Thursday, April 28, 2011

Experience Wanted

First off, I think Montreal GM Pierre Gauthier would be plain crazy to pin any of the blame on Jacques Martin and his coaching staff for failing to get out of the first round of the playoffs against the superior Boston Bruins.

Despite being decimated by injuries, Martin had the Habs playing responsible, and almost (dare we say it) exciting hockey at times and were one goal away from being in the second round. And from there, who knows what could have happened.

But if you look at the Montreal situation from the Ottawa Senators point of view, wouldn't it be a great opportunity for the Senators if Martin somehow became available?

Sure, it's the longest of long shots, but could there be a more perfect coach for these Senators at this time in their development than the guy who made this organization respectable in the first place? Martin obviously has a lot of baggage with the Senators, but it's important to remember that he was removed as coach because he was no longer the right mentor to bring that particular group of players over the top. But the Senators are once again stocked with young talented kids just waiting for someone to come along and teach them the NHL game. That plays right into the strengths of a coach like Martin.

If not Martin, then the Senators need a bench boss with a similar pedigree. In short, they need an experienced coach, which in turn will bring the stability behind the bench this team so desperately needs.

In a way, the Senators need their own version of Craig Anderson behind the bench. Now I'm not comparing Cory Clouston to Brian Elliott, but look at what happened when a veteran goalie came in to town and simply provided stable, NHL calibre netminding. The entire team calmed down and started playing games to win instead of trying not to embarrass themselves. They grew confident knowing they were going to get the majority of saves and probably a few big ones at important times.

Look at the Tampa Bay Lightning and their acquisition of veteran Dwayne Roloson. Nobody would ever accuse Roloson of being elite, but he brings experience and that goes a long way.

The Senators don't need a coach with multiple Stanley Cup rings (though that would be nice). But they do need a "name" coach who has guided two or three teams and had some success with modern NHL players. They need someone who brings instant credibility, much like Craig Anderson brought to the crease.

I can throw out multiple names here but I would just be guessing. No one but Bryan Murray knows who is going to get hired eventually.

But if Martin somehow found himself on the sidelines this summer, Murray would be equally as crazy as Gauthier if he didn't hire him immediately.

Just saying.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Never Mind The Bollocks

I find it quite amusing that the Canadian media and fanbase is so overwrought with "headshot fever" and can find nothing but contempt for the league and the sport they claim to "love" and "own", and are often found saying that the league is turning itself into a joke for not throwing the book at every player who dares to actually hit another player.
Yet Gary Bettman just announced that NBC/Versus has just renewed their TV deal for $2 billion dollars over 10 years after a long fight for the rights with ESPN.
$2 billion dollars.
Two billion.
10 years on one of the biggest networks in American television.
While a self-important sponsor like Air Canada has a hissy fit and writes a "strongly worded" letter to the NHL because someone on their hometown team got injured on a perfectly legitimate yet unfortunate hockey play, the Commish is closing $2 billion dollar deals if you need him. I'm sure Air Canada is just dying to get out their NHL deal.
Maybe there's actually something appealing about a fast paced, skilled and often violent sport.
Who knew?
And maybe, just maybe, Gary Bettman knows what he's doing despite everyone sitting on their couch at home being convinced they could do his job better than he can.
I know, I know, these are radical ideas for Canadian sports fans but there just might be some merit to them.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Draft Chatter

Let's just pretend Senators GM Bryan Murray desperately wants Gabriel Landeskog in this year's draft. I don't know if that's the case - maybe he's dying to get Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Ryan Strome or any of the other top prospects. I won't even presume to make an argument as to who is better, simply because I'm not a scout and I don't see enough junior games to give you an educated opinion on a bunch of 18 year-olds.
But for argument's sake, let's say he wants Landeskog and he's targeted Florida who have the 3rd overall pick, likely where Landeskog will go if Adam Larsson or Hopkins go 1-2 as expected. It's a possibility the Avalanche see Landeskog as their next Peter Forsberg and bypass Hopkins because they already have a number one centre in Matt Duchene. Maybe.
But what would Murray have to offer Panthers GM Dale Tallon in order to pry that third overall pick away?
Of course, it starts with Ottawa's 6th pick. That's a no-brainer. The Panthers need to come out of this draft with an elite prospect and the cutoff seems to be in the top 10, if not lower. They could still get one of the guys they want with Ottawa's 6th pick but they might also be able to get a roster player or two who can help them right away as they desperately try to get back into the playoffs after a 10 year absence.
To see who Ottawa might be willing to give the Panthers, we first have to figure out who they wouldn't trade.
In my humble opinion, the Senators won't move the following players:
Alfredsson, Spezza, Michalek, Neil, Butler, Greening, Z. Smith, Phillips, Karlsson, Carkner, Cowen, Rundblad, Anderson and Lehner.
That still leaves a short list of players or prospects they would move for the right deal but there are a few players who Florida wouldn't take as part of any package. That includes Filip Kuba (who could be bought out anyways) and Sergei Gonchar.
What we're left with, and what actually might make sense, is a package of Nick Foligno or Peter Regin and Patrick Wiercioch or another prospect already in Ottawa's system.
The 6th overall pick, a possible 25 goal scorer in Foligno and a long-term prospect in Wiercioch would be a pretty good return for Tallon to simply move down three spots and still get a blue-chip player in the draft.
Is it enough? Maybe not.
Foligno could play for the Panthers right away and in an expanded role might score some goals for them. That's at the top level of his curve but he also might just prove to be a third liner on a team filled with similar players. Tallon could be looking for more of a home run than just getting a character winger like Foligno.
Regin might appeal to Tallon a little more (if he was paying attention to the 2010 playoffs) and the Senators must know they have a highly skilled player who simply fell victim to the dreaded sophomore jinx. Regin is going to be a top-six stalwart, and soon, but would he be worth sacrificing if it meant getting a future captain like Landeskog?
If Landeskog turns out like many think he will, of course it will be worth it. No question.
You don't get very many chances to get elite players like Landeskog or Hopkins (or Larsson for that matter, but it's unlikely the Senators would bypass an elite forward for another defenseman). You can set your organization up for the next ten or fifteen years with guys like that. Foligno is certainly not going to be that type of player. Regin will be good, but no one is saying he's going to be a franchise player.
Landeskog would also be a good fit with Ottawa simply because they already have a boatload of Swedish prospects and a current Swedish captain who also happens to be the most popular player in the history of the team. The Swedish contingent coming together in Ottawa certainly mirrors the success that the Detroit Red Wings have with Swedish players. And rumour has it that Landeskog's favourite team growing up was the Ottawa Senators.
It's a marketers dream.
In short, if Murray has Landeskog rated as their number one priority for the draft, expect him to throw the kitchen sink at the Panthers in order to get that 3rd pick (or at the Av's for their second slot).
But Dale Tallon is not in the business of doing other teams favours. Ottawa would have to part with someone they likely don't want to see go.  The Senators may like players like Strome or Jonathan Huberdeau enough to stay exactly where they are in the draft.
Yet Murray's past suggests he's not afraid to make a big trade. He's also not afraid to move players once thought untradeable (see Mike Fisher, currently tearing it up for the Predators in the playoffs).
This should get interesting.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Season Closes On Clouston

Mercifully, the Senators disastrous 2010-2011 season has come to a close after another loss to the playoff bound Boston Bruins, and Cory Clouston's short but tumultuous tenure as coach is over.

The Senators finished out the season strong with a cast of young kids getting their first NHL experience, but the fact that this team missed the playoffs with the loaded roster they had to start the year is a massive letdown for everyone and a huge cash loss for Eugene Melnyk, who was no doubt looking forward to well over a million dollars in pure profit from each playoff home date.

It really should be no surprise to anyone that Clouston and his two main assistants, Greg Carvel and Brad Lauer, were released just hours after the game (Luke Richardson and Rick Wamsley were retained). I've already said my piece about Clouston in the past few days, here and here, so I won't cover the same ground tonight (and my view on the subject is not exactly making me very popular lately).

But what has struck me about Clouston going down the stretch here is his complete inability to publicly take some responsibility for what went wrong this season in Ottawa. He certainly has a point when he constantly refers to the unfortunate goaltending situation that plagued the team all year long, and not many coaches would have been able to overcome the brutal play of Brian Elliott this year. Yet goaltending was just one part of the puzzle and Clouston apparently sees no fault in his system or his manner in dealing with his players. At least not publicly.

Maybe Clouston is right. Maybe his system was perfect and it's everyone else's fault that this team couldn't win any games when it really mattered. Or maybe this is just a glimpse of why many of his players were so unhappy under his leadership.

I can guarantee one thing. Clouston will win the public relations battle the next few days and weeks as the backlash against newly retained GM Bryan Murray and the rest of the players runs its course. The anonymous voices on various social media platforms are already heaping their vicious slander on everyone but Clouston. The vocal segment of fans who are up in arms over Murray's new contract will probably go through the roof the next couple of days in response to the Clouston firing, but eventually, when the screaming stops, it will be clear that this was the only course of action Murray could have taken here.

Truth is, coaches are much more disposable than GM's are. They are much, much lower on the totem pole in experience, pay and responsibility. It's not even close. One is an executive. One is a working stiff. That's why fans tend to identify with coaches so much these days, but bench bosses are easy to change out and the effect is sometimes huge, often in a positive way.

That's life. Businesses don't make sentimental decisions very often. The Senators are no exception despite the emotional investment from fans who tend to view the whole thing as some kind of moral fable where everything is black and white - good guys and bad guys. To many, Clouston is a good guy who is getting unjustly blamed by the bad guy, Bryan Murray. The fans reaction is predictable but it doesn't make it accurate. A lot of players paid the price this season by being dealt away. It's only natural that the coaching staff get blamed as well.

In the long run, the decision not to offer Clouston a new contract will prove to be the right one. There is no doubt that his strong work ethic will get him another job soon and I would not be surprised to see him in the NHL again someday. But there is simply too much baggage for a guy who has only been in this organization for two and a half seasons and not enough wins to justify his unnecessary battles with certain important players who found their roles greatly diminished under Clouston.

Going forward, the Senators have an exciting team full of prospects and a few talented veterans to provide stability through the tough stretches ahead. Jason Spezza has finally arrived as a bona fide leader and is now reaching his full potential. Erik Karlsson is going to be one of the top five best defensemen in this league for the next 10 years. David Rundblad looks like he might not be far behind Karlsson if reports are accurate about his play this year in Sweden.

And, while too late to save Clouston's job, this team now has real goaltending in Craig Anderson. And a good one coming in Robin Lehner.

Today is a bad day for the organization, for Clouston and his departing staff, and for the players who are going home too early.

But tomorrow is a new day.

Bring on the draft.

Now here's a picture of clowns to cheer everyone up.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Murray Back For 3 .... Don't Cry For Clouston

The Senators finally made it official today by announcing that Bryan Murray has signed a contract extension to remain as the general manager for the next three seasons.

And it's a smart, prudent move by the organization.

There is going to be a nasty backlash from a certain reactionary segment of the fan base who have called for the firing of Murray all season long, but hey, you can't please everybody.

I'm sure it was a difficult decision for both Eugene Melnyk and team president Cyril Leeder, but they came to the right one in keeping Murray around to finish what he started this season.

Like I said in a previous article, this is really the first time Murray has had a chance to build this team from the core out. Since taking over from John Muckler in the summer of 2007, Murray went with the core players who had so much success in years past which reduced his role to that of a caretaker GM.

Once the bottom dropped out, Murray began making drastic, necessary moves this season and will get his first chance to really build the team the way he wants it, rather than keeping the old teams built by other general managers together.

So far, so good.

For whatever faults he has, Murray is highly respected by his players, by player agents, by the hockey community and by his GM peers.

He's also a survivor, as his 30 plus years in the NHL can attest. Bringing in a new general manager, particularly a young one, is no guarantee of brighter days ahead. Minnesota and Colorado fans can attest to that.

Some may wonder about the length of the deal, but anything less than three years wouldn't allow Murray to see through his plan. In a sense, you can be sure that 3 years is the number that both Murray and Melnyk agreed is the time it will take to get this team back to elite status and competing for the Stanley Cup.

That's not tomorrow, but it's sooner than it sounds. It's obvious that Melnyk is expecting results in a short time frame and Murray's plan is structured to do just that. There will likely be no playoffs next year either but that's just the nature of rebuilding. Murray has made a big commitment to the organization here to get things back on track and it's honourable that he doesn't want to leave the team in a state of disrepair.

In short, Murray has vowed to fix this thing and he's willing to put in the time to do it.

He deserved that chance and now he's going to get it.


Which brings us to Cory Clouston, the hard-working yet seemingly doomed coach of the Ottawa Senators. I laid out the reasons I believe Clouston will be let go in my last post (or as someone called it, a "hatchet job"), but that doesn't mean the young coach doesn't deserve respect from the fans.

He was hired during a time of crisis and did a relatively good job of bringing back some respectability to the team on the ice. Yet some of his decisions led to the estrangement of some very good hockey players on this team, most notably Dany Heatley, and the organization suffered mightily for it.

Like all rookie coaches, he did some great things, and some not so great things. For some, it will seem unfair when he gets replaced, and there is going to be an outpouring of sympathy for the young coach when the inevitable happens. And with that sympathy will come the backlash against the players which always happens like clockwork when a coach gets fired.

Fans always associate more with a coach than they do players and feel that somehow the coach was undone by spoiled athletes. A lot of coaches get treated like martyrs when they are fired, like somehow they don't bear any responsibility for their fate.

This kind of invented sympathy can be a very misleading thing.

When you start feeling sorry for a coach or a player, that should send off alarm bells on the logical side of your brain.

People felt very sorry for players like Martin Gerber and Jonathan Cheechoo and for coaches like John Paddock and Craig Hartsburg. It's a natural reaction and an honest one, but do you really want guys you feel sorry for coaching or playing for your team?

It may be a harsh reality, but when you start feeling sorry for athletes or coaches, that's not a good sign that their career is headed to the stratosphere.

I'll take the guys who tend to piss people off now and then any day.

How's Ray Emery doing lately?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Clouston's Last Stand

Some interesting comments by (soon to be departing) "Sens insider" Scott MacArthur on the Lee Versage-hosted Team 1200 show this morning about (soon to be departing) coach Cory Clouston.
MacArthur, who is off to Toronto shortly to co-host a show on the new TSN radio network, said that, in his opinion, Clouston doesn't have the capacity to handle different personalities on an NHL team. He has one way, and that way is "his way or the highway".
That kind of attitude sounds great to a lot of fans who already have a deep-seated resentment towards "millionaire athletes", and love nothing more than to see them humbled publicly, but it doesn't actually work in a locker room.
I don't pretend to know what Clouston is like behind closed doors but if a guy like MacArthur, who is as close to the team as anyone else not on the actual payroll, says that Clouston's approach rubbed many players the wrong way, including some guys who "are still on the team" (as opposed to the "bad guys" already gone that Eugene Melnyk bizarrely referred to the other day), then this assessment is probably pretty close to the truth.
Undoubtedly, MacArthur and other journalists close to the team have many off-the-record conversations with players over the course of a season who have had some problems with the way Clouston ran the squad, but those quotes will never see the light of day, as they shouldn't.
Clouston is not the first coach, and he won't be the last, who is unpopular with his players, but you can only get away with it when you get results. If your players don't like you and you don't win, then it's "Good Night, Irene".
Yet, there's been a minor upswell of opinion towards Clouston of late, mirroring his young team's late season rise in the standings.
It makes sense. Clouston has a group of young, hungry players who would go to the wall for any coach they were playing for, whether it was Clouston or Martha Stewart.
It's a tad ironic that Clouston may never have been more right for this team than he is now, just as he is about to get the can tied to him.
The point is, most coaches at a high level can get young players to buy into their system right from the get go. The real tough part is getting veterans, who have enjoyed success in this league without you, to follow your lead and believe in what you are saying.
All NHL teams are run by veterans, whether it's a team like Detroit with a roomful of them, or a team like Ottawa who are basically going with just four guys who have been around the league for a length of time. You think the Edmonton room is run by Taylor Hall or Jordan Eberle? Not a chance.
If Clouston can't make believers out of those few veterans, even if he has 18 or 19 kids on his side, then he has no chance. No coach would.
Unfortunately for him, that might be the situation in Ottawa and Clouston looks like he's coached his way out of an NHL job.
It already seems as if it's a foregone conclusion that Dave Cameron is going to be parachuted into the vacant job this summer once his Memorial Cup run with Mississauga is done, but Melnyk isn't saying just yet.
Whoever it is will be faced with the same task as Clouston – getting your leaders to believe in your message. Reactionary fans will be quick to call these  veterans "spoiled", and many have already done so in Ottawa, but it's no different on any NHL team.
Like MacArthur said, these players are the best in the world at what they do, and minor-league style regimentation simply doesn't work at this level.  Players have to be allowed to smile once in a while.
Some of the most serious minded coaches in NHL history knew that. Scotty Bowman knew that. Even Mike Keenan knew that.
Why doesn't Clouston?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Foligno A Prime Trade Candidate This Summer

With their disappointing, but ultimately cleansing season drawing down to its final five games in April, what do the Senators do now?
Well, other than go golfing a little earlier than usual, there are bound to be big changes in the organization but I'm guessing that many will be done off the ice rather than to the current roster itself.
Fans, non-fans, dogs, cats and even inanimate objects know that coach Cory Clouston has no chance to return behind the bench next season. What happens to his two main assistant coaches is unclear, but I would be surprised to see either Greg Carvel or Brad Lauer retained.  Everyone can speculate about GM Bryan Murray's future but until I see him on television telling reporters that he feels it's time to move on, I think he'll be back in the same role next season to finish the rebuild he started in March.
But what happens on the ice?
There's been a lot of talk about the Senators going out and getting that coveted "top six forward" in the summer, but looking at the pending UFA list, there aren't a lot of options on the table. More like scraps when you get past Ville Leino and Simon Gagne (who is himself bordering on the "scraps" label after a disappointing year).  Leino is going to be a top commodity for a lot of teams this summer, but would he, or any other similar free agent, be the right fit on the Senators if he is going to take ice time away from players they are currently trying to develop, such as Bobby Butler, Erik Condra and Colin Greening? And then there's highly touted college kid Stephane Da Costa who is going to get every opportunity and then some to make this team next season.
Marek Svatos is starting to show what he can do and may get a contract offer in the summer. Don't forget whoever the Senators select early in the upcoming draft. Whether it's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog or somebody else, that player is going to be expected to compete for a job in camp, and possibly for a spot in the top 6. Jeff Skinner turned a lot of heads this season and every team is going to be looking for that same type of guy early in the draft. And that's not even mentioning Nick Foligno and Peter Regin, two players who have slipped into the shadows because of ineffectiveness and injury.
Already, there's not a lot of room on that forward list.
Yet if the Senators stand pat and don't bring in another veteran, they run the risk of putting too much stake into what players like Butler, Condra and Greening have brought to the table late in the season.  One only needs to look at the case of Peter Regin, who shone late in the 09-10 season and into the playoffs against Pittsburgh, but barely showed up for the first half of this year. These sorts of things happen all the time to young players. The risk might even be increased for college players who are used to playing about half the games NHLer's do.
Murray has to decide if the play of those particular three college kids, Butler, Condra and Greening, is a mirage or just a sign of things to come. I'd bet on the latter, but then again no one in their right mind would hire me to manage a hockey team.  These are among the toughest decisions a GM has to make. I wish Murray good luck.
Bobby Butler has cooled significantly down the final stretch and has now been taken off the top line where he was once creating great chemistry with Jason Spezza. Maybe this kid scores 25 goals next year or maybe he plays in Bingo.
In a way, a guy like Butler has been given his chance precisely because a player like Nick Foligno couldn't get the job done whenever he was given an opportunity. You could tell the coaching staff has been trying to turn Foligno into a top-six guy but it's not working. There's nothing wrong with Foligno ending up as a solid third or fourth liner, but when a team pushes a player one way and it doesn't work out, that's when trades happen.
To me, Foligno is a prime candidate to be moved this summer in some sort of package to get a scoring winger.  If the Senators don't like what they see on the free-agent market this summer (Alex Tanguay anyone?), they could get the kind of player they want in a trade, possibly from a cap-strapped team looking to unload a salary.
Trading Foligno would be hard for the Senators simply because he's so well liked and has character galore. If he could ever get his game in shape, he could be a captain one day in the NHL. But if Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly can be traded, Murray won't hesitate to move anyone outside of a few mainstays if he thinks it will help improve the squad for next year.
Right now, Foligno doesn't fit into the top six, and that's disappointing for both the player and the organization.
I don't see the Senators giving up on Regin. He's already shown that he can be a point-getter when he's at his best. Unfortunately for Foligno, he hasn't yet shown that side of his game. It doesn't mean he won't in the future, but he's already missed a few prime chances.
Which means Foligno may be finding a new home this summer if Murray is serious about bringing in a legitimate top six forward.