Nine months ago, I wondered if it was completely nuts to fire the NHL’s best active coach in terms of winning percentage. I suppose we have our answer.
Tonight marks the beginning of the (second) Dale Hunter era in Washington. Every change, painful or not, marks the chance for exciting possibilities. Before diving into what the new regime could do for the on-ice product, I want to take today to recognize what Bruce Boudreau has done for the Capitals in his four years as bench boss.
The title of Boudreau’s autobiography is Gabby: Confessions of a Hockey Lifer, which is especially fitting given that he played 16 professional seasons and has coached another 18 since then. You don’t stick around that long without being a heck of a guy, which is partially why Boudreau was still with the Capitals as of this weekend. While these are “business decisions,” and “coaches are hired to be fired”, etc, etc, these are still human beings making the calls. Boudreau would not have lasted beyond the 2010 first round upset to Montreal if he wasn’t well-liked by his coworkers and players. The fact that he lasted another early exit in 2011 tells you that Boudreau is beloved in the hockey community. He will not lack for opportunities this season or next. As Captials general manager George McPhee noted when asked how Boudreau handled his dismissal, “Bruce was a class act.” To us, the fans, it’s easy to call for someone to be fired. It’s a simple equation, in which we expect wins on one side and reward or punishment on the other. To those running a team, a locker room, a group of humans, it’s not as easy as “fire the guy who’s in charge when the team loses.” Especially when the have contributed as much as Bruce Boudreau has.
The “third wave” of Caps fans who didn’t experience much Washington hockey before Boudreau’s arrival on November 22nd, 2007 have incredibly high expectations. Many of these same folks have called for Bruce’s head every year since the 2008-09 season, one year after Boudreau won the Jack Adams award for the NHL’s best coach. What many of these fans failed to realize is that their expectations were so high because of the people they purported to hate: Boudreau, McPhee, and owner Ted Leonsis. Coming out of the NHL lockout, McPhee and Leonsis made a conscious decision to blow up the veteran roster, dump the albatross known as Jaromir Jagr, and start fresh. Sure, Alex Ovechkin has had a major role in that, but it wasn’t as simple as drafting the Great Eight. McPhee and Leonsis had to entice him and running buddy Alexander Semin stateside to make the revival even possible. Even then, 2005-06 was an exceptionally rough season outside of Ovechkin’s rookie year antics. The Capitals won 29 games that year, which if you’re keeping score at home, Boudreau accomplished by January 17th of his first full season behind the Caps bench. The turnaround didn’t truly occur until Boudreau took the reigns four years ago, and perhaps he cost himself his job by soaring too high too fast. Once the fans got a taste for winning, only a Stanley Cup could quench it.
In his four years, the expectations for Capitals hockey changed drastically. Certainly, Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, and many others played crucial roles in that transformation, don’t get me wrong. However, if you are going to fire “Gabby” when things are going as poorly as they have of late, you need to give him credit for when things were soaring. And how they soared in these past four seasons. Boudreau’s tutelage brought us the emergence of Nicklas Backstrom, and exciting but unproven draft pick who turned out to be one of the league’s best playmakers by the age of 22. Boudreau managed a system that allowed Alex Ovechkin to have two otherworldly seasons of goal production, alongside defenseman Mike Green, who as a pair became the first teammates in history to lead the NHL in goals at their position. He got more than anyone thought possible out of Jeff Schultz, teaming him with Green and as a result, leading the NHL in +/- in 2009-10. He instilled a plug-and-play brand of hockey that allowed Cristobal Huet, Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Braden Holtby, and Tomas Vokoun to play all-star level when Gabby unexpectedly called their number.
Boudreau also became the most recognizable active hockey coach in the mainstream during his tenure. He gave a face, a personality, and a lovable potty mouth to the normally stern and anonymous station of NHL head coach. He conducted himself like a John Tortorella that you didn’t want to punch, which is pretty much everything anyone can ask of a coach. He opened his locker room doors to HBO and pulled not punches for the cameras, allowing the fans a real look not only at what they didn’t see at the team facility, but what they didn’t see of the man behind the cherubic smirk. He was quotable and candid, if not cheeky with the media, and made press conferences an honest session of hockey talk rather than a cliche-driven snoozer.
In the end, Boudreau was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. When the high octane offense lead to early defeat, he changed his system to a defensive trap, which of course lead to early defeat. When his coaching style was perceived as too loose and player-friendly, he toughened up, benches his stars, and got fired a week later. It can’t be said that Boudreau didn’t give a complete effort in trying every road to the promised land. As McPhee noted yesterday, he “pushed every button” and “left nothing in the tank.” Thank you Bruce, for playing until the final whistle. One can only hope that your dismissal motivates your former players to do the same.
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com