Thursday, February 28, 2008

Game Day: Farewell to Paddock, but don't forget the sins of Murray

The final iteration of the 2007-08 Ottawa Senators presents itself in Philadelphia tonight (on Pay-Per-View no less!). Bryan Murray will re-establish himself behind the bench and Martin Lapointe will walk into the middle of the psyche ward that has become the Sens dressing room.

It all feels quite weird. The firing of the coach of a 36-22-6 hockey club (the highest scoring team in the league to boot) is difficult to explain to those who haven't been following the Sens intently over the last few seasons. In addition to a lingering inability to weather rough patches in the regular season or playoffs, there is a recurring sense among fans and perhaps ownership, that the "window" is closing shut and there is no more time for experimentation or redevelopment. Looking at the cup rings and "grit" that has been brought in over the last few months I find myself wondering whether they've arrived too late and thinking that these types of additions are exactly what was needed to get some of those teams of a few years back over the hump.

Having another look at Paddock's record by month, on paper I'd frankly have a hard time explaining the firing to myself:

October 9-1-0 (Gerber on a tear to open it up)
November 7-5-2
December 9-3-2 (although these look fine considering the Sens usually fare badly at this time of the year, the initial 16-3-0 start was followed up by a seven game winless streak straddling November and December)
January 7-7-0 (.500 hockey despite injury to Heatley, best game of the season against Detroit)
February 4-6-2 (four losses, two goose eggs against division rivals and a pair of one-goal decisions dropped to the closing Devils)

More specific issues pointed out by the fans, and on which I generally concur, included the following:

1. Inability to settle on forward line combinations outside of Heatley/Spezza/Alfredsson. There were a few that caught fire for a game or two (Schubert/Fisher/Neil, Vermette/Kelly/Stillman) and then completely disappear. (Important Note: Murray was also guilty of this).

2. Relying too much on the Pizza line. Average time on ice has increased by about a minute to a minute-and-a-half for the big three over last year. They're responsible for 42% of Ottawa's goals so far, not much changed from the previous season total of 39%. (Important Note: Pizza got Murray through the first three rounds of the playoffs last year, only to be smothered by Anaheim's checking line from hell)

3. Bungling of the goaltending situation. Not only did win-and-you're-in not account for undisciplined play that was not of the tender's doing, but rewarding Emery with starts after a loss by Gerber sent the wrong message after the latter's great comeback and the former's attitude issues to start the season. (Important Note: Murray resigned Emery immediately prior to arbitration - whether he could have let him walk and gone shopping for whatever was available remains a mystery in pictures)

4. Calling out star players publicly. Again, there's only so many times you can get away with this, and you probably need to earn the player's respect before doing so. (Important Note: As GM, Murray has requested Redden waive his no-trade clause, actively and publically shopped both goalies, as well as two of his best penalty killers)

5. An unprecedented tune-out in the last 120 minutes of hockey (although Alfie says it's B.S.). Unprecedented even going back to the days of Sparky Allison. If anything made the case for the firing it was a completely healthy lineup that put in a lifeless effort in front of both goalies.

In sum, I think there's a very fine line between the opportunities that Paddock wasted and the challenges that were put in his path by his eventual successor. Keep in mind that Murray promoted Paddock himself, at root this is his failure to judge the ability of his assistant and how the team would respond to his coaching style. Whether we'll see dramatic improvements in team defence or focus seems to me a bit of a stretch.

Over to you, boys!

Sens 5, Flyers 2 (Alfie x2, Spezza, McAmmond, Redden).

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