Four months ago, Bryan Murray admitted, it was a day and a decision that he considered unfathomable.
But with a brilliant season start long in the past and his team playing uninspired, inconsistent hockey in recent weeks, the Ottawa Senators general manager made the “difficult” decision Wednesday to relieve John Paddock of his head coaching duties. Murray, who guided the Senators to the first Stanley Cup final in modern franchise history in 2006-07, said he’ll step back behind the bench for the remainder of the season.
“When you have to make hard calls like this, it’s always emotional,” Murray told reporters in Philadelphia after delivering the news to Paddock, a longtime friend. “It’s a difficult one but it’s the right one at the moment, I believe, with the way we’ve been playing since late December.
“We’ve seen the team not compete at the level we were close to competing (at) for most of the first part of the year.”
The Senators rocketed out to a 16-3-0 start in the first six weeks of the season and grabbed a commanding lead atop the Eastern Conference. But since late-November, they’ve gone 20-19-6 and slipped to second in the East over the weekend, behind the New Jersey Devils.
Their lead in the Northeast Division is down to a single point over the Montreal Canadiens.
After being blanked in consecutive games by the Toronto Maple Leafs (5-0 Monday) and Boston Bruins (4-0 Tuesday), Murray said he asked team owner Eugene Melnyk for permission to make the change. Given the team’s impressive start, it’s a decision Murray hardly expected to have to make this season.
“I said to John, who’d have ever thought, the way we came out of the gate, the way the team played, the way we as a group stuck together in every situation … it’s shocking, really, that it comes to this,” said Murray. “Disappointing, certainly, from everybody’s point of view. But the bottom line in our game and in any professional sport is winning.
“With the (recent) results, I certainly felt something was amiss with the group and hopefully this will help. I told (the players) that they have to take responsibility for this. We’re all professionals – you have to play hard and work hard every night and play to your ability level. That’s all we ever ask and I didn’t see that lately.”
Murray said Paddock, who coached the Eastern Conference team in the NHL all-star game last month in Atlanta, was “emotional” when he learned of his dismissal before the end of his first season as the team's head coach.
“He was very emotional, very disappointed, very respectful,” said Murray. “For me, it’s very disappointing to have to do this. The way the team looked at the start of the year and to come to a point with 18 games to go that you have to make a coaching change because the team doesn’t look close to what it was … that’s very disappointing.”
Many Senators players also took the news hard.
“It’s a difficult day,” said captain Daniel Alfredsson
. “From our point of view, we really feel for John. He was — and is — a great hockey person and we let him down.
“He’s been a part of our success here for the last three years.”
Alfredsson denied any suggestion that the team had quit on Paddock in recent games.
“He had the ears of everyone in the locker-room and we just didn’t perform for him and get him wins,” he said. “We’re in a rut here and I don’t think it’s going to change overnight because we changed coaches. We’ve got to go back (out there) as players and perform better on the ice and get the job done.”
Paddock has been offered a “mainly scouting” position within the organization, but Murray said he has asked for a couple of weeks to consider it. Murray added the team would also like to keep assistant coach Ron Low, who was relieved of his duties as well Wednesday, in the Senators organization in some capacity.
Murray, who’ll return to the bench Thursday night in Philadelphia, said his first task will be to ratchet up the intensity of his team’s play.
“Get some discipline in the play but mainly, get some emotion and effort into the game,” he said. “I think we’ve been a very passive group in the last number of games and I think it’s because of not winning. Players start to grip their sticks a little too much, and that’ll be the first area to address.”
He remains as convinced as ever that it’s a team that can challenge for the Stanley Cup.
“I think we have a real good hockey team, I think a very comparable hockey team to last year,” he said. “Like every team, you’ve got to get a little bit lucky (and) you’ve got to play very, very hard. But yeah, I think we have a real contending team here.”