My Take: Cory Clouston

As has been mentioned by numerous media sources since the announcement of Cory Clouston’s dismissal, the phrase “what you see is what you get” certainly fits the former bench boss’ personality.  Clouston isn’t going to change his ways for anybody, whether it be a 15-year veteran or a 13-game rookie.  His hard-nosed edge, as well as his inability to deal with players on a personal level, were probably two of the main reasons for his exit this past Saturday.   But was he really to blame?

When he was first brought in, his approach was fresh and new.  He held everybody accountable and pushed the players to work hard.  Clouston took over a 17-24-7 club on February 2, 2009 and led them on a 19-10-3 run to finish the season.  He would follow that up by leading the team on an impressive 11-game win streak and surprising 5th place finish in the Eastern Conference standings a year later.  A disappointing, but well-played 6 game playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins was how the season would end. 

The success of the 2009-10 season brought heavy expectations.  Fans and experts alike felt that the team was only a couple of pieces away from making a serious run at the Cup.  So, Bryan Murray did what any GM would do and tried to bring in talent that would compliment an already “solid” core. 

Hope was high.  The addition of a well-known PP specialist in Sergei Gonchar could only bring the best out of Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and especially, Alexei Kovalev, right?  Wrong.  The team was mediocre at best, consistently being outplayed and seemingly, on a different page than their coach.  Work ethic was being questioned by the fans and the media, while the goaltenders were either injured or just plain terrible.  An 11-game losing streak from January 14 to February 9 mirrored the previous season’s winning streak in the worst possible way.  Things had to change. 

The franchise decided that it was time to rebuild.  It started with Mike Fisher and ended with Chris Campoli.  The veteran group had been dismantled, sent in every direction.  Only Spezza, Alfredsson, Phillips and Neil remained from the “leadership” group.  The team now had a new goaltender and was going to rely on callups to finish out the season. 

Funny thing is, the team started playing better.  Youngsters such as Bobby Butler, Erik Condra and Colin Greening sprung life into the lineup and into the dressing room.  Newly-acquired Craig Anderson actually was making saves and quickly signed on to stay for 4 years.  The Senators were fun to watch again, giving an honest effort even in defeat, a result which was happening far less than most expected. 

Cory Clouston was at his best in those last 27 games of the season.  After the initial trade of Mike Fisher, the Senators racked up a 15-10-2 record.  Clouston could be seen talking with each youngster individually and coming up with game-plans for specific teams during practices.  Ottawa was defeating the likes of the Flyers and the Lightning with a heavy-AHL lineup.  They were outworking  their opponents and getting contributions from everybody.  They were playing as a team.

So, the question arises, was it the Coach or was it the players?  There is no doubt Clouston had his issues as head coach of the Senators.  He was not personable.  He played favourites.  He made some questionable personnel decisions when it came to playing time (ie: Brian Lee).  His views and demeanour did not mix well with management and we will never forget the Heatley situation.  That is, if the “diminished role” was really the issue.  

But, there there was no doubting his work ethic and knowledge of the game.  His focus on “winning a hockey game” could not be denied and he seemed to be able to get the most out of a youthful lineup.  He had to work around some difficult situations, whether it be injury-prone players, openly-critical veterans or ineffective goaltending.  He was the coach, but he wasn’t playing the game. 

From the time Clouston took over in February 2009, there were signs that the core of the team could no longer work well as a unit.  They were 7 games under .500 when he arrived, and merely played out the remainder of the year for pride’s sake.  

The follow-up 2009-10 season may not have been so successful if not for the 11-game winning streak.  Take away 4 wins from that impressive run and they wouldn’t have made the playoffs.  Unfortunately, this past campaign was a write-off pretty much from the beginning.

Spezza, Alfredsson, Kuba, Foligno, Fisher, Kelly, Phillips, Neil, Ruutu, Shannon, Winchester, Campoli, Lee, Regin, Z.Smith & Elliott.  These players played on every team that Clouston coached in the NHL.  Of the names, 5 have been traded, 5 have had major injury issues and most have been disappointing.  Any notable additions to this group, with the exception of Erik Karlsson (ie. Leclaire, Kovalev & Gonchar), are known for their failures rather than their contributions.  Clouston may not have always played his cards right, but sometimes, he wasn’t dealing with a full deck.

In the end, Clouston compiled a 95-83-20 record with the Senators.  Not too shabby.  But when expectations by the fans and management aren’t met, something must be done.  While it did not go unnoticed that the core of the team needed to be changed, the fact that everyone thought that the roster at the beginning of the season was playoff calibre meant it was only a matter of time before the axe came down. 

Having said that, I believe the organization’s “core” players are just as much to blame as the recently dismissed head coach.  Its up to them to perform, execute the gameplan and fulfill expectations despite their feelings for those in charge.  Clouston wasn’t an innocent bystander, but by no means was it all his fault.

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