"They know they have a long haul but they compete every night," Clouston said. "You know when you play those two teams it's going to be a tough battle. To me that's a perfect example. Those teams down there haven't given up at all. Not even close."
Hartsburg signed a three-year contract to coach the team this past June, but the Senators fell to 17-24-7 after Sunday's dismal 7-4 loss at Washington. That loss to the Capitals is probably what did Hartsburg in.
He complained following the game that the team did not play hard, which has been one of his complaints for most of the season.
"[Washington] is a great team, and they exposed some things in us, but we have to take a lot more pride in ourselves as a team right from the start of hockey games," Hartsburg told the National Post in Canada on Sunday.
Plenty of pundits figured the Senators' goaltending and defense would be their downfall this season, but their high-octane offense would kick in enough to keep them afloat and battling for a playoff berth.
It's been the exact opposite. The Senators' top scorers are all having down years. Captain Daniel Alfredsson, wing Dany Heatley and center Jason Spezza are each not playing at a point-per-game pace for the first time since the work stoppage. For Alfredsson (44 points in 47 games), it's the first time since 2001-02.
As a result, the Senators are 29th in the NHL in goals-per-game (2.40). That's a far cry from where they have been since the work stoppage.
Even with their struggles last season, the Senators led the NHL in goals-per-game with 3.15. They were second behind Buffalo in 2006-07 with 3.49 and No. 1 in the League in 2005-06 with 3.80.
Clouston believes the Senators can become a high-octane offensive team again, but they need better pressure on the forecheck and a smarter plan for getting the puck out of the zone. Both areas have plagued the Sens this season, especially the latter. Since losing defensemen Wade Redden to free agency and Joe Corvo to a trade last season, the Senators have struggled to get the puck out of their own zone.
Filip Kuba is having a career year with 24 assists, one off his career-high, and a plus-6 rating. But no other defensemen is a plus player and only Alexandre Picard (14 points) and Chris Phillips (10 points) have hit double-digits in the points' category.
"I really believe this team is better offensively and they need to have a better plan to create that offense," Clouston said.
Murray, who is in his second season in GM, is keenly aware that a second coaching change since he's been on the job reflects on his ability to manage the club. He doesn't take that lightly.
"It always reflects on my decisions," Murray said. "I understand benching players and firing coaches and firing managers, that's kind of an exciting time for some people. This is not an excuse, but it takes time in management to get some of your own people in place. I have changed the coach, but it's definitely on my shoulders. Everything that happens here I take full responsibility for and I should. I took this job and other jobs to be held accountable."
Hartsburg, 49, came to Ottawa from the Ontario Hockey League, where he had spent the previous five seasons coaching the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He also coached Canada to the gold medal at the 2007 and 2008 World Junior Championships.
His success at the junior ranks did not translate into the NHL.
The Senators did not have a .500 month under Hartsburg. They were 4-5-1 in October, 4-5-3 in November, 5-7-1 in December and 4-6-2 in January. Ottawa lost five of six from Oct. 11-25 and six in a row (0-4-2) from Nov. 7-20. In December, the Senators won just twice in a span of 10 games (2-7-1) from the 8th to the 28th. They lost five straight to start 2009 (0-4-1) and are currently on a two-game slide.
"My intent is to keep as many players as we can in the fold, get them to perform and the guys that don't you shuffle them out," Murray said. "There will be judgments made before the trading deadline."Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer