Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray held off trading one of his top forwards this disappointing season, instead choosing to let go of first-year head coach Craig Hartsburg on Sunday night.
Cory Clouston, head coach of the Senators' American Hockey League affiliate in Binghamton, takes over behind the bench of the parent club for the remainder of the season.
He has led Binghamton to a 25-16-6 mark in his second season after previously serving as coach of the Western Hockey League's Kootenay Ice, with whom he won a Memorial Cup as an assistant coach in 2002 and twice was named the league's top coach.
"I think I have a good knowledge of the game," Clouston, 39, said at Monday's news conference. "I've coached for 15 years and you learn a lot when you work your way up from Junior A to major junior to the American league."
Murray said he recommended to Senators owner Eugene Melnyk that Clouston be promoted to the NHL after considering some veteran coaches.
"Cory has spent two years in our organization, he knows our players, he knows our prospects and I know he gets maximum performance out of his players in the American Hockey League," Murray said during Monday's news conference. "I know the calibre of team we have there and what has happened with the group as a whole.
'Earned this job'
"I think he earned this job, I think he deserved the job and I want him to have the chance to be the guy here. I'm hoping he can help us make this franchise be what we thought it should be from the start of the year."
At the end of the season, added Murray, management will assess where the team is going, but said he hopes Clouston's tenure behind the bench is longer and "I suspect it will be."
Former Toronto Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn was rumoured as a potential replacement last month after he guided Canada to its fifth consecutive gold medal at the world junior hockey championship in Ottawa.
The Senators, who were ousted in the first round of the 2008 playoffs, saw their record fall to 17-24-7 following a 7-4 loss to the Washington Capitals on Sunday afternoon.
"I felt after watching a number of games lately that we just weren't making any progress. We weren't a very co-ordinated group," Murray said. "If we continued on the same everything would be negative.
"We have a core of players here that should be much more competitive than they have shown lately. Maybe I waited a couple of weeks too long but this is why I didn't wait any longer."
28th in 30-team league
A 2007 Stanley Cup finalist, Ottawa has won just 35 of its past 96 games and occupies 28th place in the 30-team NHL this season. The team last missed the post-season in 1996.
Murray said he isn't sure how the team got this point following their Cup appearance only two years ago, noting the players on that 2006-07 squad played as a team and were responsible and a disciplined group for the most part.
"I believe through the second half of the [2006-07 season] and through the playoffs until Anaheim that we were the best team in hockey," he said. "We let it get away from us last year. There were some issues, part of it was discipline. We thought we had a bunch of guys that would regroup."
Murray said he could have stayed with the status quo and "given away players" before the March 4 trade deadline for mid-round draft picks and waited for the team's top prospects to emerge, but decided to recover the current talent crop and attempt to get them on the same page.
"I think when we started this year we [management and coaches] all believed this group would be a good team. We had fairly high expectations," said Murray.
The Senators' GM said adjustments would be made before the trade deadline.
Fourth coach turfed this season
"I'd like to be a competitive team sooner than later," Murray said, "and that's my intent here: keep as many players as we can in the fold, get them to perform to the level they are [capable of playing] and then the guys that don't, you shuffle them out."
Hartsburg is the fourth head coach to be turfed this season, joining Denis Savard (Chicago), Barry Melrose (Tampa Bay) and Peter Laviolette (Carolina).
Hartsburg, hired last summer as the sixth bench boss in Senators history, leaves with two-plus years remaining on his contract.
He coached the Chicago Blackhawks from 1995-98, and the-then Anaheim Mighty Ducks from 1998-2000. Hartsburg also had two stints as an assistant with the Philadelphia Flyers and spent one year as an assistant with the Minnesota North Stars, with whom he played his entire 10-year NHL career after being drafted sixth overall in 1979.
The Stratford, Ont., native spent the previous four seasons as head coach of the Ontario Hockey League's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and is a two-time OHL coach of the year.
The Senators won just 18 of their final 48 games last season, coping with a rash of injuries and a goalie controversy that disrupted the team's chemistry.
The struggles continued at the start of the 2008-09 campaign, with Ottawa dropping six of its first eight contests. A six-game losing streak followed in November before the Senators lost five of six in mid-December. They ushered in the new year with five straight defeats.
An underachieving offence and the absence of a puck-moving defenceman have been the two most glaring weaknesses of an Ottawa outfit that ranks 29th in the NHL in goals per game (2.40).
Dany Heatley leads the team in scoring but isn't averaging a point a game with 45 in 48 starts. Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza — the two other members of the club's top forward line — are right behind with 44 and 39 points, respectively, but Ottawa is sorely lacking in secondary scoring.
First and foremost, Clouston said, his new players need to get their confidence back.
"They need to feel good about themselves coming to the rink with some passion and playing to their potential as individuals and as a team," said the native of Viking, Alta., who becomes the Senators' ninth head coach.
"The biggest thing I try to do is create a foundation, create an environment where players like to come to the rink, know exactly what is expected of them, know how they're supposed to play …and allow them to go out and do their job. If you can do that, I think you'll have a successful team."