When To Fire The Best* Coach In Hockey

When To Fire The Best* Coach In Hockey

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Photo by James Squire/Getty Images
Bruce Boudreau has taken points in 67% of his games as an NHL head coach.  This is the best record for any active coach in the league.  Allow me to let that sink in for a minute.

Bruce Boudreau has, statistically, the best record of any active coach in the league.  And he’s probably going to get fired.

In the excellent film The Damned United, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) tells us the story of legendary soccer manager Brian Clough, a Lane Kiffin-esque figure brilliantly portrayed by Michael Sheen.

At one point, in a power struggle with management, Clough is reminded that, as far as the pecking order of a sporting organization goes, “at the bottom of the heap, the lowest of the low, comes the one, who in the end, we can all do without…the [expletive] manager.”

To a certain extent, I agree with this logic.  Fiddle with lineups?  Sure.  Bark some empty words at professional athletes?  Why not?  Devise general concepts and strategy?  Knock yourself out.  But greatly influence the outcome over a long season?  I’ve never bought into it.

Consider the following, and for a moment, accept these two truisms.  1) Coaches do not select the players on their team.  I realise there are exceptions to this rule, but ultimately, general managers are the buyers in this market.  2) Professional players are, generally who they are or will become, regardless of coaching.  Now, this will probably draw more angry comments than any, but with degrees of variance, an athlete’s skill level and performance will ebb and flow within a reasonable range, regardless of whom their coach is.  Now, before we go further, let’s please toss pro football out the window of this discussion.  Pro football is the ultimate coach’s sport, but that is a topic for another time.

There’s another side to that theory, though.  That is, the players matter the most, obviously, in terms of wins and losses.  And, if you’re with me so far, we’ve determined that the coach not only doesn’t pick the players, but in some sports, doesn’t have a ton to do with their success or failure.  It puzzles me sometimes how much mystique and magical properties are expected of coaches.  Do fans think that losing coaches don’t give a “end of Hoosiers” level speech before every game?  They do.  I’ve been one of them.  Coaches all go to the same camps, love the game the same amount, and employ, generally, many of the same strategies as their colleagues.

So why do teams sometimes react so well when you change coaches?  Well, there’s the rub, isn’t it?  It’s the players that matter.  If the players are motivated by anything a coach does, it’s the fact that one day he doesn’t show up for work.  For a group of 25 smart, experienced athletes, it’s not always enough to give speeches, alter practices, and create the perception that things are different.  Sometimes they actually have to be different.

Anyway, I’ve always subscribed to this thinking, particularly in baseball, basketball, and hockey.  This is why I’ve been generally pleased with Boudreau’s tenure as Caps coach.  He’s a good character, seems like a decent guy, and is generally liked as a person by players and fans.  He’s put his time in as far as the game of hockey goes.  What more do you want in a coach?

Apparently, a sizable contingent of the Capitals ever-growing peanut gallery want a great deal more.  They want a master tactician who can devise a better power play strategy.  They want someone who will encourage explosive finesse hockey while still maintaining a Stanley Cup-caliber defensive system.  They want someone who will essentially guess correctly in a nightly coin toss between two different, but, essentially equally talented 22-year old goalies.  They want someone who will make a few of the best players in the league play, well, better.

These are all fair demands for a fanbase that has been, for lack of a better word, teased.  Despite the regular season dominance during his tenure, Boudreau has guided his teams to wins in only 13 of his 28 playoff games.  This was the old paradigm, and they at least tolerated it, because hoisting a divisional banner was a given, and that bought an incredible amount of hopes and dreams come springtime hockey.

Now things have shifted.  There is still only one shoe dropping on the Boudreau regime, except now it’s dropping in the cold winter instead of the annual playoff collapse.

The other shoe hasn’t dropped, yet.  If this dismal-by-our-standards season ends with the Capitals clawing into the playoffs in one of the bottom three seeds, and they make a sincere Cup run, maybe the shoe holds off another year.  Short of that, including missing the playoffs altogether, Boudreau will most likely be fired.

And this matters, but it also doesn’t.  It means a good guy loses his job in a business where that’s all too common.  It means that some players will be kept and others let go, which would’ve happened anyway.

Ultimately, it means something needed to change.  It’s not a fair system, but it’s the one we live in.  I don’t want Bruce Boudreau to lose his job.  I don’t actively root for anyone to get fired.  Especially a guy who, in the end, is not the person deciding on-ice outcomes.  The players are.  But something needs to change.

Perhaps, in a perverse way, getting fired will be Boudreau’s greatest and final act as the head coach of the Washington Capitals.

*67.3% points percentage at time of publication.

Dave Gilmore writes about the Capitals for BaltimoreSportsReport.com.  You can email him at baltimorecaps@gmail.com, or find him on Twitter @HockeyBy30