Ottawa Senators defenseman Jared Cowen looks on as Detroit Red Wings left wing Drew Miller celebrates his goal with teammates Joakim Andersson (left) and Tomas Tatar (right) during second period NHL action Sunday December 1, 2013 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
OTTAWA - Paul MacLean didn't get caught up in the nostalgia of Daniel Alfredsson day.
It didn't matter much to the Senators coach that his former captain was back in town Sunday with the Detroit Red Wings. His takeaway was his team's execution problems in a 4-2 loss, Ottawa's 17th in 27 games.
"For me it was another game that we had to play and had to win, and we didn't do enough to win," MacLean said.
That has become an all-too-familiar situation for the Senators in the post-Alfredsson era. Last spring MacLean was accepting the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year for shepherding the injury-ravaged team into the playoffs, and now he's left to wonder why his team is seven points out of a potential playoff spot with more than a quarter of the season gone.
MacLean saw Sunday as an improvement from recent play, but moral victories don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy Eastern Conference.
"You are what you are," he said. "We need wins. You end up being what you are."
What the Senators are is a mediocre team trying to find its way. Alfredsson, who spent 17 seasons in Ottawa including the final 14 as captain, didn't see this group as a lost cause.
"I see them as a very competitive team," Alfredsson said after his two-point game. "I thought they played extremely hard. If anything, they're maybe in a mode where they just need a couple of wins to get some confidence. I think they're doing a lot of good things, and I expect them to do well."
A lot of people expected the Senators to do well. Even after Alfredsson's departure, a lot of pre-season predictions included Ottawa as a solid playoff team.
Two straight playoff appearances under MacLean and a core bolstered by the acquisitions of wingers Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur contributed to that. Goaltending had been strong enough with Craig Anderson—and the development of Robin Lehner—that Ben Bishop was considered enough of a luxury that he was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning last season.
MacLean had "no issue" with Lehner's performance in Sunday's loss to Detroit, and he has been more than solid. Anderson is still the starter, however, despite an .894 save percentage.
Ryan and MacArthur have been bright spots. Ryan leads all forwards with 25 points on 13 goals and 12 assists, while MacArthur's production (eight goals, 12 assists) has been a pleasant surprise.
No. 1 defenceman Erik Karlsson has returned to point-a-game form after his torn Achilles tendon. And while new captain Jason Spezza isn't the same dominant player he was before back and knee injuries last year, he's not to blame for what's gone wrong.
Yet something's off. MacLean agreed with the assessment that his team hasn't shown as much speed as in years past.
"I think we've been a slower team because of our execution," MacLean said. "Our lack of execution makes us a slower team and it forces you play more in your own zone. ... We need to execute better so we can be faster. We want to be a fast team, we want to be a 200-foot team, but a big part of that is execution."
At it's core, that's the problem: It's not the talent, it's the execution. Save for Alfredsson, defenceman Sergei Gonchar and forward Jakob Silfverberg, this is the same core that made it to the second round of the playoffs.
Gonchar, whose free-agent rights were traded to the Dallas Stars over the summer, has no goals, four assists and a minus-8 rating. Silfverberg, sent to the Anaheim Ducks in the Ryan deal, broke his hand and hasn't played since Oct. 25.
Meanwhile, the Senators are 4-8-2 at home and on a four-game skid at Canadian Tire Centre. MacArthur said it seems like he and his teammates have a little mental "block" when playing at home.
MacLean doesn't think the team is playing hard enough.
"That might be harsh to say," he said. "At the end of the day we didn't do enough to win. Is that playing harder? Is that work ethic? Is that being smarter? It's all of the above, I would say. But we can just categorize it, I guess, under one term is that we need to play harder."
Since the Senators can't climb out of this hole all at once, MacLean's strategy is simple: Get back on the ice and fix the problems.
"If this is what we are, we need to keep working at it," he said. "We're going to work at it again and continue to work at getting better and better because we still believe we have a good group. We're not as good as we want to be right now or need to be right now, and we need to keep working at it."