Monday, November 28, 2011

Two Coaches, Same End

Hockey is a strange sport. Not more so than when it comes to coaching. There are two poles on the hockey coaching axis. One is “system.” Different coaches have different schemes, different philosophies, different approaches to the “X’s” and “O’s.” But whatever “system” a coach uses, it imposes a certain structure on a team. Roles are well defined, players know where they need to be and what they need to do when they get there. Repetition, familiarity, reliability. Systems are the constant. And they almost never, ever, are the reason a coach is relieved of his duties.

At the other pole is “motivation.” These are the dark arts of coaching, always in motion, methods always in need of refreshment. What motivates a team or a player today might not work a month from now. Different players need different approaches; the same team at different points on the calendar need different motivations. Here there is no structure. Variety, spontaneity, imagination. And this is almost always the underlying reason a coach is fired.

Bruce Boudreau was relieved of his duties as head coach of the Washington Capitals this morning, almost four years to the day since he was named head coach – November 22, 2007. And there is an eerie similarity between his departure and that of his predecessor, Glen Hanlon. In talking about that Thanksgiving Day, 2007, and his dismissal of Glen Hanlon, General Manager George McPhee said:
"He knew as soon as he saw me this morning. He said, 'I wouldn't have known what to do today.' "
Compare that to what Bruce Boudreau said after the Caps’ 5-1 loss to Buffalo on Saturday when asked how a team recovers from adversity:
“It’s got to come from within, I’ve got to believe. 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.”
Two coaches, two instances of having nothing left with which to motivate. Hanlon was lost without a remedy; Boudreau knew what the Caps needed but admitted to not knowing how to get them there.

And that is how a room is “lost.” It is not as if the players did not, or do not want to win. It was not, and is not a case of a coach suddenly becoming stupid. It was, and is, a case of a coach no longer having anything left in the bag to motivate his team to be their best. There is no message left to impart to the players, they are no longer listening.

Few coaches get to leave on their terms, and even if Bruce Boudreau is one of the many and not of the few, it bears noting just how accomplished his tenure here has been:

-- In 329 games, posted a record of 201-88-40. He won 61 percent of the games he coached.
-- Fastest head coach to 200 wins in modern NHL history.
-- Coached Caps to a 54-15-13 record in 2009-2010, the best record in franchise history and the best most standings points ever recorded by a non-original six team.
-- Only coach in Caps history to lead team to consecutive 50-win seasons.
-- Winning coach in the Caps first and only appearance in the NHL Winter Classic.
-- Won Jack Adams Award (2008) as NHL’s top coach.
-- Second in total wins in franchise history (201; Bryan Murray had 343).

But in the end there are only so many tricks and strategies a coach can use to motivate his team. Systems are constants (although Boudreau radically altered his in mid-season last year), but motivation is a constantly changing challenge. Generally, you can see the end coming…more frequent changes (lines, drills, etc.), more evident frustration, self-doubt creeping into the coach’s comments, body English that screams of the ever-widening gulf between coach and players. It all adds up to the oft-used (and abused) phrase, “losing the room.”

Bruce Boudreau was a coach of a certain type, what one might call a “players coach.” He gave players a long leash, but it was not as effective as anyone would have liked in terms of post-season results. This year was going to be different. Boudreau was going to be the “accountability” coach. If a player did not meet his standards, he would not be allowed to play out of it. He would sit. It did not matter if it was a youngster, such as Marcus Johansson. It did not matter if it was a highly-regarded free agent, such as Tomas Vokoun, who sat in the season opener. If did not matter if it was the Captain, who was benched for a last shift with the Caps on the wrong side of a one goal game.

But if a coach has spent three years cultivating and nurturing a relationship with players that gave them a lot of freedom, how credible can that coach be when he tries to be the demanding parent? It did not work, and nowhere did it work worse than with the Captain. The body English between Boudreau and Alex Ovechkin just never seemed the same after that benching against Anaheim in the first game of the month. And if the choice comes down to a player with nine years remaining on his contract and who is the franchise, for all intents and purposes, and a coach who – however skilled he might be – is as replaceable a commodity as there is in pro sports, there is no choice to be made. Bruce Boudreau is the casualty.

Any teams contemplating a coaching change for the rest of this season is going to have Boudreau on their short list of candidates. Although is future in Washington has come to an end, he has one in the NHL. He will have choices.

Meanwhile, in Washington the focus will shift to Dale Hunter, named as Boudreau’s replacement. Hunter has no NHL coaching experience, either as an assistant or a head coach. But two things should be noted. First, he has a record of 451-189-23-25 in 10-plus years as head coach at London in the Ontario Hockey League. Second, it is worthwhile to remember this record when one considers that before he ascended to the Pittsburgh Penguins and led them to a championship, Dan Bylsma had a total of 54 games of head coaching experience at any level, the NHL not among them.

Hunter was a particular type of player. There are those who will remember him as dirty, but what Caps fans will remember is a player having an impeccable work ethic on the ice. And he certainly had results in London – three seasons of 50 or more wins (in a 68-game season) and on pace for a fourth this season, an amazing 59-7-2 season in 2004-2005, six divisional championships, ten playoff appearances, a Memorial Cup championship.

If Bruce Boudreau did not quite know how to teach this team to be tough, things might change in a hurry in Washington. In 19 seasons in the NHL, no one could lay claim to being a tougher player than Dale Hunter. And he has a certain credibility in one respect that neither Glen Hanlon nor Bruce Boudreau could claim – Hunter has played in a Stanley Cup final. And that is the standard now.

It’s a tough job for a tough guy.


Anonymous said...

When do the FIRE OVIE chants begin? Just kidding. Kind of. I hope I am wrong, but Ovie is now a coach-killer and he better change his prima donna ways or Hunter will rip that C right off him.

Caps Nut said...

"Coach Killer?" By what metric?

Captain A.O. has now had the exact same number of Head Coaches in the NHL as Crosby.

Would you call Crosby a "Coach Killer"??? His first coach lasted only 31 games!

jrix68 said...

Olczyk wasn't a coach, he was a broadcaster with friends in the right places.

Anonymous said...

"Coach killer" is perhaps too harsh a term to describe A.O.'s impact on the firing of Boudreau. Still, the fabric of their relationship was irreparably torn that night against the Ducks when Boudreau sat A.O. for the game's final minute when the Caps were seeking to tie the game.

As a former Caps Captain, Hunter can surely teach A.O. a thing or two about what it means to wear the C for this team. Hunter also could teach A.O. a thing or two about putting out 100% effort, and not stand around watching while an opposition player zooms past to score a goal.

Hunter is a disciplinarian, which is what the Caps need in spades. It's what A.O. needs in spades. A.O. lost respect for Boudreau and tuned him out, oblivious to any suggestions about how to improve himself. Hunter's cred as a former NHL player and Caps captain might provide A.O. with more motivation to put playing hockey first and his extracurricular off-ice activities second.

The Peerless said...

It is perhaps worth noting that from Christmas until Michel Therrien was fired, Crosby was 7-18-25, minus-8 in 22 games. He got his points, but that minus-8 stands out, especially since he was a plus-10 before Christmas that season. Ovechkin has 17 points in 22 games and is a minus-7. One is a "coach killer," the other is...well, Crosby.

Go figure.

Caps Nut said...

Well, using the term didn't stop you the first time and it hasn't stopped others from using it as well.

As somebody else pointed out, Boudreau was there for four years which is longer than any coach Jerome Iginla has had during his NHL career. Is Iginla a "coach killer"?

Tuned out his coach? Maybe, but four years is a long time for a coach, Boudreau was the fifth longest tenured coach in the NHL and every other team in the Southeast had turned over their coaches twice since Boudreau was hired. So is tuning out the coach after four years that bad of a thing?

Finally, I just want to point out two other things to put this whole silly notion to bed. First of all Karl Alzner's quote after the Ning series ended last May, "Everything we did, they had an answer for." The entire locker room knew that Boudreau had been out coached by Boucher. Why would anybody in the locker room listen to a coach that they don't believe can get them over the hump? Secondly, McPhee in his presser yesterday said that he wasn't happy with things during training camp and the preseason. But he held off because the team got off to a 7-0 start. All of that preceeded Captain A.O.'s benching against Anaheim.

I'm not saying that Captain A.O. is above reproach or that he doesn't need to mature some more, but pointing to November 1st and calling him a coach-killer is the quick and easy but also wrong way to explain what happened.

Anonymous said...

In sports, it's always the coach that goes. Much easier to fire one then a lot (read: players). But, to say Ovie is not to blame here just as much as BB is ludicrous. He hasn't been the same player, in my opinion, since Fleury made the glove save on him after that breakaway in Game 7. Had he scored there, things would be entirely different right now. Mainly for Ovie though. BB would probably still be the coach but since that play Ovie has not been the same. I call him a coach-killer since he is the Captain, and he stopped playing hockey in the last 10 or so games. The Capitals go the way he goes, and when he doesn't give a shit, the team doesn't care.

It sucks it had to come to this since, in my opinion, BB should have been fired after Game 7 of the Montreal series. But, GMGM still doesn't get it and it took Ovie not giving a shit to get BB fired. That's not good. Your Captain, no matter what, should always care. Even if he doesn't agree with the coach or like the scheme, he should care.

The real person to blame in my opinion is GMGM. It had to come to this for BB to be fired?? Not losing a 3-1 series lead to an 8th seed. Not getting swept by a lower seed in the second round. Yes, GMGM mentioned things in training camp were not great but then they started 7-0. SO WHAT? They were still the same team, and they were winning games during the 7-0 run that they should NOT have won and BB was not doing anything to let the team know that even though they won, they played like crap. Winning games you should lose but praising the team for winning, I think, breeds disaster. HOPEFULLY Hunter lets the team know that they can't be happy about winning a 6-5 game or having to battle back and win a game in OT or a shootout are good things. That is how a team gets swept in the playoffs or struggles with lower seeds.

Right now it is premature to call Ovie a coach-killer, but if the same stuff happens with Hunter, then the term may prove to be true.