Things don't just look ugly for the Ottawa Senators right now.
They look downright hideous.
With 11 losses in the last 12 games, and outscored 47-20 in that span, the Sens sure look like a team that's thrown in the towel, and it's inevitably got people talking about quitting on the coach. Pierre LeBrun of ESPN tweeted shortly after last night's 7-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens that the Senators looked "like a team that wants to get its coach fired". The din around the Web is that the Senators have quit on Cory Clouston, and it's showing on the ice.
But I'd argue the opposite. Despite the one-sided and disheartening losses, the Senators skaters are still playing with a good level of effort and hard work, and that can be attributed to Clouston.
I'd say that rather than quitting on their coach, the Senators skaters have quit on their goaltenders. And considering what we've seen throughout the season, it's hard to blame them if that's the case.
As bad as the struggles of the entire team have been this season, the Senators' goaltenders have been particularly disappointing. Aside from a few moments in games, neither Pascal Leclaire nor Brian Elliott have played like NHL starting goaltenders. I can count on one hand the number of 'good' games either have played ('good' characterized by no weak goals), which is bound to be frustrating. Starts have been given to both Mike Brodeur and Robin Lehner, and neither of them inspired much confidence; even if Lehner's start did end up as a victory, he definitely looked shaky.
In a recent interview, coach Clouston summed the situation up pretty well. From the Ottawa Sun:
"We can’t deny that it’s not frustrating when you give up those goals," Clouston said Friday morning of the weak efforts that beat Elliott Thursday in Philly. "Night in and night out, we do a pretty good job defensively, believe it or not. We outchanced them 2-1 almost. We held them to less than 24, 25 shots ...
"Defensively we feel we’re playing pretty well. The guys are competing hard, they’re battling and we’re holding the chances to less than we have the last couple of years, believe it or not."
Although I'd question his statement that the team's defensive play has been great, most of what Clouston is saying is correct: The skaters are working hard, and playing fairly well. The team, on average this season, has given up 29.9 shots against per game, which is 14th in the league, but has also averaged 3.14 goals against per game, which is 27th in the league. Put them together, and you've got the fourth-worst save percentage in the league (0.896), which... well, which seems a fitting explanation of why the team also has the fourth-worst record in the league.
The fact of the matter is that Senators players have no faith in any of the goaltenders they can put in the net these days. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the fact remains that the skaters--to a man--can play the best games of their careers, and still lose the game because the last line of defence is riddled with holes. That's got to affect the way they approach the game and, quite frankly, it's impressive the skaters are still putting together some semblance of effort considering how bad their goaltenders have been on most nights.
There's no denying that there hasn't been much in the way of run support for the Senators' goaltenders, too. The team is second-worst in the league in goals scored, so that's obviously an issue, as well. But a big save at a big time can give a team a lot of momentum, and can be enough to energize a team offensively.
And the opposite is true, too: A weak goal at a key time will go a long way in quelching momentum a team may have been building up.
Can we expect much more? Perhaps not. With all due respect to Leclaire, Elliot, Brodeur, or Lehner, but at this point, none of them are the calibre of goaltenders to regularly steal games. But with even average goaltending this season, the team would be in a much better position in the standings. Decent goaltending would then give the skaters and shooters more confidence, and the success of the team in any way to measure would be at least somewhat improved, and perhaps vastly improved.
I'm not trying to argue that Clouston will be around after this season, nor do I necessarily think he should. With his contract up at the end of the season, and that of Bryan Murray, I think the organization needs to make it abundantly clear that they are moving in a new direction. But with the contracts of Elliott, Leclaire, and Brodeur up at the end of this year, as well, maybe that new direction needs to extend from the front office right into the crease.