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Ottawa Senators Daniel Alfredsson skates in front of Jason Spezza during a team practice in Ottawa. Pawel Dwulit for the Globe and Mail (Pawel Dwulit)
Ottawa Senators Daniel Alfredsson skates in front of Jason Spezza during a team practice in Ottawa. Pawel Dwulit for the Globe and Mail (Pawel Dwulit)

Roy MacGregor

Senators missing the mark Add to ...

They talk about streaky goal scorers and streaky goaltenders - but never about streaky coaches.

And yet, as much as anything else that can be plucked from the thin air surrounding the Ottawa Senators these days, it may be as good an explanation as any.

Cory Clouston is one of the new breed of NHL head coaches that appears to come more from the classroom than the dressing room. The now-41-year-old arrived in Ottawa in early 2009, in what seemed a stop-gap measure - the franchise's minor-league coach brought up to replace fired Craig Hartsburg when the playoffs appeared well out of reach. And yet Clouston shocked the cynics with an impressive 19-11-4 record in playing out the lost season.

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In his first full year, he was there for a remarkable 11 consecutive victories in January that set Ottawa on the way to a playoff return.

This year, the pattern held, opening with a run of five losses and one win in a six-game stretch, moving into six wins and a loss over seven games, then four losses and a win in five before surprising the powerful Los Angeles Kings with a 3-2 victory last Monday.

Hopes for the start of another positive run were dashed on Wednesday when the Dallas Stars won 2-1 in a dreary game that barely kept the crowd awake. The loss also meant Pascal Leclaire would not win his first back-to-back games of 2010. It is a telling statistic for a goalie whose $4.8-million (U.S.) salary was intended to signal the arrival of a true and trustworthy No. 1 netminder - something the Senators have not enjoyed since Dominik Hasek went down with a groin injury in the 2006 Winter Olympics.

The current Senators may well have peaked that year, and in 2007, when they went to the Stanley Cup final. The team today must rely heavily on capable veterans such as captain Daniel Alfredsson, soon to turn 38, and far too much on its intended backup goaltender, Brian Elliott, who tends to streak equally in both directions.

Going into Wednesday's home game against the Stars, the Senators were remarkably holding down the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, with 21 points in 21 games. Playing .500 hockey (now slightly less) in the era of overtime points is not considered enough to claim a playoff berth.

The team's greatest change has been on defence, where world-level shot-blocker Anton Volchenkov (now with the New Jersey Devils) is missed. The Senators have been a coin flip in their own end, subject to turnovers. And despite the addition of free agent Sergei Gonchar, long one of the league's best attacking defencemen, they do not move out of their own end with authority.

Clouston's strategy has included benching young Erik Karlsson, a 20-year-old phenomenon who has everything but size. Should the gifted Karlsson return to the form he showed in the latter half of last season, the team would benefit hugely.

Up front, the team has lacked a consistent top line to the point where Clouston looks more like he is putting together an Italian cabinet than a hockey team. Some players have simply not performed - Nick Foligno follows up a great preseason with zero goals; $5-million-a-year Alexei Kovalev is off and on, usually off; Mike Fisher is said to be playing injured and would want to be. Jason Spezza's 14 points in 16 games and Alfredsson's 18 in 21 are rare smiles in a scoresheet of mostly grimaces.

General manager Bryan Murray has little wiggle room when it comes to trades or pickups, as the team is hard against the salary cap. Murray's worst moment was not even of his own doing, as he was forced a year ago to trade a miserable Dany Heatley to the San Jose Sharks and received Jonathan Cheechoo (a complete bust), Milan Michalek (unimpressive) and a draft pick. Heatley, on the other hand, leads the Sharks in scoring.

Still, the Senators are a stronger team potentially than they have so far shown. And it will be Clouston's task to figure out how to right his team or face the usual consequences.

To his credit, the coach rose from hardscrabble roots in Viking, Alta., the Clouston family's fortune turning for the better thanks to a horse named Mutatis Mutandis, roughly meaning "the necessary changes having been made."

It will apply here, as well - or this horse is in danger of turning into an also-ran.

 

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