By Sylvain Godin | SWP Journal Staff
As I sat and watched the New Jersey Devils pelt the Senators this week, for a grand total of 54 shots against goalie Marcus Hogberg, the eerie feeling of déjà vu hit me. Again, we have a Senators team that's being outshot and outshot hard. If you are an Ottawa Senators fan, this isn't surprising. Ottawa seems to be consistently at the bottom of the league for shots against.
For this article, I wanted to do a dive into just how long it has been since the Senators had a decent defensive year. I will say this: it was a decent year for Ottawa if they were in the top 10 of the NHL for shots against. I would think that if you are in the top third, it was a decent year. I will then take a look as to who was on the blue line back then, who was the coach, why it worked so well, and what the Senators need to do to improve this abysmal defensive play that has plagued the team for years now.
The last time the Senators were in the top ten? 2009-2010 Season Yep. You read that right. It was literally 10 years ago that Ottawa even cracked the top 10 in goals against. The year after that, Ottawa dropped into the bottom 10 teams. That is a LONG stretch of being bad defensively. In perspective: Ottawa had just drafted Erik Karlsson, who played 60 games and was a -5 that season.
Your defensive lineup in 2009?
Matt Carkner Chris Phillips Filip Kuba Chris Campoli Erik Karlsson Anton Volchenkov
Alexandre Picard (Traded to Carolina)
Those are some old school names. Karlsson was just starting in the league, having played his first twelve games of the season in the AHL. Honestly, if you look at the list of names, it wasn’t a half bad defensive roster. While you weren’t going to get points out of your back line, (Led by Kuba at 28 points, followed by Karlsson at 26), you got a sense that this group would not disappoint defensively. That season, Ottawa averaged 28.5 shots against per game in the course of 82 games.
The Coach? Cory Clouston. Clouston was hired in 2009 after the firing of Craig Hartsburg, and funny enough, Clouston’s goal was always to get away from Hartsburg’s game plan of defense-first systems. The first season was somewhat successful, only to lose in the first round of the playoffs against the hated Penguins. (This started a budding rivalry between Ottawa and Pittsburgh before the NHL changed the rules to be division only for the first two rounds). What is interesting about this is the change of philosophy. You had the pizza line of Heatley/Spezza/Alfredsson and most coaches wanted to activate these players. But soon after Heatley left, the pizza line dissipated, new blood came in and grew with the idea of an offensive minded game. Perhaps this was the catalyst that for the club's longest ever stretch of poor defensive play. What exactly has changed since then?
Coaches: 6 Players: Too many to count.
With the high turnover of players in Ottawa, coaches have lasted two and a half years, at most. Each preached about being more defensively responsible, each had their own game plan, and the constant change of systems the Senators have had to endure has never really allowed a team to ‘grow’ with a system and grow to get themselves comfortable. Guy Boucher once said that it takes around 18 months for a player to fully understand and execute a system or a gameplan, and I honestly believe that. But if you’re sacking your coach or changing assistants at the drop of a hat, it becomes a bit tougher to really implement and get a system ingrained in a player.
Imagine if your job duties changed every three years and you had to learn a system. Some of you readers may go through it if you’re in IT and let me tell you: It is an annoyance to deal with. Hockey players, for that matter, are the same way.
What can be done to change this? Honestly, right now, Ottawa is doing exactly what needs to be done: A true tank for a few years and a new coach that can implement a system that will hopefully allow players to play for years to come within it. My advice for GM Pierre Dorion: Don’t pull the trigger every three years like your mentor did. Let the coach make mistakes. Don’t rock the boat regarding trades either. Yes, if you see something that could benefit you for years down the road, you do it. But in the end, get rentals you expect to get rid of and let the players you plan on keeping for years grow together and learn the system together.
It’s the GM’s prerogative to fire his coach if he no longer has confidence in him. But I feel like one of the black marks of the Bryan Murray era is that he was too prone to fire coaches as soon as everything went south. The longest serving coach during Murray's era was Murray himself, and that is only because Murray had to come back after firing Paddock in the middle of the year. The last coach that stayed longer than 3 years: Jacques Martin. And Martin was considered a defensive guru.
Time will tell if Dorion follows his mentor’s pattern of firing a coach without them getting to the end of their three-year contract (Boucher almost got to the end of his deal). But I think right now, the Senators need to stay the course, let the players grow, get comfortable, understand the system and not overhaul things for short term gain.