Cancel the Cup holder: The end of the Bruce Boudreau Era
“If 18 guys are lousy who gets fired? The coach.” – ex-NHL coach Don Cherry
“I’m gonna need a pretty BIG Cup holder.” – Bruce Boudreau in a Mercedes commercial.
And so it goes with now-former Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau. Twenty guys were lousy for a month and this morning, the man known as Gabby walked the plank. And he didn’t even get to use his Cup holder.
Gabby is unemployed today because his team, specifically his $124 million captain, had stopped listening to him. Unlike most times when a coach “loses the room,” you can put a date and timestamp on this one.
It was late in the third period in a Nov. 1 game against Anaheim. Boudreau drew up a play during a timeout. The cameras catch star player and captain Alex Ovechkin ask Boudreau if he is going on the ice. Gabby says no and walks away. The camera lingers on Ovechkin who looks angrily at Boudreau, sits down and mutters two words that rhyme with “bat truck” in referring to the portly Boudreau.
Since then, it’s been a steady, systematic decline for the Caps, who started 7-0 but are now 12-9-1. The team’s play has been listless, if not embarrassing, in blowout losses to Winnipeg (4-1), Toronto (7-1), the New York Rangers (6-3) and Buffalo (5-1). The Caps’ have played pro hockey games with pickup game intensity. I’ve seen and played in beer league games that had more fire than the Caps have shown at times.
The final straw for General Manager George McPhee was the 5-1 loss in Buffalo. The injury-depleted Sabres were playing with half their regulars and half their farm team, the Rochester Americans. Buffalo had nine regulars out due to injury.
Yet the Caps made them look like Gretzky’s Oilers by not skating, not working, not hitting and generally not giving a crap. Even the Sabres announcers were pointing out that the Caps looked like a team trying to get its coach fired. Mission accomplished.
Obviously, something had to be done. Thus, Boudreau gets pink-slipped. My question is, what took McPhee so long?
Gabby should have been fired after the Caps embarrassing playoff sweep to Tampa Bay. With their season on the line, the Caps played like a team eager to get to the golf course in games 3 and 4 in Tampa. Boudreau whiny postgame press conference blaming the refs after Game 3 didn’t help his cause. Here’s what I wrote then.
“Gabby deserves all the credit in the world for taking over a young team and teaching it how to win. But the team has gone as far as it can go under his leadership.”
Lord knows Boudreau tried with these guys. In the midst of an 8-game losing streak last year, and with calls for his job, Gabby listened to the amateur coaches on the internet and on sports talk radio and overhauled his go-go offensive system in favor of a more defense-oriented system. The thought was, a more responsible, two-way game would help get this traditionally snakebitten club further in the playoffs.
But in the process of making that change, part of me wonders whether the Caps lost a bit of their soul. This was, and still largely is, a roster full of freewheeling offensive players. The Caps became a popular draw, both at home and on the road, because they played entertaining hockey. Because they were the anti-New Jersey Devils. Trying to play the trap and turning backchecking-averse players like Ovechkin and Alexander Semin into defensive players was putting a square peg in a round hole.
This year, Boudreau tried to instill more accountability in the club, through measures like benching Ovechkin, scratching forward Joel Ward for a game because he missed a meeting and making Semin a healthy scratch. But disciplinarian was never in Gabby’s makeup and the players saw right through it.
Then again, if somebody needed to watch from the press box, it was Semin. The man known as Sasha is your classic mercurial Russian: a player with ungodly talent who plays when he feels like it.
Given his tepid offensive performance this year (five goals and five assists) it’s safe to say he hasn’t felt like playing all season. A player of Semin’s talent should get 10 points in his sleep. But all he’s racked up this year is minor penalties. While the “Alex Semin hat trick” (goal, assist and stick foul) was cute when he was scoring 40 goals, without the points, it’s infuriating.
Why McPhee didn’t try to move this guy this offseason is a mystery to me. I said after the loss to Tampa that “Good Sasha/Bad Sasha” should be somebody else’s problem in 2011-12. He’s now new coach Dale Hunter’s problem, and hopefully next year, he’s some KHL team’s problem.
I’m sorry, but players like Semin don’t get it and won’t help you win a Stanley Cup. Then again, I’d love to be a fly on the wall the first time Semin comes back to the bench after taking a stick foul that costs the Caps a power play goal given Hunter’s reputation as a hard-ass dude.
Of course, one of the reasons for keeping Semin around has been because he’s BFFs with Ovechkin, who can now add coach-killer to his list of accolades. A cottage industry has popped up analyzing where things have gone wrong with Ovechkin, whose production and zest for the game seem to have disappeared.
There are a myriad of potential theories, and Ovechkin’s feud with Boudreau after the November 1 benching is just the latest to try to explain why the man who was once hockey’s most magnetic talent has morphed into a guy who doesn’t look like he’s having fun out there.
Theories range from “the league has caught up to him” to “he’s out of shape” to “he’s pressing.” Personally, I don’t think Ovechkin has been the same since his Team Russia was obliterated by Canada in the 2010 Olympics, followed by his suspension for boarding Chicago’s Brian Campbell. It was a one-two punch of misery, followed by the Caps’ shocking playoff ouster by Montreal that spring.
Something happened to Ovi mentally in Vancouver. I don’t know what it is, but the guy just hasn’t been the same. Maybe all the pressure and the criticism broke him. When he was called a dirty player after the Campbell hit, even being called reckless by his own coach, it changed his style. Ovechkin now plays cautiously when he should be playing like a bull in a china shop. Throw in the criticism of his celebrations, and I bet the guy felt like there was nothing he could do right.
Mind you, that’s no excuse for a man who has played listless hockey this season and is in the middle of a 13-year, $124 million contract. That contract gave Ovi power over his coach, and as long as he and Boudreau got along it was all good. But as soon as the relationship deteriorated, Ovechkin knew he wouldn’t be going anywhere. He always held the cards here.
The Caps have said they won’t replace Ovechkin as the captain, but you wonder if taking the leadership role away would ease the pressure.
One interesting statistical nugget: In 2007-08, Ovechkin scored 65 goals. Since being named captain on Jan. 5, 2010 (basically one-and-a-half seasons) Ovechkin has scored 64 goals. He’s gotta find his scoring touch soon, or the Caps are going nowhere. Again.
The good news for Hunter is that he’s been handed a much better roster than the one Boudreau inherited four years ago from Glen Hanlon. Unlike when Boudreau took over, the Caps are not mired deep in the bottom of the standings. The season is still young and the Caps have the talent to go places.
In my wrap of last year’s playoff loss, I compared the Caps to the late-90s, early 2000s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“Tony Dungy was the popular players coach who molded the young Bucs and taught them how to win. But the team had plateaued in the playoffs, never quite being able to get to the Super Bowl. In comes hard-ass Jon Gruden, who cracked the whip, didn’t tolerate any funny business, emphasized the details and gave the team the extra push it needed to win a championship.”
Is Hunter the Caps’ Gruden? We’ll soon find out.