Is Dave Cameron the Right Coach for the Ottawa Senators?

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistDecember 8, 2014

OTTAWA, CANADA - JANUARY 21: Assistant coach Dave Cameron (L) chats with head coach Paul MacLean (M) of the Ottawa Senators as a doppleganger of the coach Mike Watson (R) looks on during an NHL game against the Florida Panthers at Scotiabank Place on January 21, 2013 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

On Monday, the Ottawa Senators relieved Paul MacLean of his duties as the team’s head coach. Two hours later, the team announced that his replacement for the top job was already on staff:

It’s debatable to what degree MacLean should have been held responsible for the Sens’ problems. Colleague Dave Lozo suggested earlier today that MacLean never really had a chance given what was going on in Ottawa, and he makes a good case. What isn’t debatable is that new head coach Dave Cameron now inherits pretty much all of the same problems.

OTTAWA, ON - NOVEMBER 20: Jonathan Pitre signs a one day pro scouting contract with Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray prior to a game against the Nashville Predators at Canadian Tire Centre on November 20, 2014 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Pho
Andre Ringuette/Getty Images

General manager Bryan Murray talked about some of those problems in a press conference streamed live on the team’s official site. While he stressed turnovers and defensive play early, it quickly became clear that he saw the relationship between MacLean and his players as the primary issue. Asked by the Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch whether communication had become a one-way street, Murray agreed that he had that sense from the players he had talked to.

It was an interesting comment, particularly taken in the context of an assistant coach being promoted to the top job. One of the concerns often raised with that type of promotion regards the assistant’s ability to transition from what is often a cozier relationship with players to one where he needs to hold them accountable. In this case, it would seem that the Senators value that existing relationship between Cameron and his charges.

Murray stressed Cameron’s credentials as a teacher when explaining what he would do differently from MacLean:

Dave Cameron is a guy that’s coached in the American Hockey League and more recently he’s coached Team Canada World Junior, and he’s been a junior coach with great success. I think in particular with our younger people he’ll be a good teacher; he’s a former teacher. He’s got a hockey IQ, he’s played in the league. I think he’s got some people skills that are very necessary to be a coach. ... I think he’ll relate a little bit to what we need here with some of our youth in particular and the veteran guys. We don’t have a lot of older players, so I think they’ll certainly like Dave. I don’t know that he’s a players’ coach or a demanding coach; I do know that he’s a teacher.

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Cameron certainly has a track record as a teacher of young players. He has 10 years of experience as a head coach in the OHL, along with four seasons in the AHL (three of them as head coach). He has also been both an assistant and head coach at the World U20 level.

Cameron’s most recent post before joining the Senators as an assistant was with the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors. As might be expected given that he was subsequently chosen to coach Canada’s national team, Cameron had quite a run with Mississauga. The team steadily improved under his watch, making the playoffs in each of his seasons as coach and going 53-13-2 before advancing to the OHL Final in his last year there.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 20:  Chris Kelly #22 of the Ottawa Senators skates against the Philadelphia Flyers on January 20, 2011 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Less heartening is Cameron’s previous work with the Senators’ organization, coaching their AHL affiliate in Binghamton: In three seasons under Cameron that team went from 106 to 78 and finally to 55 points. Winning is only part of the picture in the AHL, but the development track record of the Baby Sens under Cameron is debatable, too; ignoring NHL’ers assigned to the minors for the 2004-05 lockout, his greatest successes were players like Chris Kelly and Christoph Schubert. That’s not a terrible haul for three AHL campaigns, but neither does it totally compensate for finishing dead last in the league in 2006-07.

The intent here isn’t to be overly critical of Cameron, who was extremely successful as a coach at the junior level and had a mandate to develop as well as win in the AHL; it’s simply to note that he doesn’t have much history of winning games at the professional level.

Whether Cameron is the right fit or not ultimately goes beyond his own abilities to whether or not Ottawa’s management has the right read of its team. From Murray’s press conference:

I would say there was an uneasiness in our room without a doubt. Some of the better players felt that they were singled out a little too often, maybe. That’s today’s athlete. They want to be corrected, coached, given a chance to play without being I guess the centerpoint of discussion in the room.

There is a fine line between an overly harsh coach and one who holds his players accountable. If MacLean was indeed the former, tuning out players and scapegoating individuals all too often, then bringing in a more relatable coach might indeed be part of the solution. On the other hand, many a hard-nosed coach—including MacLean’s old superior in Detroit and Anaheim, Mike Babcock—has found that a firm hand gets results.

Murray is gambling that Cameron can find a way to reach a group which had evidently lost confidence in MacLean. On paper it looks like a reasonable gamble, as Cameron combines a history of teaching with an existing relationship with Ottawa’s players. Those factors doubtless weighed far more heavily than a lack of success as a head coach at the professional level.

It’s a sensible gamble, but also one that doesn’t come without significant risk. Cameron needs to prove that he can coach a winning team at this level. The players need to prove both that they have the necessary skill as a group to win in the NHL and that they can be responsive to what will likely be an eerily similar message delivered in a different manner.  

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.