December 21, 2014

Alex Ovechkin is a lot of things, but is he a coach killer?

There is perhaps no more polarizing player in the NHL than Alex Ovechkin.

To some, he is the best scorer in the world, a dynamic playmaker not afraid to throw his body around and carry the team on his back offensively when they need it the most. To others, he is a lazy, selfish player whose style of play and large contract are more of a detriment to the Washington Capitals than anything else.

Barry Trotz is now set to be the fifth head coach of the Caps in the past seven years and fifth of Ovechkin’s career causing some to declare Ovechkin a coach killer.

When a team’s star player and the coach don’t see eye to eye, it can cause problems within a locker room. When the team starts to struggle, owners will frequently can the coach rather than ship off the superstar. These players are thus labeled “coach killers.”

If a new coach comes in and proves to be more successful than the last, everyone forgets about it. If the problems persist, however, then people start to wonder if a player is “coachable.” In terms of Ovechkin, since he has such a large contract and is the face of the franchise, if he cannot be coached then the team essentially cannot win with him.

Determining if Ovechkin is a coach killer therefore is not just a shameless attempt to pull in web traffic, but is actually important for the future of the Caps. If he can’t be coached, then at some point, the team will have to move on from him.

So let’s look at which coach firings you can lay at the feet of Ovechkin.

First, you can throw Glen Hanlon out of this discussion. He was Ovechkin’s first coach, but was fired November 22, 2007 in Ovechkin’s third season. When the fans are chanting for the head coach to be fired, that’s usually a bad sign.

Hanlon was in over his head and everyone knew it.

Bruce Boudreau took over in 2007, but was fired 22 games into the 2011-12 season. After a strong 7-0 start, things went downhill as the Caps limped to a 5-9-1 record in their next 14 games. A 5-1 loss to a struggling Buffalo team was the final straw.

“This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce,” said George McPhee. “When you see that, as much as you don’t want to make a change, you have to make a change.”

Would Boudreau have been fired if John Erskine was tuning him out? Probably not. It would be fair to assume then that McPhee was concerned that Ovechkin and Boudreau were no longer on the same page and the numbers bear that out.

Ovechkin had only one goal in the eight games leading up to Boudreau’s dismissal and only 17 points in the season’s first 22 games. The tension between him and the coach was clearly growing as Ovechkin showed in the team’s November 1 matchup against Anaheim. After learning he was benched for the end of the game, Ovechkin appeared to voice his displeasure. 

To say Ovechkin quit on Boudreau is an easy narrative, but in many ways it does not make sense. Dale Hunter, a defense-first, no-nonsense coach was selected to replace Boudreau; not at all the sort of coach you would expect from a team trying to appease their offensive star.

Let’s not forget Boudreau’s history prior to the firing. The Caps were only one offseason removed from being swept in the playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning and two seasons from a stunning upset at the hands of Montreal in the first round.

Boudreau also dismissed the rumor that there was any rift between him and Ovechkin after being fired.

Let me give you two hypotheticals and you can decide for yourself which is more plausible: a player swore in frustration in the heat of the moment in a single game and a general manager saw his team struggling and decided to make a coaching change after two years of disappointing playoff performances OR McPhee fired Boudreau and replaced him with a defensive coach all in an effort to placate his dynamic offensive playmaker.

While many people seem to be running with the latter narrative, it doesn’t really make much sense, does it?

Professional athletes are the most competitive people on the planet. When the team needs a goal, every player wants to be on the ice, especially someone as good as Ovechkin. His outburst may be regrettable, but his frustration is understandable. People are reading far too much into one specific incident.

Boudreau still has yet to make it past the second round of the playoffs even with two chances in Anaheim. That has more to do with why he was fired than a single outburst from Ovechkin.

Under Hunter, the Caps were a very different team as he stressed defense. As you would imagine, Ovechkin clashed more with Hunter than he did with any of his coaches. Hunter was not afraid to bench Ovechkin and he did, frequently.

“Sometimes I felt trapped,” said Ovechkin.

But, regardless of how much Hunter and Ovechkin struggled to coexist, you can’t blame Ovechkin for getting Hunter fired because Hunter was never fired.

After the end of the season, Hunter informed the team he was stepping down as head coach to return to the London Knights in Ontario, an OHL team he owns and coaches.

The conspiracy theorists out there will say that Hunter was forced out or that his relationship with Ovechkin made him want to leave, but Hunter did not leave for another NHL team, he’s not an assistant somewhere or the head coach of an AHL team; he’s still in Ontario coaching the London Knights.

Cleary, that is where he is the most comfortable. You can’t blame Ovechkin for that.

Hunter was followed by Adam Oates. Despite some early success in the lockout shortened season in which the Caps reached the playoffs, Oates was a complete disaster in his first full season as a head coach. His faults have been well documented by this point and frankly if you blame Ovechkin for Oates getting fired, then you just weren’t paying attention.

So let’s recap. Of Ovechkin’s four previous coaches, the first was let go because the team was awful under his tutelage, the second underachieved in the playoffs, the third left voluntarily and the fourth was a terrible coach.

Ovechkin meanwhile has won multiple MVPs, been benched, switched positions at a coach’s behest and went so far as to say he wanted Oates to return as coach even after Oates publicly called him out for his defense in the now infamous Dallas game.

That doesn’t sound like a coach killer.

Ovechkin absolutely has his faults as a player. His defense is atrocious and as the captain of the team, giving less than 100% effort in the defensive zone is inexcusable. His lack of playoff success is also something he will have to live with until he can get over the hump and make a deep run. It is absolutely fair to criticize him for that.

But if we’re being fair, it also should be pointed out that Ovechkin has never had a coach with prior NHL experience or a championship caliber defense to work with. There are several reasons why the Caps have failed to win a Stanley Cup in the past few years, Ovechkin is only a piece of the puzzle.

Giving him the label of “coach killer” is easy to do, but it ignores a lot of the facts that suggest otherwise.
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JJ Regan is a Contributor to District Sports Page. He is an aspiring sports journalist currently earning his master’s degree in interactive journalism from American University and has his own website at regansports.com. He is also a digital freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Washington and Baltimore. JJ follows all D.C. sports but specializes in the Capitals. You can follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

About J.J. Regan

J.J. Regan is a contributor to District Sports Page. He is currently earning his master’s degree in interactive journalism from American University and is a college football and hockey blogger for CSNwashington.com and CSNbaltimore.com. J.J. follows all DC sports but focuses mainly on the the Caps and college football. You can view his online portfolio at regansports.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

Comments

  1. Kathi Cohen says:

    Every word, too true.

  2. Well said. As a caps fan I thank you.

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