OTTAWA - The Senators had plenty of reasons to be in the mood for holiday cheer on Sunday.
Picked by many to finish dead last in the Eastern Conference, the Senators are sitting in the No. 8 playoff position as they return to practice Monday after the NHL’s two-day Christmas break.
Nobody is more pleased than GM Bryan Murray as the Senators prepare to face Montreal Tuesday at Scotiabank Place.
The Senators have been thrilled with new coach Paul MacLean and the way new full-timers Erik Condra, Zack Smith, Colin Greening and Jared Cowen have played. The only disappointment among the newbies has been winger Bobby Butler, who has had trouble scoring.
“We’re in a pretty good spot for where we were told we’d be,” Murray told the Ottawa Sun before the break. “A number of our younger players have stepped up and shown they can play in the NHL. The people that were judging early on probably didn’t know a number of our players.
“The experience they gained in the playoffs in Binghamton last year certainly helped them develop into guys that know how to win.”
By keeping Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek, Chris Neil, Chris Phillips, Sergei Gonchar, Filip Kuba, Matt Carkner and Craig Anderson, Murray knew the Senators weren’t going to be as bad as predicted
The emergence of winger Nick Foligno and defenceman Erik Karlsson — the highest-scoring blueliner in the NHL — has helped immensely, too.
“That was part of the plan,” said Murray. “You can start over totally, but it’s impossible to win if you do that. By having guys like Alfredsson and Spezza, plus Milan coming into his own (helps).
“Then you have veteran guys like Phillips, Gonchar and Kuba. We felt they’d play better than they did last year. There was no question that the way we played and the structure we had (under former coach Cory Clouston) really hurt them.
“You have that core of veteran guys and if you put the kids around them, you knew they’d get back to a good level. They’ve done that. We didn’t totally gut it. We added pieces, but we kept what we thought were the core guys to allow these people to have a chance to succeed.”
The big difference has been the leadership of MacLean. The mood surrounding the team has completely changed.
“There’s a real good atmosphere because he communicates. He allows them to talk. He listens to them. He’s pushed them right from training camp to skate,” said Murray. “We do a lot of skill development within the group, it’s not all individual stuff.
“I think the players know how to play now. It only works if you can play good defence and get some decent goaltending. The first four or five games we looked dreadful — as far as being able to defend — but I think that area has been cleaned up somewhat. He’s playing a lot of players.”
Murray said acquiring Kyle Turris might not be the only trade he makes before the deadline.
“We want to see them play a little further, but if this team is a playoff competitive, then we’re going to have to address that,” said Murray. “I want to be careful. We have a plan with a lot of young kids coming. I don’t want to give up something that’s going to hurt us long-term.
“If there’s another young, competitive guy that can help us at the trade deadline, I’m sure we’ll do that.”