November 21, 2017

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.

Washington Capitals Game 37 Recap: Capitals blow lead, lose 3-2 to Ducks; Boudreau returns

Photo by Patrick McDermott

Photo by Patrick McDermott

 

When the Washington Capitals and Anaheim Ducks last met, on November 2, 2011, it was a 5-4 overtime thriller that saw the Capitals chip away at a three-goal deficit and tie the game with seconds left in regulation. Nicklas Backstrom scored the equalizer and game winning goal. This time, the Capitals squandered a 2-0 lead and lost 3-2 in regulation to their former coach’s team.

Bruce Boudreau hadn’t set foot in Verizon Center since being fired on Thanksgiving 2011, just a couple weeks after the last meeting between the Caps and the Ducks.  The juxtaposition of coaching against his former team and players he helped develop during his tenure in Washington does not escape Boudreau.

“When you win a championship, no matter where you are, you always have a special bond with that group. That’ll be with me forever,” Boudreau told reporters Monday morning at Verizon Center, referring to his Calder Cup championships with AHL Hershey, with many of the players now wearing Capitals sweaters.

The Ducks entered Monday’s contest against the Capitals riding an eight-game win streak and extended it to nine with their win.

“In the scheme of things, I’m more happy we kept the streak alive. 59 points after 39 games is a pretty cool feat for what we’ve gone through,” said Boudreau.

Though he wasn’t given any special recognition during the game, Boudreau said he still felt appreciated by those in attendance. “The players deserve all the credit, and it was nice in front of the crowd here,” he continued. “There was a lot of red out there.”

Mikhail Grabovski and Nicklas Backstrom scored in the first period to give the Caps a 2-0 lead, but the Ducks scored three unanswered goals over the next two periods to win 3-2. The Capitals only had eight shots on goal during the second and third periods, for a total of 19, to the 29 the Ducks threw at Philipp Grubauer.

“I think the second period everybody lost their flow with the penalties,” said Adam Oates in his postgame presser. “I thought we pushed pretty hard. They’ve got some good guys back there; they made some plays. We tried but just couldn’t penetrate.”

Hampus Lindholm, the 19-year-old rookie defenseman who scored the Anaheim’s go-ahead goal, said the team has a positive approach to each game.

“We just find a way to win instead of finding a way to lose,” said Lindholm.

“We have a good team here and we know we can turn around a game. We just believe in the way Bruce wants us to play, and we go out there and do it.”

Washington Capitals hope defense-first takes them to Holy Grail

The Washington Capitals have been getting rave reviews from various corners of the hockey media world on their transformation from Bruce Boudreau’s exciting, offensive-minded approach to the stifling, sit-on-a-lead defensive approach implemented by Dale Hunter.

In fact, the opening two paragraphs from Scott Burnside’s column on ESPN.com today pretty much sums up the feelings of much of the Canadian media on the topic.

“It’s still a bit difficult to reconcile this grinding, hard-nosed version of the Washington Capitals to earlier, high-flying, playoff-crashing versions.

But the fact this current, albeit less flashy, model is still around and preparing for a seventh game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins suggests change isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

[Read more…]

Happy Birthday, Bruce Boudreau

HAPPY 57th BIRTHDAY BRUCE BOUDREAU!

The former Washington Capitals Head Coach and current Head Coach with Anaheim Ducks was born on 01/09/1955 in Toronto, ON, Canada.

Washington Times beat reporter Steve Whyno caught up with Boudreau yesterday out in Los Angeles.

District Sports Page would like to thank Coach Bruce Boudreau for his time in Washington and wish him the best of luck.

Caps Former Head Coach Bruce Boudreau (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

McPhee: “The players were no longer responding to Bruce.”

(Stock Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee was the first person to stand in front of the microphone today, tasked with explaining his decision to fire Coach Bruce Boudreau, Jack Adams Award winner, fastest NHL coach to 200 wins and four-time Southeast Division champion and hire Capitals legend Dale Hunter out of Junior League OHL to take command of a team struggling to find its identity and consistency of play.

McPhee was pointed from his very first answer: “The reason for the change was we weren’t winning, obviously, and this wasn’t a slump,” McPhee said. “You can ride out slumps. This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce. When you see that, as much as you don’t want to make a change, you have to make a change. Bruce did a terrific job. We’re very proud of him, proud of the work he did for us, but when the players aren’t responding, you have to make a change.”

It’s a difficult thing, measuring the effect a coach has in the room.  It’s even more difficult to make an honest assessment, stand in front of dozens of media, and explain that the players on the team — the players McPhee himself selected — gave up on a good coach.  To me, it says more about the players than the coach.

“The issue was we weren’t playing very well. And I think Bruce came in here and emptied the tank. He gave it everything he could and did a really good job, but the tank was empty. When that happens, you get a new coach, where the tank is full, and see if it makes a difference.”

McPhee was asked when he knew things were breaking down, that he had to make a change.  The answer was a bit surprising.

“I didn’t like some of the things that I saw in training camp, in some of the preseason games,” McPhee said.  “I don’t want to put too much into that. But I was worried then.  And then we had a great start, and then we started to slip up, and you have an injury here or there that you think is part of it, but ultimately we have too many players that aren’t playing well, and that’s what it comes down to. They can play better. So you have to find out how you can make them play better and we think this is the solution.”

Any discussion of the Washington Capitals has to start with the underperforming captain, Alex Ovechkin.  The star winger has but 8 goals and 17 points in 22 games.  The lack of scoring is one thing, but he’s often looked apathetic at best — and completely disinterested at worst — backchecking and playing defense.  His running mate, center Nicklas Backstrom, hasn’t offered much more in his own end, and what’s worse, has regressed as a defensive player the longer he’s played alongside Ovechkin.  When your two best players haven’t bought into your system, its unfortunately time to try a new voice.

McPhee tried to isolate Ovechkin from the root of the problem.   “I don’t think this has anything to do with Alex Ovechkin,” McPhee said. “I think it’s got everything to do with this team not playing well. Our goalies aren’t stopping pucks. The defense aren’t getting the pucks out. And the forwards aren’t checking and scoring enough. It’s our whole team. It’s not an individual. We have a lot of players that aren’t playing the way they’re capable of playing, and that’s why the change is made.”

While all that is certainly true, a team takes its cues from its captain and best player, even if it’s done subconsciously.  And Ovechkin just has not been invested for a while.  Some track it back to the Olympic failure last year.  Others assume the mantle of captaincy is too heavy for him.  Whatever the case, hockey doesn’t seem “fun” to Ovechkin right now, and obviously Boudreau was unable to make it fun for him.

McPhee didn’t see another option considering the way the team has played its last 15 games.  “These are always difficult decisions, but as I said, you don’t want to make these decisions, but when you see what I saw, you have to make the decision. You can’t look the other way. And I’ve seen it in a few games recently, enough that I knew the team wasn’t responding. We’ve got their attention now, and hopefully they’ll respond in the right way.”

It’s tough that a good man and a great hockey coach had to lose his job to get the attention of a few millionaire hockey players with long contracts.  McPhee hopes the message gets through.  But the new guy won’t suffer fools.  It’s all on the players now.  Because if you don’t play hard for Dale Hunter every single night, you won’t be wearing the Capitals crest on your chest for very long.

UPDATED: Caps Players’ Reactions to Coaching Change

Dale Hunter on ice for this first practice as Caps Head Coach (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Here are some unfiltered quotes from the locker room proceeding Dale Hunter’s first practice with the Washington Capitals, taking over from Bruce Boudreau, dismissed after four years, 200-plus wins, four Southeast Division banners and one President’s Trophy.  Some players were genuinely upset, some were matter-of-fact, and some were simply resolved.  But to a man, they all recognized that as players, their lack of effort in recent weeks led to the dismissal of a very good hockey coach.

Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin addressing media re Boudreau and Hunter (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Reaction to the news:

“I think everybody was in shock.  I had like 50 missed calls, 50 messages.  Kind of a shocking situation, but it is what it is.”

What was the problem?

“I think, first of all, all the guys that work with Bruce knows he’s a great coach and great guy.  For everybody, for this organization makes lots of good things.  We won a lot, and he cares for the team and the person.  We respond as players and I think everybody try, but again, it’s done and we have to look forward.  We’re gonna work hard and play our best.

Did you have any disagreements with Boudreau:

“No.  I have good relationship with him. And it’s gonna be good relationship.  Work is work, but we have good relationship right away when they bring him in.”

On Hunter:

“He’s a legend here.  He play here and he knows how to win games and how to play it.  I don’t know how he is as coach, but I talked to Wides (who played for Hunter’s OHL London team) and he said only good things about him.”

“They say he’s a straight-up coach.  If he wants to say something to you he’s gonna say it, and I think that’s good.”

On going forward:

“Everybody knows, right now we just have to play our game.”

Do you think the team will be re-energized with the new coach?

“I hope it’s gonna be like that.  You can see today at practice everybody was flying everybody was concentrating.  It was a very good practice.”

Did the team tune out Boudreau?

“I don’t know.  You can be tired from the coach telling you made mistakes and something like that.  Again, it’s a decision that’s been made and we just have to look forward, don’t look back at what happened. Or if you’re gonna look back, I think we don’t have to talk to [the media] about it, it has to be, again, back in our locker room.

What needs to change?

“We just need to win games.  It’s as simple as that.  We just have to play harder and together.  Sometimes when you have a kind of slump, you just have to fight through that.  Again, it’s all about us.  We play on the ice.  We just have to score the goals, make some hits, make something how we do.”

Dale Hunter checking with Semin and Orlov to make sure that they can understand his English (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

John Carlson

(Carlson played for Hunter’s OHL London Knights)

Reaction this morning:

“I was very surprised.”

 On Hunter’s style as coach:

“I think I was one of the better players on my team there and I certainly didn’t get a free pass so can’t see much changing there.”

“I think that anytime we get a new coach in there it really does energize you, especially him, I think he’s a good guy.”

“He played hard all the time and I think that will trickle down to us.”

“At the end of the day he’s going to hold everyone responsible.”

Do you feel, as a player, responsible for Bruce’s departure?

“Yes, we weren’t playing the way we really should have. We have the team in here to do it and we just didn’t do it. Sometimes it falls on other people and not the players.”

On playing under Hunter:

“My best hockey year and my most important so far was with him. I really learned a lot and got a lot better in that year and obviously he’s doing something right.”

“I think he’s a great coach. He was unbelievable to me.”

“I think that Bruce was great in areas and I’m sure that all of the coaches out there are great in some areas, but lack some areas. I think that [Hunter] is going to really nail things down that really need to be nailed down. The finer details out there like you saw in practice today. He’s not going to let it slide when it’s not his way.”

“We’ve still got the same team in the room. We’ve still got the same components to the team, skill and grit and the whole nine years so I don’t think he can change that much. But if we hammer home the points that he wants in respects to the fore-check and the d-zone and neutral zone not huge things, not monumental where it’s going to take a few weeks to get used to it, but we need to get those things done.”

On today’s practice:

“I thought it was a very good practice. I think that he was trying to get everyone to push the pace and I think that we certainly did that.”

Brooks Laich

“When I first found out this morning my first thought was ‘I wish I could have done more.’”  “[This morning was] Pretty tough. [Boudreau] is a man that himself personally that I owe a lot to. The job he’s done in Washington is amazing. Before he got here, we were a last place team. He’s taken us from a team that started to win, and won consistently, made the playoffs and ultimately had Stanley Cup expectations so it’s tough on a personal note to see him go.”

“It’s the nature of the beast. It’s a business and we understand it and I feel terrible for Bruce because he is leaving his dream job.”“If you rip one of our players out of the locker room, if you rip me out of the locker room, that’s how I think it would feel.”“I haven’t had a chance to talk with him yet, but I’m sure that he’s disappointed, but we all understand it’s a business and sometimes these things happen.”Does it go beyond a coaching change?

“The world of sports kinda sucks in a way that he takes the fall for stuff that we do. It’s not him that took a penalty or missed his assignment or turned the puck over. It’s the guys in this locker room.”

Under Hunter:

“Now Dale is here and today I thought we had a great practice. Guys are upbeat.”

“He’s had a lasting effect and his name is still talked about a lot, a guy that is really respected. I’m sure that he’ll take control right from the get go. And it won’t be too hard to follow that guy.”

Was a change necessary?“No. I had never lost belief in any of our coaches, especially not with Bruce.”“I thought we could play better, but it’s not up to him to try to motivate guys or to try to inspire guys. As professionals you’re paid to do a job and come to work every day. You should be giving your best effort all the time. That is what we expect as professionals.”

Dale Hunter with Dave Prior on ice for this first practice as Caps Head Coach (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Jeff Schultz

What went wrong?

“As players, it’s something that we never want to happen, but in the direction that we were going, we knew something was going to happen. We didn’t know if it was coaching or players. It was tough to see Bruce go.”

Was it a surprise? Or did you see it coming?

“A bit of both. As players, its something that we never want to happen, but in the direction that we were going, we knew something was going to happen. We didn’t know if it was coaching or players.”

On Bruce Boudreau:

“I think guys had a lot of respect for Bruce. Bruce did a great job and he worked real hard preparing for games and practices and stuff. The way that the last month has gone, things weren’t going our way or his way, a change had to be made.”

 On Dale Hunter:

“He’s very up front, coachable person that expects a lot of his players from what I’ve heard from other guys and who doesn’t take crap from anybody.”

 First Practice:

“It was a good first practice today. I’m sure it will take a little bit of time to work things out, but it was a good day one.”

Nick Backstrom

Reaction this morning:

“Well honestly a little surprised, but at the same time we have higher goals than being number eight [in the conference]. “

Thoughts on Hunter:

“He has a lot of experience and he’s been playing in this league and coaching in Canada so hopefully he can bring a lot to this team and teach us and help us.”

“I’m sure that he’ll teach us good things and we’ll learn from him.”

Did the team need a change?

“It’s hard to say, but we can just blame ourselves for not playing good enough. I think Bruce is a great coach and a great personality too.  It’s just us I think. We gotta blame ourselves. It is what it is. We gotta go from there and I think it will be good for us.”

“Right now we have so much challenge and we just got to figure out how to deal with it.”

Downfall of defense:

“Too many odd man rushes I think. Pretty much everything has been a little frustrating, especially when you try and it doesn’t work and we can’t get a puck out from the offensive zone. I think we gotta switch it up somehow and that is how it is now.”

Mike Knuble

On Hunter:

“Everybody knows his track record as a player and what he accomplished on the ice, what type of player he was and I think that will carry a lot of respect.”

“Sort of puts you on edge though that when a guy is talking about it, you know he’s done it and you know he’s done it well in our league and for a long time.”

“You see his jersey retired here and there is a lot of tradition.”

“Bringing that pride will be good for us.”

“He brings a lot of clout and everybody knows his name in this city. Players know what he’s accomplished here and in our league and I think that is a lot of immediate respect you want to play hard for.”

Mike Knuble (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Jeff Halpern

On what went wrong:

“We’re not executing things that are asked of us.”

“Some things we’ve done well and some things need a lot of improvement.”

“It’s hard to blame one person for that, especially when he execution of those plans are on the players.”

“I know the expectations of this team are incredibly high and we had a really good start and have fallen lately.”

 On Hunter:

“Anyone likes a guy who fights for his teammates and sticks up for his teammates.”

“He plays as tough as he is.”

Joel Ward

Reaction to coaching change:

“I was definitely shocked. I had no clue.”

“I think I’ve only been part of something like this before once in my career in junior hockey so its definitely a different experience for me.”

“We’ve got to just keep moving forward.”

On Boudreau losing team:

“I never blame the coaches or refs. As players you just kinda do your job and there’s a system in place. I guess we had one too many break downs on the ice and resulted in giving up a few goals.”

“At times we played well and at times we didn’t.”

“I don’t know if it is something that we needed, but obviously it is the case.”

“As a group as a whole in our locker room is just to come together and play for one another and give that extra little percent.”

On what Hunter can bring to team:

“Maybe it’s a different style of play that he can enforce.”

Tomas Vokoun

First reaction:

“Obviously it’s something, in my career, I’ve ever been a part of in mid-season a coach getting fired.  I found out on the way to the rink, actually from my wife in Florida.  So I was surprised.  It’s disappointing but obviously it’s something — when things are not going well it’s usually, people make changes and saying that, there’s no one else to blame but the players.  We don’t play well and obviously you feel bad for Bruce.  It’s part of the business, definitely not the best part of it, but that’s how it is.

“We’re all to blame.  Me personally, I’m not playing up to my standards.  I’ll say probably there are 18 other guys in this locker room doing the same thing.  Sometimes, stuff, it’s not always fair.  It’s not up to me to judge.  Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault, just things didn’t work out and it’s unfortunate. It’s not something you wish for happening.  Here, we’re not the kind of team we should be going through it, but we are.  We have a good team, but we haven’t shown enough of that, especially of late, and they felt like they had to make a change and they did.”

Did the team stop responding?

“I don’t think it was anybody’s intention on this team [to get the coach fired]. We didn’t play well. It compounded on us. We got some bad breaks.  You felt like there was a bad atmosphere around.  We would come out for the game and maybe people wanted it too much or we were making mistakes but I don’t think it was premeditated to come to the game and not play hard or lose the game or anything like that.  Sometimes for whatever reason things don’t go your way and we just weren’t getting the job done.  And it wasn’t getting any better, it was getting worse.  I feel bad for Bruce, but I’m sure he knows better than anyone it’s part of the game.”

What’s gone wrong?

“We haven’t been playing well.  Nothing’s was working.  Our defense was bad, our goaltending was bad.  We weren’t scoring either much in the games we lost.  Like I said, it’s not like we were five games under .500, but just the overall feeling of our games weren’t good.  Sometimes we wont he game and we still, it was kind of iffy.  Sometimes you can lose and go from the game and say ‘We played great’ and we lost the game because of this, this, this.  I think our biggest problem was being consistent.  We were making crucial mistakes at bad times.  Never it was one guy, some night it was this guy, the next night it was this one.  It’s hard to pinpoint it.  If we knew, we would fix it.  It’s hard to find that one thing.  Sometimes it’s multiple things.  It’s not up to me to judge anybody’s performance but mine, but I can say from my standard, I’m not happy from my last five, six games.

“It’s hard to change 20 guys, right? Sometimes they just change the one.”

Tomas Vokoun (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Karl Alzner

Did Boudreau lose the room?

“It’s tough. I don’t really know exactly how it all happened.  This is my first time ever going through something like this but he still had — Bruce knows the game, incredibly well.  But for whatever reason, as a team, we weren’t really responding well, or not as well as we should have been.  Where do you go after that?  Where do you go from there?  That’s when they come into play, the guys upstairs, and they do what they have to do.  But I think that Bruce did an unbelievable job.  He’s got a great record in the games that he’s coached.

Dale Hunter's Banner Hanging at Kettler (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

 

Additional reporting by Dave Nichols, Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page.

Changing of the Guard: Capitals Fire Boudreau, Hire Dale Hunter

After 201 wins, four consecutive Southeast Division titles, and the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award for Coach of the Year, Bruce Boudreau is out as head coach of the Washington Capitals.

Taking over the helm of the floundering Caps is a very familiar face in Washington, D.C. – former Capitals captain Dale Hunter.

“The reason for the change was we weren’t winning, obviously,” said General Manager George McPhee from Kettler Capitals Iceplex Monday morning.  “This wasn’t a slump.  You can ride out slumps.  This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce.”

The organization announced the move at 8 am this morning, days after an embarrassing loss on the road to a depleted Buffalo Sabres squad put an exclamation at the end of a disappointing streak of almost a month in which it became increasingly clear that Boudreau had lost the ears, and the respect, of his team.

While Boudreau took the Caps from the bottom of the league to the top, Hunter is the man tasked with getting Washington past the playoffs roadblock that has stymied them season after season.

Asked what Hunter will bring to the Caps as a coach, McPhee replied, “Hopefully the same things he brought us as a player. Obviously Dale was an intelligent player. He had talent.  And he was tough.  And he was downright mean sometimes.”

Hunter was an inspired choice by general manager George McPhee. Arguably the most successful coach in Ontario Hockey League history, Hunter recently earned his 450th win as the bench boss for the London Knights. The Ontario Hockey League is one of the premier junior leagues in Canada, and Hunter has coached current NHL stars Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Patrick Kane, and John Tavares, as well as current Caps John Carlson and Dennis Wideman.

Though Hunter has been wildly successful in London, most coaches don’t jump right from the OHL to the NHL. What put Hunter on McPhee’s radar was the 51-year-old Ontario native’s storied history with the Caps.

For 19 seasons, from 1980 to 1999, Hunter was a stalwart grinder in the NHL. He started his career with the Quebec Nordiques and quickly established himself as a pugilist, albeit perhaps the fighter with the softest hands the league had seen. In seven seasons in Quebec, Hunter averaged 20 goals and 220 PIMs a campaign. After the 1986-87 season Hunter was traded to the Caps in a multi-player deal; the first round draft pick Washington sent to Quebec was used to draft Joe Sakic.

As a Capital, Hunter endeared himself to his teammates and the fans, and was the team’s captain from 1994 to 1999, when he was dealt at the trade deadline from the bottom-dwelling Caps back to his first organization, now the Colorado Avalanche, to give him one last shot to win a Stanley Cup. When that didn’t pan out, Hunter retired and bought the London Knights along with his brother Tim, who replaces Dale as the head coach.

On the ice Hunter was known for his fierce, sometimes dirty, play, and the same can be said for his coaching style. Whereas Boudreau was a player’s coach, Hunter is certainly a disciplinarian, and the hope is that he will bring a large measure of accountability to the locker room. He also had disciplinary issues, earning several suspensions during the 2005-06 OHL season when his players left the bench to engage in fights, as well as a 21-game suspension, then the longest in NHL history, when he cross-checked the Islanders’ Pierre Turgeon from behind after Turgeon scored the series-winning goal in overtime in the 1993 Patrick Division semifinals.

Grit, discipline, and the willingness to risk crossing the line are all traits Hunter brings to the Caps bench that were absent under Boudreau, an offensive mastermind.

McPhee, Boudreau’s staunchest supporter in the Caps organization, told ESPN this morning that the former coach’s “performance over the past 10 days” was the cause of the firing, referring specifically to the 5-1 loss in Buffalo and a 7-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs the previous week.  McPhee praised Boudreau in his press conference, saying, “Bruce emptied the tank and he’s pushed every button he could. And if it worked for a while it’s not working now.”

After the Buffalo game, Boudreau questioned his team’s mental toughness, saying “it’s got to come from within, I’ve got to believe. I’m hoping it’s got to come from within because if I have to teach them how to be tough I don’t know quite how to do that.” Obviously McPhee agreed that Boudreau wasn’t the one to teach it, but hopes that Hunter has the answer for a listless Caps team that has lost 10 of its past 15 games.

Speculation and rumors swirl around Capitals coaching position

Sunday evening, Nick Kypreos, former Washington Capitals winger and current hockey analyst for Rogers Sportsnet’s “Hockey Central”, speculated on the possibility of Caps coach Bruce Boudreau possibly being dismissed “in the next 24-48 hours.”  Kypreos was careful to say that information was speculation, but then went on to explain that another former Caps player (and three-year Kypreos teammate) Dale Hunter, owner, president and coach of the OHL London Knights, could be a possible replacement.

Caps Head Coach Bruce Boudreau (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

According to this report by The Washington Times Steve Whyno, a Caps’ spokesman dismissed the information as “Not true. Just speculation.”

Whyno’s report also has a full transcription of the exchange between two other hosts on “Hockey Central” and Kypreos.  The comments, taken in isolation, sound pretty serious and credible, especially coming from Kypreos who most certainly still has ties with Hunter and within the Caps organization.  But reading the full transcript (and you should read the transcript), were it not Kypreos dispensing the information you’d probably find yourself taking it with more that a grain of salt.

Regardless, this is sure to be a big week in this franchise’s history either way.  The Caps have three consecutive home games with St. Louis on Tuesday, Pittsburgh on Thursday and Ottawa on Saturday.  With the team still reeling from back-to-back losses where they looked largely uninterested and missing assignments left and right, this homestand is a chance to get healthy.  On the other hand though, it could prompt personnel or coaching moves if the team continues its lackluster production.

Usually, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.  This situation has been burning for a while now and we all have to see how it plays out.  Right now, it’s up to the players.  If they want to maintain the status quo and continue under Boudreau’s direction, they need to play this week like his job depends on it, because that might very well be the case.

Identity Crisis

“You’d like to think that they’re trying their hardest.  But at the same time, when we’re not winning a lot of the [individual] battles, you gotta believe there’s more to give.” Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, after 5-1 loss to the Sabres.

Last night, after the Washington Capitals took a 5-1 drubbing to the hands of the Rochester Americans Buffalo Sabres, Comcast Sportsnet’s Alan May called the performance “pathetic” and “embarrassing.”  He was right.  The Caps were outskated, outplayed and outperformed by a team decimated by injury, losers the previous night to Columbus, the worst team in the league.

This comes on the heels of giving up six goals to the New York Rangers Friday night, who sometimes have trouble scoring six goals in a week.

May particularly cited the Caps failure to win physical one-on-one battles.  On the post-game show, he highlighted the defensive breakdowns, illustrated by Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom’s lack of attention to detail on their defensive assignments.  The problems have been going on for weeks, but last night was a perfect storm: the duo were both minus-four on the evening, including yet another breakaway shorthanded goal with Ovechkin at the point.

Coach Bruce Boudreau was pointed in his comments after the game.  His words were a condemnation of the maturity of his players, but they serve also to show his exasperation and desperation.

“Sometimes we’re not mentally strong,” Boudreau said. “This group has got to learn how to be mentally strong. It hasn’t had a lot of adversity in the last four years unless it was in the playoffs. The regular season, it seems like it was a walk in the park. We’ve reached, for 15 games now, some adversity and some guys are having a tough time with it.”

Maybe the problems that are manifesting for the Caps in the regular season are the product of an organization-wide mantra that the regular season doesn’t matter anymore; that the Caps should be judged solely by their playoff success.  Here’s a news flash:  the regular season counts.  That’s why they keep the standings.

“It’s got to come from within, I’ve got to believe,” the coach continued. “I’m hoping that’s got to come from within because if I’ve got to teach them how to be tough, then I don’t know quite how to do that.”

Boudreau described how the plan coming into the game was to play defensively, eking out a goal and playing it close to the vest.  When things got away from them, he had no choice to put the pedal down to try to score, leading to more odd-man chances for Buffalo.  For a team that has been giving out goals lately like it’s their job, that strategy might have been sound.  Except this team isn’t geared to play that way.  And the team they were playing were missing NINE regular starters, including their all-world goalie Ryan Miller.

There are three players on this team that think defense first: Jeff Halpern, Karl Alzner and Jeff Schultz.  That’s it.  Others are capable of playing defense, but everyone else on this team is geared for offense first.  It’s part of the identity crisis for a coach and team that have never played with a defensive philosophy.  Regardless, the talent level on this team is such that if they wanted to, they could be an excellent defensive team.  They had success the second half of last season playing that way, but even then, you could tell their heart wasn’t in it.

I wrote then that it was like asking a thoroughbred to be a plow horse.  I stick to that analogy today.  Defense is about want-to.  It’s about effort and desire and hustle.  It’s about being responsible.  It’s about committment.

If this team isn’t mentally strong, mature, composed; whatever word you want to use there, maybe part of it is that they are playing in a system that they don’t like, don’t believe in, doesn’t allow them to take advantage of their talents.  Maybe they aren’t tough enough because they haven’t bought into the game plan that seems to change on a daily basis.  Maybe it’s none of that.

But this is the same team that won its first seven games consecutively.  It’s the same team that utterly destroyed the Detroit Red Wings lass than a month ago.  It’s a team that despite all their problems right now, including a power play that’s given up more goals in the last two weeks than it’s scored, is still fourth in the entire freaking league in goals per game.  It’s a team that, though they rank eighth in the conference, are just four points out of second place.  Two games.

Boudreau and Ovechkin can talk all they want about committment and toughness.  This team has never had a problem talking about what the problems might be.  But changes need to be made.  In the end, it’s up to the players to affect change, or outside agents will have to do it for them.  Do they want to play?  Are they willing to commit?  If the answers are “no”, they might find themselves or a teammate traded, cut, or sent to the minors.

Or worse, it might end up costing a very good coach his job.

Quotes in this post were taken from published sources.

GAME 22 RE-CAP: Caps Embarrassed in 5-1 Loss to Shorthanded Sabres

As bad as things have been for the Washington Capitals as of late, the boys in red, white, and blue keep finding new ways to reach new lows.

Saturday night on the road, the Caps put forth the type of effort that gets coaches fired and players traded in a 5-1 loss to the depleted Buffalo Sabres.

Jason Chimera scored Caps only goal in Buffalo (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

The home team was playing without nine regular roster players, including star goalie Ryan Miller (but not leading goal scorers Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Luke Adam).  Both teams played on Friday, with Washington dropping a 6-3 result to the New York Rangers and Buffalo falling 5-1 to the league-worst Columbus Blue Jackets.

It was clear which team responded to the loss and which team fell further into a slump.  Buffalo out-skated the Caps from the start, out-shooting the visitors 28-27 and out-chancing Washington by a great margin.

The Sabres’ Adam had a pair of goals in the win, as did Pominville, Zach Kassian, and Jochen Hecht. Jason Chimera was the lone Capital to put the puck behind Buffalo goalie Jhonas Enroth, who was outstanding compared to his counterpart on the other side of the ice, Tomas Vokoun.

Washington found themselves in a hole after a lackluster first period which saw deflections lead directly to two Buffalo goals. Midway through the frame, Dennis Wideman attempted to clear the puck around the boards while being pressured by Paul Szczechura and his pass redirected off the forward’s foot directly to a waiting Luke Adam in the slot.  Adam’s slap shot stunned an unsuspecting Vokoun and gave the Sabres the lead.

Five minutes later, Buffalo captain Jason Pominville doubled his team’s lead off a fluky bounce. A shot by Erhoff from the point deflected off Thomas Vanek and bounced high in the air, bouncing off Vokoun’s stabbing attempt to secure it in his glove and landing on the doorstep of the crease, where Pominville pounced to bat it into a vacated net.

Chimera appeared to turn things around for Washington with his 2nd period strike. The winger snuck behind the Buffalo defense to break in alone on net and Christian Erhoff dove to poke the puck away, taking Chimera’s legs out from under him at the same time. It was ruled a denial of a clear scoring chance and Chimera was awarded a penalty shot. His wrist shot from the slot beat Enroth high on the left side, sneaking  under the crossbar and lodging in the protective padding along the post.

Any hope that Chimera’s marker, his team-leading 9th of the season, would reinvigorate Washington was quickly doused on the very next shift, 27 seconds later. Rookie Zach Kassian, appearing in his first NHL game, beat Vokoun with a soft shot from the right half-boards on the Sabres’ entry into the zone.

Washington staved off further Buffalo attempts in the second, and headed into the locker room with a two-goal deficit. Disappointingly, the Caps once again started the period flat while the Sabres came out firing.  Adam potted his second goal of the game just 72 seconds into the frame, taking the puck out of the right corner on the cycle, faking Brooks Laich with a shoulder dip and then wristing a shot over Vokoun’s shoulder on the far side.

Adding insult to injury was Hecht’s shorthanded goal in the later part of the third frame. A fumbling sequence by John Carlson and Mathieu Perreault at the blue line on the power play let Hecht streak in alone on net, outracing Alexander Ovechkin and beating Vokoun with a simple wrist shot to the right corner.

After the game Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau suggested that his team’s plan coming in to the game was to sit back, play defense, and try to beat the Sabres in a low-scoring, one-goal game. When that plan obviously failed in the first period Washington looked confused and outmanned.  Particularly disappointing was the effort of the top line of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Troy Brouwer, who were a combined -11 and took only 5 shots.

Ovechkin was benched for the final 5:21 of the game – not touching the ice after giving up the shorthanded tally to Hecht – and the sense is that Boudreau is running out of players to bench and tactical moves to make before the organization decides if a message must be sent off the ice in order to effect change on it.

Abram Fox is the Washington Capitals Page Editor for District Sports Page.  He has been covering the Capitals from the press box since the 2007-08 season.

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