The Ottawa Senators, like Austin Powers, appear to found their mojo. As with that international man of mystery, someone just needed to help them realize that they had never really lost their mojo after all. That someone is new coach Cory Clouston.
Since Clouston's promotion from the Senators' AHL Binghamton team, the Ottawa Senators have returned to their winning ways. The Senators struggled out of the gate this season, and GM Bryan Murray fired coach Craig Hartsburg after the team won only 17 times in 48 games.
Following the team's monumental implosion during the latter half the 2007-2008 season, Murray hired Hartsburg with a mandate to instill a commitment to team defense and accountability.
While this new approach was theoretically sound, in practical terms it was a dismal failure. Hartsburg's new-look Senators may have somewhat improved their goals-against average, but the highest-scoring team in the league suddenly seemed unable to score.
By the time Hartsburg was fired the Senators had been reduced to the second-lowest scoring team in the NHL.
At the heart of the team's woes was Hartsburg's insistence that the team's core players needed to change. Hartsburg expected perennial 50 goal scorer Dany Heatley to turn into a two-way defensive-minded player.
He wanted creative playmaker Jason Spezza to eschew the fancy play for the safer plays along the boards.
In order to compensate for this defensive shift from his top line, Hartsburg and Murray expected that the team could develop more secondary scoring.
Suddenly, checking stalwarts such as Mike Fischer, Antoine Vermette, and Chris Kelly were expected to help carry more of the offensive load, despite the fact that most practice time emphasized defensive tactics.
On the defensive end of the ice, Ottawa's blueliners were asked to stay at home rather than join the rush, in order to help out what was acknowledged to be mediocre goaltending.
Gone was Ottawa's high scoring nature, predicated as it was on an aggressive counter-attack, a strong forecheck, and offensive creativity. Now the forwards were asked to peel back into the neutral zone and slow down opposition attackers.
The result of this approach: a team that had lost its mojo. The Ottawa Senators had lost their swagger, their scoring touch, and ultimately their identity.
It didn't take a genius to figure out that it was time to try a different approach. Enter Cory Clouston. Initial responses to his hiring on the part of media and fans agreed that this was a temporary solution, and that Murray would hire a high profile coach in the off-season.
Clouston's success with the Senators makes that less likely with each passing game. With Hartsburg the team was seven games under .500, but Clouston has them seven games over .500, going 13-6-3.
The changes in the Ottawa Senators under Cory Clouston go beyond mere wins and losses, however. Clouston has asked the team to play to their strengths rather than covering up their weaknesses.
No longer paralyzed by a fear of making defensive mistakes, Ottawa's players have returned to the up-tempo, attacking style that accompanied their long string of consecutive playoff appearances.
Some of the younger players promoted from Binghamton have blossomed under Clouston's presence in Ottawa. Nick Foligno and Ryan Shannon have a confidence that belies their youth. Spezza, Heatley and Fischer are creating much more offensively under Clouston's system.
Defensively, there have been noteworthy improvements as well. Phillips and Volchenkov are once again defensive stalwarts, with Phillips making huge improvements in his plus/minus ratio.
Brendan Bell looks to be resurrecting his career in recent weeks, and along with Filip Kuba and Chris Campoli, it suddenly looks like Ottawa does have some puck movement from the back end after all.
What does all this amount to for next year? While Ottawa will continue to play a spoiler role this season, the recent string of success under Clouston bodes well for next year.
Translated over a full 82 game season, Ottawa's 13-6-3 record amounts to 108 points. While it is probable too much to expect that significant a turnaround, it would appear that TSN's Pierre McGuire is correct in saying that Ottawa requires tweaking of the lineup rather than a major overhaul.
Regardless, it would seem that under Cory Clouston Ottawa can make a return to the playoffs in 2009-2010.
Pascal Leclaire looks to be the solution to Ottawa's goaltending problems. While Brian Elliott has now set a team rookie record for seven consecutive wins in net, he continues to let in soft goals.
Elliott would benefit from work on some of his fundamentals, and might well return to the Seantors' AHL affiliate in Binghamton for more seasoning. Alex Auld provides capable backup netminding.
Ottawa still could use an offensive defenseman, although those are rare and expensive commodities in the NHL. Phillips, Volchenkov, Kuba and Campoli look to be solid on defense, with Bell seemingly edging out Alex Picard on the third pairing.
Brian Lee's development has been inconsistent, but he might expect to be back there unless Ottawa makes a free-agent move. Jason Smith's knee injury may be a blessing in disguise for the team: If it lead to his retirement, then his $2.6 million salary will come off the books.
It is unclear how highly-touted defensive prospect Erik Karlsson fits into the equation. He is a gifted offensive defenseman, but may not be physically mature enough to handle the rigors of an NHL season. If he does make the team, then Ottawa may not test the free-agent market on defense.
Offensively Ottawa is largely set, in large part due to a number of long-term, expensive contracts. There is a possibility that Spezza could be traded in the offseason before his no-trade clause kicks in, but Murray won't make that move unless he receives fair value in return.
Expect Spezza back in the fold. Mike Comrie brings an offensive upside, and may return if he is willing to take a significant cut in salary.
Chris Neil may be lost to another team before next year, but Ottawa will have Cody Bass back to provide a chippy, physical component. Expect Shannon, Foligno, Kelly and other young players to continue to develop under Clouston's tutelage.
In summary, it would appear that Ottawa will be in a position to make the playoffs next year, and if Leclaire lives up to his billing, the Senators might even harbor thought of returning to the Stanley Cup finals again. To do so would take some serious mojo!
As Austin Powers would say, "Yeah, baby!"
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