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Posted: Thursday February 5, 2009 3:42PM; Updated: Monday February 23, 2009 4:50PM
Jim Kelley Jim Kelley >
INSIDE THE NHL

Little change so far from in-season coaching changes

Story Highlights

Ottawa's Cory Clouston is the fourth new coach since the start of the season

Only Joel Quenneville in Chicago has presided over any noticeable success

Senators, Lightning and Hurricanes have too many woes for a new coach to fix

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Cory Clouston has taken over a team beset with problems much like the ones that have ruined Tampa Bay's season.
Andre Ringuette/Getty Images
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As the Cory Clouston era kicked off in Ottawa, the hope of the Senators and their fans was that the new coach, fresh up from Binghamton in the American Hockey League, will be the second coming of Bruce Boudreau -- the veteran minor league coach who took over a foundering Capitals team and drove it to the Southeast Division championship on the final day of the 2007-08 regular season.

Not to be disparaging of an NHL newbie who was just getting his style unwrapped in the AHL, but I have a two-word view on that possibility: fat chance.

Understand that Clouston is a genuine coaching prospect. He had a track record in junior hockey in the Western Hockey League, which has been churning out successful NHLers for years. You want to throw him an "attaboy" for his work in Binghamton as well. There isn't a whole lot down on Ottawa's farm these days, but Clouston had a very young and inexperienced team on the right track when he left mid-state New York.

But making the jump to instant success in the NHL is on par with a Wall Street investment banker getting a ride down the Canyon of Heroes in midtown Manhattan these days. Boudreau aside, history isn't on Clouston's side.

Clouston is the fourth change since the season started. Only one, Joel Quennville replacing Denis Savard in Chicago, can claim unquestioned success, but the circumstances there were wildly different than elsewhere. Quennville is an NHL veteran, a coveted coach who, when he separated from Colorado (reportedly via mutual consent), was immediately snapped up. He was hired as a scout and consultant, but it was really just Chicago's hockey people cornering the market on coaching talent. They thought the Hawks should have broken through to the playoffs last season and when it didn't happen you could see the printout on the pink slip for Savard that arrived just four games into this season.

The Hawks, who have talent up front and on the back end, and a Cup-winning presence in goal, have since moved to second behind the powerful Red Wings in the Central Division and are comfortably secure in a playoff spot. They are tied with Calgary for third in the Western Conference and could still move up. One can argue they would be there with Savard behind the bench, but the move was made for the long term as management wants and needs to go deep in the playoffs this year. Quennville has a track record in that regard.

In Chicago, the coaching has been upgraded, but the success comes largely from the players on the ice. It's a different story in Tampa Bay where Barry Melrose was let go after 16 games and replaced by Rick Tocchet.

The Lightning was 5-7-4 under the mulleted TV personality and has fared no better under Tocchet (12-17-7). Tampa is 12th in the Eastern Conference, four points ahead of Clouston's Senators in a season that is now virtually hopeless.

The cash-strapped team, despite two quality players up front in Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, has a limited offense, a poor-to-almost nonexistent defense and average (though likely to improve) goaltending. The reincarnation of Toe Blake wouldn't even help. That would seem to give Melrose an out, but word out of Tampa is that the players are comfortable and willing to work hard for the current coaching staff. Melrose, whose hiring was questioned by people in and outside the organization before he ever arrived, was never welcomed by the players, many of whom thought he was hopelessly out of touch after being away from coaching for the better part of 13 seasons. Upon his arrival, he did nothing to improve their perception.

It's fair to say Clouston has inherited a similar team (wrought by a different kind of dysfunction) in Ottawa as Tocchet has in Tampa. The Senators were 17-24-7 under Craig Hartsburg. They'd scored fewer goals (116) than the Lighting (133), despite having three offensive talents in Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson, but have the same serious problems on the backend (143 goals-against) and were playing with the goaltender, Brian Elliott, that Clouston had in Binghamton.

Despite ownership statements to the contrary, Ottawa's problems go across the board and just like Tampa; the team has fallen hard and fast. The Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004 and started an immediate slide from which they have yet to recover. Ottawa made it to the Cup final in 2007 (losing to Anaheim) and went straight downhill. Poor management decisions are a big part of the reason neither team has handled the salary cap well. Tampa terminated its Cup-winning coach (John Tortorella) and GM (Jay Feaster) in successive seasons. Ottawa has run through more coaches than President Obama has failed cabinet designees, and GM Bryan Murray is thought to be one playoff miss away from being terminated as well.

Over in Carolina, Paul Maurice, fired and reinstated behind the bench in a three-year span, appears to be having marginally more success than the coach he replaced -- Peter Laviolette -- but it's a mirage.

Laviolette, who won a Cup with the Hurricanes shortly after replacing Maurice, was 12-11-2 when he got whacked. There were internal issues, mostly between management and the coach as well as the coach and players, but the overall concern was that the 'Canes were on track to miss the playoffs for the third straight year. Management and ownership were not prepared to let that happen.

Given that Maurice, through Wednesday's games, was 13-11-3, one may argue the move was made largely to improve the comfort level of GM Jim Rutherford, who had his problems with Laviolette but an almost brotherly relationship with Maurice, even after he fired him. This is not uncommon in the NHL where making one move, even if it's largely for show, is infinitely easier than trying to rebuild a team on the fly.

At this writing, the 'Canes have been passed by the surging Panthers for eighth in the East and are pursued by last season's Cup runner-ups, the Penguins (one point behind). Another early tee time won't do wonders for Maurice, but it more likely will impact Rutherford. The 'Canes and Bolts made major changes prior to the season and they've gone nowhere. Ottawa was decimated by a free agent defections over the past few years and senseless trades by Murray, all of which seems to give weight to an observation made by Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock, who had success in Philadelphia and Dallas (where he won a Cup) and has twice been fired. Upon being released in an in-season shuffle by Philly, Hitchcock was philosophical even though the Flyers seemed to be panicking.

"There are a lot of things that go into it, but when it happens early in the season it's usually after there have been a lot of changes on the team and the chemistry is not there yet," Hitchcock told the Philadelphia Daily News. "I'm not sure if someone a lot smarter than me did a study if it would show that it actually makes a difference. I can think of only two times where I think it has. The first was in 2000 when the Devils fired Robbie Ftorek and hired Larry Robinson and they won the Cup. The second was last year when Washington hired Bruce Boudreau. He came in and made a difference right away.

"Other than that, I can't think of when it has made an immediate difference, but that's just the nature of the job," Hitchcock added.

That doesn't bode well for Cory Clouston, but it's hard to argue that Hitchcock or the numbers are wrong.

 
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