There was little to no protest from fans or media when Cory Clouston was fired about six minutes after the disastrous 2010-2011 season. The team went from 5th in the conference to 13th, even spending some time in last overall before a mild bounce-back, so someone had to take the blame, right? Completely lacking any of the coaching vocabulary required to articulate what Clouston was doing wrong, we cast about for some justification. "You can't fire the team." "He played Gonchar on the wrong side." "Kovalev and Spezza said something about bad communication." The bottom line, we've learned to accept, is that something had to change; the team spent to the cap and stank. Murray received a three-year extension, and Clouston fell on the sword.
What's wrong with this picture?
In a recent interview for TEAM 1200's TGOR (transcribed over on The 6th Sens) Clouston reflected on his performance as Senators coach, and it's both a diplomatic and compelling summary of the season from hell. In fact, after reading the transcript, I started to feel as if it wasn't much Clouston's fault at all.
A few of the more salient points, with my reactions:
On Ottawa's goaltending:
"When you play at that level, every team is so prepared and things are so structured and organized and teams are so evenly matched, that if you don't get the goaltending, you're not going to win games [...] when you consistently, like we did for a stretch of 15 to 20 games, give up a goal in the first five, six or seven shots and you're behind the eight ball consistently for about a 20 game period there, you're not going to win games."
"...the previous year when we were had goaltending problems, we were able to bring up Mike Brodeur. He went 3 and 0 for us and had a great shutout in New York that kind of turned things around for us and this year, he wasn't healthy at all. [...] And Robin Lehner, who had an excellent playoffs in Binghamton, suffered some injuries as well when we needed some relief. That left Brian Elliott with all of the pressure and it was a tough situation for him."
You could argue for a simple shift of the blame from Clouston to Elliott, but that also seems unfair: Elliott was never supposed to be the starting goaltender, and it was the organization's lack of depth, and subsequent gamble on Pascal Leclaire, that left the coach without any other option but to throw Elliott back out there night after night.
Clouston says as much:
"...now I'm not throwing Brian Elliott under the bus either [...]. He was paid as a backup. His role was a backup."
Ham-stringing the team with $4 million-plus in salary allocated to an injured goaltender, and giving up crucial second-line depth in order to obtain it, was one of Murray's gaffes. All it took for the house of cards to fall was a little bad luck.
Speaking of which...
"Kovalev and Michalek were coming off ACL surgeries and probably shouldn't even have been playing at the start of the year. Alfredsson again had to shut it down for the last 24 to 25 games and he needed surgery at the end of the season. Spezz he missed I believe about 20 games with a shoulder injury. Mike Fisher played with a sore collarbone/clavicle area that he ended up having surgery on at the end of the year as well. [...] Filip Kuba broke his leg in the first five of minutes of camp."
In this short anecdote Clouston mentions five out of six top-six forwards on an already thin team and a top four defenseman. Add that to a team without goaltending, and what exactly is a coach going to do to win hockey games? He could have stood on the bench with a sniper rifle and took pot-shots at the other team's stars and Ottawa probably would have still lost on most nights. Again, some of the blame has to be placed on Murray for loading the team with aging players with No Movement Clauses.
On their better-than-acknowledged performance:
"In two and a half years, I believe we were 12 or 13 games over .500. The last 25 games were a lot of fun. We traded for (Craig) Anderson and he played very well for us but we ended playing with as many as 9-10 American League callups in the last 25 games and we went 15-9-1."
"We turned the team around in the last 34 games when I got there. The following season we were picked to be 28th or 27th in the league by a lot of experts and we made the playoffs without a number one goaltender being healthy all that often during the regular season [...] we competed hard and played well. We played with a purpose and played with structure."
Another obvious point that somehow gets lost: Clouston had a winning record (95-83-20) with a deeply flawed team. There aren't many coaches, outside of the contenders like Washington, who consider firing their coach even though he has a winning record. He took a team that was in a death spiral and turned it around mid-season, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do. The next season Clouston was in the Jack Adams discussion for taking the Sens to 5th in the conference despite having to live through the Heatley debacle that offseason. Shouldn't Clouston have earned more benefit of the doubt for this? Was the success a fluke, or the failure?
Former assistant coach Greg Carvel, also fired in the cull, echoed this sentiment, pointing to both bad goaltending and the team's above-average penalty kill as dual indicators of both the team's shortcomings and relative success. He was unceremoniously jettisoned even though he lost a workhorse in Anton Volchenkov and received an elderly Sergei Gonchar in return.
The point has been made elsewhere: Coaches don't often get credit for wins, but they certainly get the blame for losses. Bryan Murray didn't exactly give his coaching staff a lot to work with. Kovalev, Cheechoo, Leclaire, Gonchar. Now go win us the Stanley Cup.
The fact is that there's a disconnect, or at least there used to be one, between Ottawa's management brain trust and the on-ice results. Murray might be a respected hockey personality, an old-school, fatherly figure who brings credibility to the organization in this Good Ol' Boy's League, but that both Murray and Melnyk once believed this team to be among the top 3rd in the league, and demanded their coaches deliver as much, seems absurd. Clouston was the victim of unreasonable expectations.
His replacement, Paul MacLean, comes from a franchise that owes its success to perfect vertical integration from the draft through the minors and up to the big club. Every facet of Detroit's system is reinforced through development. Perhaps MacLean will bring the same long-term management of prospects into a winning system, but isn't that the GM's job?
Is this just more of what Bruce Garrioch refers to as Cloustons' "excuse making?" Or was Clouston just the latest in a string of respectable and respected coaches sacrificed because they weren't able to work miracles?
Varada also writes for the Cory Clouston Fashion Review, and might just be lobbying so he doesn't have to change its name.