Burning issues (cont.)
Posted: Friday February 29, 2008 4:04PM; Updated: Friday February 29, 2008 4:04PM
Ottawa's blame game
Firing a coach down the home stretch is nothing new in the NHL, but firing the bench boss of a perceived Cup contender deserves at least some attention. Clearly there is a problem in Ottawa and it's been going on for a lot longer than one lousy month of losing. But what drove the firing of John Paddock to a head was the idea that the Senators truly are a Cup contender that has fallen into a slump and needs a dramatic wake-up call.
The Sens have been struggling since they broke out to a 15-2 start. From that point on, they've drifted on a course seemingly charted by Hillary Clinton's former campaign manager. They are thought to be -- and think of themselves -- as good, but since losing their first-place mantle in the Eastern Conference, they haven't found a way to do anything right. The primary reasons are the collapse of their goaltending and the biggest non-move by GM Bryan Murray: his failure to get the help at the deadline that his team clearly needed.
So Murray got permission from owner Eugene Melnyk to go back behind the bench. Paddock, a good hockey man who became embroiled in a mess not entirely of his making, was gone faster than Bill Clinton's White House travel team. But the Sens' main problem dates back to when Melnyk fired then-GM John Muckler and elevated coach Murray, a former GM at numerous stops around the league. The move also promoted Paddock from assistant to head coach.
One could argue that the goaltending wasn't strong enough last season when the Sens made it to the Cup final before being taken apart in five games by the Ducks, but that wasn't the whole puzzle. Melnyk fired Muckler in part because he didn't win the Cup and because Muckler didn't always do what the owner wanted (not getting Gary Roberts at the deadline last season was a real issue between the two).
Still, in promoting Murray, the Sens bypassed their primary problems and sent a message that it wasn't the players who failed, it was management. That makes it extremely easy on the skaters who, according to several sources, griped openly about the play of their goaltenders -- Ray Emery and Martin Gerber -- and how Paddock assigned playing time. The most common refrain was that too much time was given to the big three of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza and not enough to almost everyone else.
A legitimate scoring threat on the second line has been hard to come by and too few Senators have committed themselves to playing better team defense or doing whatever it takes to win close games. Those shortcomings have been mentioned from time to time, but generally they were lost in the dressing room shouts of, "What about me?"
Paddock did little to stem that selfish mindset, but he is clearly taking the fall for goaltending problems that he and Murray are responsible for, especially Emery's well-documented tardiness issues. Thus, instead of having a team that was focused on getting better on the ice and deeper and stronger via trades, the Sens ended up as directionless but secure in the knowledge that their problems were caused by the people above them.
It;s made for a magnificent mess, one that certainly wasn't solved simply by having Murray step behind the bench. That was clear in the 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night. Were it not for Spezza's early power-play goal, the Senators would have suffered a third consecutive shutout.
Muckler had his flaws and he made his mistakes, but he got this team close. Normally, when that happens the well-managed teams keep things together, get the players focused on taking the next and final step, and maybe toss them a little help to give them the confidence that they can do it. Instead, Melnyk moved from the top down, letting his team embrace that most ancient of hockey excuses: "Not my fault."
It's one the Senators appear to have readily embraced.