Monday, February 16, 2009

Playing to your strengths

Biggest news in Senators land right now has got to be the entirely unexpected success that Cory Clouston has had since taking over the head coaching mantle. Throw into the fire that was the Ottawa Senators terrible season so far, Clouston came in with confidence and excitement, and that has visibly transferred to the players under him. You've got to wonder, though, why has he been so successful (so far, at least, by going 4-1-1) where three other coaches failed?

I think it has a lot to do with playing to the team's strengths. John Paddock failed last year because, according to GM Bryan Murray, he didn't do enough to get himself and the team ready to play every night. He overused the CASH Line to start the season, and lost the dressing room at some point. He wasn't able to regain the room, and the team couldn't gain any semblance of consistency. So Murray canned Paddock and went behind the bench himself, but to no avail; the team continued to plummet, and Murray's one big trade did nothing to help when they were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.

Craig Hartsburg came in this season with plenty of fanfare. He was absolutely convinced that this team, even without truly elite defencemen, just needed a defensively responsible system to play within to compensate. He forced square pegs into round holes, telling offensive players to play defence instead. And, to be honest, I did think that was what the team needed. We had weak defence and weaker goaltending (this was before Brian Elliott saved us), but good offensive firepower. The unintended effect of this, though, was that offensive players, particularly Daniel Alfredsson, tired themselves out in defensive work and others, such as Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley, looked lost at times in a system that just didn't work for them. That's not to say Hartsburg was a bad coach, he was simply a coach who wasn't right for the team and wasn't able to change his approach to suit its players.

Clouston's has been tremendously different, though. He's reinstituted the run-and-gun style that these Senators have had their most success with, and the players look like they're having fun with it. Ottawa is still a team with good speed--especially on the second, third, and fourth lines--and a hard forecheck as has been practiced takes the pressure off Ottawa's defence and puts it on the opposition's. And, with a goaltender who by all appearances may be able to steal a game (or at least preserve a game) in Elliott, the inevitable defensive gaffes won't be as costly as they once were. This may not be a team that will win games with stifling defence, but they might be good enough to outscore their opponents--which is a lot more exciting than games were earlier in the year.

The new coach has also given a new life to a few of Ottawa's prospects, whom he was familiar with in Binghamton. Brian Lee (now playing with Filip Kuba after Clouston (rightfully) reunited Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips) continues his solid play, but that started before Clouston came around. But Clouston has placed Nick Foligno in a second-line role position with the opportunity to succeed, and Foligno has responded well. He's used Brendan Bell effectively, limiting his even-strength ice time to that against weaker opposition and maximizing his powerplay time. He brought up Ryan Shannon, who rejuvenated the Senators' second line and has also been seeing powerplay time on the point.

It's still very early in Clouston's career. The last six games have been impressive, but it remains to be seen whether the players are only relaxed because they now have no expectations, or whether they're still running on the wake-up call that a coaching change represents. As a few more games are played, though, we'll start to see the real team come about--hopefully it will look like the one that's played the last six games rather than the one that was around for the year prior to them.
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