Roundtable of Death: “Seriously? Another Fired Coach?” Edition

Luke: Folks, this past week we said goodbye to Dave Cameron. His departure was, perhaps, inevitable after Eugene Melnyk threw him under the bus with the gusto of a cartoon villain, and so we are still gathered here today to answer one question: What the hell is going on out here?

The floor is open.

Conrad: A few thoughts:

Bringing in a coach and expecting him to single-handedly be responsible for changing the identity of the club, institute a winning strategy that plays to the club’s strengths, and make up for the weaknesses in defense, is just going to end in another fired coach.

I hope Dorion takes his time and does a top-to-bottom assessment of the organization’s structure. How do they assess players, both on the roster and in the pipeline? How do they decide who is promoted from the B-Sens and when? How do they gather information during the games and feed it to the coach? Is the coach accountable to act on that information?

Detroit had a lot of success over the years with Babcock not just because of Babcock’s coaching. (In fact, a lot of the Wings seemed relieved when he was gone.) But they were really effective at vertical integration: they drafted according to a particular style of play, developed in that style, promoted only when a player could reliably execute in that style, and they enforced it across the lineup. They don’t seem to care if the Grand Rapids AHL team ever wins a Calder, because the farm club exists primarily to incubate Wings hockey. Once you’ve got that pipeline set up, which is a longer-term strategy than any single coach’s tenure, then I presume it becomes a lot easier to know who your guy should be. In other words: anyone who gets the system, is a believer, and will go to bat for it.

Ottawa currently oscillates between coaches who teach an uptempo style and coaches who “demand accountability.” MacLean had this “play the whole rink” mentality, and fans couldn’t wait to make a change because he wouldn’t take the leash off of Karlsson. Cameron said “it’s always a green light” and now we’re looking for someone to teach defense. All of this echoes back to our high-powered offensive teams of the past, who “didn’t have what it takes to win in the playoffs” and an insistence on hiring a series of disciplinarians, like Craig Hartsburg, to follow up Jacques Martin.

I don’t really care who they hire as a coach. No single person is going to integrate decision-making across the organization. That’s the GM’s job. If Dorion says, “we hired this guy because he’s going to execute according to the same playbook as the scouts, the analysts, and myself,” then that’ll be good enough for me. But if we go with Julien because name recognition, I don’t think that will be enough.

James: I agree to an extent. I’m with you that the success in Detroit is largely in thanks to doing EeeeeEEEeeEEerything perfectly until you just wish Flanders was dead. Legend has it they’ve made the playoffs for an XFL record 3 centuries in a row only picking in the 9th round while walking 10 miles to school in waist-high snowbanks. So, no, it’s not all thanks to Babcock. It also has to be recognized their success was partly thanks to drafting a 900 point perennial Selke winner in the 6th round and a captain who looks like Jack Fucking Gyllenhaal in the 7th round. I literally know a guy who was picked ahead of Zetterberg in that draft. That has to be a bit of good fortune there. Ah, speaking of good fortune…now the biggest thing…they had Nick Lidstrom. 20 seasons and 7 Norris trophies from a guy who’s literally nicknamed “The Perfect Human”.

I’m not discounting the smart MLB-like approach of having every player adapt to the system in the minors before being called up for duty as relentless kill bots. What I’m interested to see going forward, however, is if Detroit’s “We’ll solid fundamentals them to death!” strategy has a shelf life on it. I sometimes wonder if the Wings are turning into the Street Cred Sens of a few years ago. Sure, they make the playoffs a lot but on the REAL-real-real, they haven’t done shit since Lidstrom retired. I guess what I’m saying is organizationally the Wings have, deservedly, pretty much the best team building rep in the biz. They (and now Chicago) are the best at bolstering their lineup with in-house gems. BUT the Detroit teams that actually won were more superstar laden than lunch pail crews. Even the least star studded of their Championship teams in 07-08 still had Dominik Hasek in net. Look at their 01-02 team. They resemble the 14-15 Blackhawks more than say the 03-04 Flames who went to the dance with Shean Donovan as their 2nd highest goal scorer (!). The Wings also interestingly happened to have the winningest coach in NHL history behind the bench in their Destroyer of Worlds days. The past few seasons, the truth is, they’ve been scraping in and getting bounced early.

James?

Yes, dear?

Can you actually make a fucking point about Ottawa firing the coaching staff here?

GOD’S WORKING ON ALL OF US, OKAY!?

I guess what I’m saying is I’m interested to see supposed “best coach in the NHL” Mike Babcleezy operate without being able to lean back on “You there Datsyuk, hit a home run!”

As for the whole “Detroit not caring if their AHL affiliate wins or loses”, I’ve heard Bryan Murray and Dorion both say this as well. In fact, Richardson was installed as coach to teach the same system as the NHL team to the minor leaguers. The Sens aren’t as disciplined as Detroit. For every Hoffman or Stone they’ve been patient with they seem to have a Lazar or Ceci who’ve been tossed in the fire. Organizationally they’ve been far from perfect but I do think they are trying. Hearing Dorion distance himself from Murray’s proclivity to go for size above all else as well as admitting that they’ve been rushing prospects and will be more cautious with Colin White was promising.

The team is not devoid of talent. As such, I do think coaching matters to give the players structure. Structure and strategy matter big time. How the hell do we have a team top 10 in NHL scoring with a 15% power play? How many times can we watch Hoffman, who’s one of the best puck handlers on the team, dump the puck in on the power play just to turn over possession without calling bullshit on the strategy. Lord knows it’s not his idea to dump it in. Look at the team’s lack of structure in their own zone. It’s been atrocious. The worst in the league this year. It has to be improved.

Coaching also matters in terms of making game-to-game as well as in-game personnel decisions that give the team the best chance to make the most of their talent. Borowiecki as a forward for entire games. Bobby Ryan in a checking role for a huge stretch of the season. Neil getting power play time. Phillips on the power play (lest we forget). Hoffman getting benched for entire periods. Cowen getting all the chance in the world without earning it. Playing Anderson too much. Breaking up line combinations without giving them so much as 3 games to gel. These have been coaching decisions that have, in my opinion, hurt the team.

I’m just a caveman. I’m frightened and confused by your strange flying machines. I don’t know any of the details or challenges regarding personality conflicts or the need to establish authority and discipline guys. What I do know is that I’ve been pretty forgiving but a lot of things the past couple of seasons didn’t make sense. Many elements of the team controlled by coaching were failing and ultimately needed to change. Will a new coach magically fix all of that? Of course not. Can a new coach at least improve things with a more sound playing system and more consistent decision making? Absolutely. But it’s obviously going to take a brilliant hire by Dorion. There could not be more pressure on him to make it.

Luke: This whole situation feels like when someone in your family breaks up with a partner you really liked: it’s certainly for the best, but it’s sad that it had to go down like that. (Hey, a thing I’ve been using a lot with respect to the Ottawa Senators over the last 3 years: BREAKUP ANALOGIES. The Sens direction is amazing right now, you guys.)

Here’s something some people might not remember: the Sens #actually instituted the vertical integration Conrad refers to with the hiring of Paul Maclean. I even wrote about this three years ago. The 30 Thoughts from Elliotte Friedman I quote within is no longer available, but the relevant passage is this:

Back in AHL training camp, Ottawa coach Paul MacLean and Binghamton counterpart Luke Richardson discussed philosophy. Richardson wanted to play the same way as the big club for consistency. MacLean wanted Richardson to have some flexibility. They decided to co-ordinate terminology and drills. One of the reasons the Senators are holding on amid all their injuries is, when players get called up, the familiarity creates comfort. For example, one of the ideas MacLean likes to preach is “fast defence.” Basically, he wants his forwards to create three lanes of support for defencemen trying to move or pass the puck out of their own zone. When the AHLers are called up, they understand what that means, no explanation necessary.

What happened to that organization? What happened to that structure? What happened to the team that lost Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek, and Erik Karlsson to injury, but still rode a 53.7%CF to a playoff berth in the shortened lockout season? Did those effective practices stop? Did those practices stop being effective? I thought about this a lot after Paul Maclean was fired, and I’m thinking about it even more now because both Paul Maclean’s and Dave Cameron’s coaching tenures followed identical arcs. To wit:

1.) New coach is brought in and the team’s play immediately improves.

2.) Team makes playoffs to the surprise of many. Coaching is praised.

3.) Coach says he’ll demand more accountability from players as they prepare to take “next step”.

4.) New season starts and team underperforms.

5.) Whispers of communication breakdown between coach and players start.

6.) Coach starts making increasingly suboptimal lineup decisions and acquires an air of desperation.

7.) Coach is let go. Management, players, and media alike express sadness regarding the loss of “a good man”. Coach says he regrets nothing.

The fact that we’ve seen the same thing happen over consecutive coaches suggest a commonality of cause. One thing I’ve noticed about Cameron is that he was very up front about the locker room chemistry. Last season he had nothing but great things to say about the team inherited from Paul Maclean (God bless the dead). Sample quote: “One of the strengths of our team is we have good people.” Compare that to some of his quotes in this video about Dion Phaneuf that I’ve watched 127 times. Sample quote: “Phaneuf is engaging…he won’t let you mope. We don’t have enough of those guys on this team.” Damn, what a turnaround. Cameron went from zero to pretty damn frustrated in less than a year

Smart Twitter™ has a tendency to get all in their snarky feelings about things like “leadership” and “character”. I don’t think those things should be valued over, say, skill, but I have no trouble believing that it’s incredibly important to whoever has to spend a lot of time in the locker room. I don’t even have fun playing beer league softball once a week if I’m on a team full of People Who Are Dinks. Having to do that EVERY DAY surrounded by national media sounds like my personal hell. You know those moments when you’re playing some game of Beer League Whatever and you just can’t bring yourself to give a shit because no one else is bothering to? The quality of your individual game is probably suffers a bit in those cases, right? Imagine having to coach that team with that dynamic. Frustrating. At. Best.

Or maybe Dave Cameron’s just a bad coach. I don’t know.

Is it possible this Ottawa Senators team is a bit young and immature? After all, nearly a 3rd of the team is 23 years old or younger. Maybe the team went on a unprecedented run to the playoffs last year and thought they had hockey all figured out which led to a letdown this season.

Or maybe Dave Cameron’s just a bad coach. I don’t know.

There is a paradox inherent to the nature of coaching wherein a coach is expected to positively influence the events that occur in the game, but they can only do this by taking actions outside of the game. Turns out most things are “outside of the game” and that a number of those things are interconnected. Also proper evaluation of those things requires knowledge of certain personal dynamics that we, as fans, are not privy to. Talking intelligently about coaching is difficult as an outsider, and I’m probably never going to understand what went wrong for Dave Cameron between May and September of 2015. However, the players are certainly culpable to some degree and I suspect they realize that.

Still, when it’s all said and done, the fact remains that Dave Cameron once played Mark Boroweicki at forward for several games and as James points out, that’s a coaching L you just can’t come back from when you miss the playoffs.

I’m gonna miss that guy’s weird-ass accent though.

2 thoughts on “Roundtable of Death: “Seriously? Another Fired Coach?” Edition

  1. Good read and interesting comments. However, Luke: you go on and on about coaching a young team and who knows what kind of attitudes Cameron was facing in the dressing room, but then you end by criticizing his strange Boroweicki move. It seems to me you answered your own question – maybe he was the only one in the room who actually had the right attitude and could sustain it.

    • That would seem to be the case.

      Still shouldn’t have been played at forward, thooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo………………………..

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