Dave Cameron may be a new coach, but he's taking on a lot of old problems. That leads me to this week's question: What is the Biggest Challenge Facing Dave Cameron?
As far as I can see, there are three major areas that will be a challenge for Cameron - or any coach for that matter - to overcome. Cameron will need to get the players to "buy-in" to his new philosophy and way of playing, he will need to adopt systems that complement the players he has, and he needs to deal with a roster built from nickels and dimes.
Getting the Players to Buy-In
The reason that Murray gave for MacLean's dismissal was that he wasn't communicating with players anymore and that he was coming down too hard on some of them. It seemed clear that the Senators weren't playing for MacLean anymore, as they weren't playing with much structure. Ultimately, I think that the team wasn't buying into what MacLean was preaching anymore. That said, Cameron has to get the players on his side and he needs them to believe in him and what he says as a coach. Coaches are only successful if their athletes buy into their systems and approach to the game. If players don't agree with what they're preaching or they're not getting them on board, their system fails. What Cameron needs to do is to get players to believe that the things he is implementing are important. The question then becomes, how can Cameron do that? How can he get them to believe in his approach, his philosophy, and his strategies?
In order to get athletes to buy-in, coaches need to communicate with their athletes. They need to be able to tell their athletes what to do, how it will be done, and, probably most importantly, why they are doing it. Cameron, therefore, needs to have a clear philosophy that he can explain to the team. He needs to be able to answer their questions and needs to be able to remain consistent with his messages. That means that he can't change his mind all of the time or change the way the team does things too frequently. Obviously coaches need to change the plan from time-to-time and from game-to-game, but the underlying fundamentals of their philosophy and game plan needs to remain intact. For example, MacLean often said that the "best players play." We, however, saw enough examples where he wasn't playing who deserved to be in the lineup over those who don't. Players see these things and can start to think that the coach is blowing smoke at them.
Another important aspect of getting athletes to buy-in involves creating a positive team atmosphere which focuses on building trust. Cameron will need to establish a good working relationship with each athlete, which he probably has done during his time as an assistant coach. The head coach dynamic will be a bit different though. He's the one with the power now, so he'll still need to work on getting each player to trust him. Cameron will also need to get the leaders on the team to believe in what he's saying. That means that he will have to get players like Karlsson, Phillps, Neil, Ryan, Turris, MacArthur, and Anderson to agree with him. Once leadership is on-board, the rest of the team tends to follow suit because the leaders can help the coach to disseminate his message.
Fixing the Systems
Let's face it, there were times when we felt that MacLean was trying to fit round pegs into square holes and things just weren't working. In fact, I've seen a few comments this week that MacLean has solid team structure, but it's more suitable for teams like he was used to in Detroit: older and more experienced. As we all know, however, the Senators are young and inexperienced. Running before you can walk is never going to be a smooth progression. Cameron will need to do a lot of teaching with regards to his new system and tactics, which are hopefully more suitable to the players on this particular team.
Indeed, Cameron has been dealt with a team that has a lot of weaknesses in its play, but I'm not going to break down all of the systematic changes that Cameron needs to make because that would be an entire piece (or two) in itself. I will provide a few examples, however. For starters, the team lacks defensive astuteness. They have poor positioning and a lack of communication between players, which makes for some ugly defensive zone coverage. Cameron has to fix that. The team also tends to have forwards who like to float behind the opposition's defense in hopes of getting a stretch pass, which makes breaking out difficult. He also needs to work on that. Finally, he has a team that backs off as soon as they don't have the puck and they do this in all three zones. Cameron is going to have to get this team to develop an aggressive attack system that allows his players to jump into a play without affording the opposition the time to think.
The good news here is that already in two games, the team is starting to look different. I've noticed that the team is more aggressive in the neutral zone - something that Cameron said he wants the team to be - which helps in both regaining the puck back for offense while negating the opposition's chance of setting up their offensive attack. The team is also moving to pucks or moving to the player with the puck instead of letting them come to them. This allows for less turnovers and for an overall more aggressive forecheck and backcheck. Finally, the forwards have been staying in the defensive zone longer so that the team can breakout. This is going to be a very important change for this team. As it stood, if Karlsson didn't get the puck out, the breakout either failed completely or tended to be feeble and disorganized.
The Tin-Pot Army
For many, the belief is that MacLean was not the biggest problem with this team, it was the budget-friendly roster. The team is has the lowest payroll in the league, spending a little under $56M on players this year. Much of that payroll is also spent on questionable contracts to players who are probably undeserving of the money they make. Colin Greening and Milan Michalek come to mind. Nonetheless, management and ownership believe this team has enough talent in its core to get into the playoffs. Murray has said a few tweaks to the roster could help the team, but he has yet to pull the trigger. For now, therefore, Cameron has the same players to coach as did MacLean.
That said, I believe that this team has some solid pieces who have a lot of talent and upside. To name a few, Erik Karlsson, Bobby Ryan, Clarke MacArthur, Kyle Turris, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Mika Zibanejad, Robin Lehner, and Craig Anderson are all players who can do some pretty good things on the ice. There are also are players like Curtis Lazar, Jared Cowen, and Cody Ceci who are getting better with time. The rest of the supporting cast has some upside too and, in reality, almost every player on the team has something to give. There have been moments this season when the team can surprise you with how good they can be. They obviously don't have the pedigree that Chicago or Los Angeles have, but they can battle and compete with the best of them when they work hard.
What it comes down to, however, is whether Cameron can get the most out of every player on a consistent basis. The team falls victim to playing to potential only some of the time. Cameron needs them to reach down, dig deep, and work hard every game, all game so that they can put a few more wins together. The best players need to be the best players and the supporting cast needs to do their part as well. If Murray can't get a trade done, or one that's helpful, Cameron will have to milk every drop of talent out of this group for them to make the playoffs.
Altogether, Dave Cameron has a big job ahead of him. The expectations from the organization are that this is a good team who can make playoffs. I sense that they won't be happy if Cameron doesn't at least get the team close to that position, so he needs to get this team working as a cohesive unit. How he can do that is by getting the players to buy-in, develop systems that work for this team, and get every player on this team to contribute in one way or another. Which do you think is the most important? You can have your say by voting in the poll or sharing in the comments.
Thank you for reading.