When To Fire The Best* Coach In Hockey

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

20 Comments

  1. brad

    February 15, 2011 at 10:52 am

    cowboys turned it around quickly with a new coach

    • Dave

      February 15, 2011 at 1:00 pm

      It certainly does seem like pro football allows for the biggest shift in performance when the coaching changes.

      I think that has a lot to do with a) pro football coaches control the outcome of their games more than the other 4 major sports and b) players know this.

      I would also be remiss in mentioning that when Glen Hanlon was fired by the Caps in 2007, Boudreau created the same effect mid-season with an identical roster.

  2. MGW, The Agenda

    February 15, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Unfortunately, more so in the professional sports arena than anywhere else, when a team doesn't meet expectations, it's easier to fire one guy than the whole team. That being said, they're are people who are better leaders of men than others. Not saying anything about Boudreau, I don't know enough about the guy, but there are coaches who players trust and believe in and follow to the edge of the abyss and coaches who just don't reach their players. Talent certainly has a lot to do with it, Joe Torre doesn't win those World Series with the Orioles' lineups those same years, but I'd also say that Lee Mazzilli doesn't win with that Yankees lineup either.

  3. MT1993

    February 15, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    The Flyers fired John Stevens mid-season last year and promptly went to the Cup Finals under Laviollette.

  4. SJG

    February 15, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    the caps need to fire Boudreau. like MGW said, hes not reaching his players. they have so much talent and really nothing to show for it. yes, theyre still in the playoff mix but they should be way better than they are. theyve been shut out eight times this season. Eight times!!! Boudreau is supposed to be this offensive guy, but im not seeing that this year. maybe theyre not getting some of the breaks this season that they got last season, but i expect more out of this group. i think a new coach is in order bc obviously Boudreau doesnt have what it takes to get this team to the next level

  5. BCCaps

    February 15, 2011 at 7:07 pm

    I'm sure Glen Hanlon was a good guy too. Just sayin'

  6. Rick

    February 15, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    I've always been a Wings fan, and for the past few decades they've had a continued gluttony of talent. They are always near the top of the league in the regular season and have a record 6 president's trophies.

    So why is it that they only have 4 cups in that time? I'm certainly not complaining, but if you look at how often they were the favorite, or one of the favorites, they could have 6-8 cups during that stretch.

    The difference I've seen comes down to coaching. Winners? The coaches who command respect and work their players to the bone; Babcock and Bowman… The loser? Friendly "nice guy" coaches like Dave Lewis… I think a highly skilled team needs someone to push them harder than they can push themselves… and I don't see Boudreau as that type. I see him as being an enabler, not the kind of guy who holds players accountable. The Caps need someone who can lay down the law, not be their best friend.

  7. Zach

    February 15, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    This is an outstanding look at what will likely happen to Boudreau. It's sad because he definitely seems like a likable guy on a very likable team. I really enjoyed watching him during 24/7 and it's going to be tough when he is ultimately fired. But as you point out Dave, something needs to change and unfortunately that is typically a coach.

    • Dave

      February 16, 2011 at 3:30 am

      To me it's almost comparable to an athlete having surgery vs. getting a cortisone injection. The injection may be the way to fix things in the short term, and it's definitely less costly in terms of resources and time.

      Do the Caps need "major surgery," getting rid of George McPhee and dismantling parts of the core (Semin, Green, etc.)? I don't fall in to that camp, but there are plenty who are knocking on Dr. Frankenstein's door with pitchforks calling for him (GMGM) and the monster (Bruce).

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  9. Jenny

    February 16, 2011 at 9:35 am

    New coach seems to be working out for New Jersey….

  10. dti3

    February 16, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Trade Semin and Shultz before you fire Bruce. I think without his drinking partner on hand, Alex will re-focus on the game. As for Shultz, he's an oversized muppet on ice. This team doesn't need lazy players with no fire in their belly. Get rid of the flotsam and bring in real character guys. If that doesn't work…off with Boudreau's head.

    • Dave

      February 16, 2011 at 10:43 am

      Oversized muppet!

    • guest

      February 16, 2011 at 12:56 pm

      You got it. Watching guys skate right past Schultz and him doing nothing to prevent it is getting old!

    • Mary

      February 16, 2011 at 1:32 pm

      AMEN!!!!! Semin is the bleeding ulcer – the cancer – that's bringing down the whole team. And Schultz…I work at a senior center and I'm betting that some of my seniors could beat him – while playing with their walkers!!! If you can say that you've gotten rid of the dead wood (Semin and Schultz) and the team still doesn't right itself…then sure, get rid of Boudreau. But he's NOT the one who picked these players…McPhee needs to wake up and trade them (leaving them on the west coast would be perfect!)

      • Scott

        February 16, 2011 at 1:42 pm

        I'm not at all opposed to trading Semin, but I will say that if people still think Schultz is the dead wood on the defense then they aren't watching every game (the dead wood position still belongs to Sloan, but even if you take him out Schultz isn't the worst D-man on the team). Schultz has gotten much better than last season, and if he continues to improve then we don't want him on someone else's team. If you want to look for bad decisions on the defense, how about the extension for Poti? We gave him 2 more years at something like 3M per year, just so he can ride the bench injured the whole time? We should've saved that money and signed an actual shutdown D-man, like Hal Gill (who's a UFA this year, and is cheaper than Poti) at the end of this season.

  11. Gabe

    February 16, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Great article.
    It just doesnt sit well with me to ever hear hear a coach say something similiar to "I don't know what the problem is, the guys are working so hard. Eventually they will get rewarded"
    Bruce has said that so many times this season. With the long length of time that the Caps play has been subpar, its clearly not a slump, it's just bad play. If the coach, who is supposed to be closer to the team than anyone else, can't even diagnose let alone correct the cause of the bad play then the problem is absolutely with the coach.
    There are so many examples over the years in hockey where a great coach is let go and the team succeeds afterwords. If memory serves me correctly, not too long ago despite being in first place the Devils fired their coach right before the playoffs and ended up winning a cup with the new coach. Sometimes you can be a great coach but just not be the right fit for playoff success. Bruce has the best regular season record with no playoff success. His job is on the line now. Let's hope that the way the Caps are playing translates into post season success. Any hockey fan does know that playoff hockey is a different game.

  12. Cassie Pettiford

    February 18, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    In this grand pattern of things you’ll get a B- just for effort and hard work. Exactly where you actually misplaced everybody ended up being on all the particulars. As as the maxim goes, the devil is in the details… And it couldn’t be more accurate at this point. Having said that, allow me tell you what exactly did give good results. Your text is actually extremely engaging and that is possibly why I am taking an effort in order to opine. I do not make it a regular habit of doing that. 2nd, despite the fact that I can certainly see a leaps in logic you make, I am not necessarily confident of just how you appear to connect your details which inturn produce your final result. For right now I shall yield to your issue however trust in the foreseeable future you actually link the dots much better.

  13. Greg Mallon

    February 26, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    if, as you say, that the coach has little to do with the performance of the athletes, and that they just are who they are, then I think you’ve reinforced the idea of “Why NOT fire Boudreau?” Certainly couldn’t hurt given your “truisms”. The simple fact is that the CAPS are incredibly talented, insanely talented, AND YET… they are consistently inconsistent. I attend lots of games, even in NY, NJ, PHIL, and Carolina…. And by far the saddest games were the 7-0 garbage in NY (MSG), the 6-0 loss to NY at Verizon last night, and WORST OF ALL, the 5-0 embarrassment in New Jersey. I was at all those games. And NJ was the worst because the whole team did not bother to play – IT WAS UNREAL… like watching a bad college team. …AND I LOVE THE CAPS, enough to not only get VERIZON season tickets this year, and purchase MANY StubHub tickets to games within 300 miles (rangers, pens, hurricanes, devils, etc). When I say UNREAL, I am not kidding. In new Jersey, NO ONE Appeared to care. In New York, only Ovi cared. And lately, only Ovechkin, Perrault, and a few others seem to care. Outside of the rare effort, Alexander Semin might as well be sitting in a Lawn Chair at center ice most of the time. So what do the CAPS need? Someone. To motivate them, someone to tell them “this game is everything, that you only live once”, and, to remind them that the Rangers were Laughing at them when it was 7-0 in New York. If Boudreau had told them that before last nights game, I don’t believe they could have lost 6-0. yes, we have a teacher, but now we need a motivator. Time is short, and the playoffs are near.

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