THE CANADIAN PRESS
OTTAWA — Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray is hoping his underachieving players will learn something from their extended summer vacation.
The Sens cleaned out their lockers and said their goodbyes Monday. For the first time since 1996, they won’t be playing when the NHL playoffs kick off Wednesday.
"Five months, the message is fairly obvious: it may be the greatest opportunity for the greatest lesson learned ever," Murray said during a break from conducting year-end meetings with players at Scotiabank Place on Monday.
Less than two years removed from an appearance in the Stanley Cup final, the Senators were unable to stop the downward spiral that’s resulted in four different coaches going behind the bench over the past two seasons in time to make playoffs.
As a result, the Senators, who finished 36-35-11 and in 11th place in the Eastern Conference at least 10 points out of a playoff spot, have some time to reflect on that.
"They all feel that we’re a good hockey team, a contending hockey team that didn’t contend, that we had a dreadful first part of the year with a great deal of frustration and disappointment, that a number of players thought they had dreadful years individually as well," Murray said.
His message to them was simple: shape up in time for next season so that it doesn’t happen again.
"My point of view is they have to leave here understanding what we expect out of them, that we can’t live with what happened again, but the core is, for the most part, good," Murray said. " So five months off ice get your break, do what you have to do, don’t talk about what you’re going to do. Do it."
The Senators felt they’d hit rock bottom during a turbulent 2007-08 campaign in which Murray fired coach John Paddock after a hot start to the season and took over behind the bench before the slumping team was eventually swept in the first round of the playoffs.
But Ottawa had more lows in store for this season and struggled out of the gate under new coach Craig Hartsburg, who was hired in June. He lasted only 48 games this season before being dumped and replaced by Cory Clouston in February.
Although the Senators’ play improved drastically under Clouston, it was too late to keep their streak of 11 straight playoff appearances alive.
Instead, the Senators were left to lament what could have been Monday.
"If we were there, the way we’ve played the last little while, we could have done some damage," centre Mike Fisher said.
"Very disappointing overall," added captain Daniel Alfredsson, whose 74 points in 79 games were tops on the team. "It’s going to be very tough watching the playoffs, I think that’s when it’s going to sink in."
Alfredsson, who’s suffering from a back problem that has ruled him out of playing for Sweden at the upcoming world championship, hasn’t missed out on the post-season since his rookie year.
To him, the whole season has served as a learning experience, one that should make the Senators strive to get back in the hunt in 2009-10.
"I think we grew tighter as a group, through all the adversity. There were some tough months coming to the rink, especially through December and January," he said. "We worked really hard, we just have nothing to show for it
"It makes you hungry to be even better next season."
Despite their on-ice troubles, the Senators still did well at the ticket window. President Roy Mlakar said although the club’s average attendance of 19,081 was down 1.4 per cent from last season, it was still the league’s eighth highest.
The Senators face a few personnel decisions ahead of next season.
Forwards Mike Comrie and Chris Neil are both scheduled to become unrestricted free agents July 1 and, particularly in the case of Comrie, it doesn’t sound like he’ll be back unless he takes a significant pay cut from the US$4 million he earned this season.
Asked if the seven points in 22 games that Comrie produced since being acquired from the New York Islanders was enough to warrant a new deal, Murray was blunt.
"Did Mike Comrie do enough? No," he said.
Goalie Brian Elliott, right-winger Ryan Shannon and defenceman Brendan Bell are all scheduled to become restricted free agents.
For the returning Senators, the team’s resurgence under Clouston, who was promoted from Ottawa’s Binghamton AHL affiliate, gives them reason to be optimistic that next season will be better.
With a faster-skating, more-aggressive forechecking approach, they finished 19-11-3 under the new coach, although the improvement can’t help but make them wonder what if they’d managed to turn it around a little earlier this season.
"It’s tough to make up ground as we found out down the stretch," Alfredsson said. "That’s what’s going to be tough watching that first game Wednesday. We beat a lot of teams, we know we can win."
Veteran defenceman Chris Phillips has never missed out on the playoffs before now.
Instead, he’ll join forwards Fisher, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza in playing for Canada at the world championship, where the Senators will be well represented when the tournament starts April 24 in Switzerland.
Nick Foligno has accepted the invitation to play for the United States, Jarkko Ruutu will suit up for Finland, Christoph Schubert for Germany and Anton Volchenkov for Russia.
"It’s totally separate, but it’ll still probably leave a little better taste in my mouth about how the season ended," Phillips said.