How low can the Senators go?

DON BRENNAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:09 PM ET

When last they appeared as one, the Senators were charged with 27 hits.

That includes the 26 Habs the scoresheet generously had them contacting, and the one serious pounding they gave rock bottom.

Declaring the latter, sort of, was Jesse Winchester, who in a telltale sign of the times has risen from fourth-line centre to one of the team's best players. As such, Winchester is drawing more media attention, which means he was hearing the question others have been asked for the first time.

"Yup ... I don't really know what to say," he replied following a humiliating, 7-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens Friday at the Ottawa Bell Centre otherwise known as Scotiabank Place. "Except yeah, (this is) rock bottom."

But was it really? Or was it just another layer? The 4-1 loss to Edmonton at the end of November was pretty bad, given that it was the 2010-11 Oilers. The Senators scraped rock bottom the next game, putting up very little resistance against the despised Dany Heatley and his new friends from San Jose.

Then there were two more post-Christmas embarrassments at Scotiabank Place -- and the 4-0 loss to Carolina was nothing compared to the 5-1 butt-kicking they were given by the Leafs on New Year's Day. Surely, Cory Clouston would be relieved of his coaching duties Jan. 2, everyone believed. But no. Nor did he get the axe following a 6-0 loss in Boston Jan. 11, or this week's back-to-back, combined-count 13-3 throttling by Philadelphia and Montreal.

At least not yet.

So I now think this: If he's not fired sooner, Clouston will be gone after Tuesday's loss (is that not a safe assumption?) here to Buffalo. That will give his replacement, likely Bryan Murray, six full days over the all-star break to take a running start at the final 32 games. 

Owner Eugene Melnyk will come in out of the Barbados sun to give the orders just as soon as he figures out a way to explain what he really meant when he told fans in early December to "fasten your seatbelts, we're going all the way." (Count on hearing the words injuries, Spezza and Leclaire). He'd probably be inclined to let this season pitter away, except that there are 14 home games after the break and, while most are good draws, the Canadiens and Maple Leafs only come to town once more each.

Attendance Friday was announced at 20,377. Sounded like about 15,000 of them were Habs fans. If so, those people are not coming to see the Islanders and the Senators play at Scotiabank Place Feb. 15, and at this rate, their seats won't be filled.

How depressing will the atmosphere be that night, or Feb. 23 against the Panthers, or Mar. 17 vs. the Devils ...

Melnyk doesn't want Murray to hire a new coach right now, because Melnyk probably isn't so sure he wants Murray back as his GM. Besides, most of the good ones (other than Bob Hartley) are currently busy. At least with Murray behind the bench, the team will be looser, and therefore have a better shot at some success. 

Its play now, at both ends of the ice, is about as tight now as Clouston's body language.

There will not be a lot of tears shed inside the dressing room when the Little General is dismissed. There are players who don't like him and can simply not play for him any more, whether they want to or not. Do you really think Peter Regin is a two-goal scorer? Because that's what he's on pace for this season, through 45 games under Clouston.

Bet Regin nets two in the first five games for Murray.

Just outside the room, meanwhile, there are many of us who feel bad for Clouston. He's not everybody's cup of tea -- he could relax a little more and realize that hockey doesn't have to be a 24-hour-a-day thing -- but he's not a bad guy. He knows the game and he works hard. His shortcoming is that he hasn't been able to get the players to believe he genuinely cares about them as more than just players.

His coaching skills, as far as Xs and Os are concerned, are outstanding. His people skills are not.

Now, Clouston has run out of answers.

"It's hard to explain, it really is," Clouston, who admits he's never experienced like this slide at any level, said late Friday night. "I thought the last 12 minutes of the first period, we really started to take control of the game. We scored a goal to respond to their two quick goals. And as soon as they scored the third and fourth goal, it was almost like you could just see the guys say, 'Here we go again.' As soon as Montreal smelled blood, they attacked. And we had no response to that."

His plan for team going forward?

"We've got to start from scratch," said Clouston. "Right from breakouts, to counters, to regroups, to making sure the guys understand the importance of playing hard, playing right, doing the little things. Just right back to basic hockey. If we don't do that, we don't give ourselves a chance to win."

They've dropped 11 of their last 12 and six in a row at home. They are poised now to challenge the Devils as the worst team in the NHL, not to mention becoming one of the sorriest squads in Senators history -- the past 15 years of it, for sure.

The day to make a change has come and gone. But one has to be made anyway, or this could be remembered as the time the Senators were just scratching the surface of rock bottom.

don.brennan@sunmedia.ca


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