“You are rewarding a teacher poorly
if you remain always a pupil.”
-- Friedrich Nietzsche
The players had their turn, now it’s the guys not wearing numbers on their backs.
The year started under a cloud. Bruce Boudreau started the season as the third-winningest coach in Washington Capitals franchise history (189 wins) and was one of only two Jack Adams Award winners for the Caps (Bryan Murray being the other). He was the only coach to lead the Capitals to two 50-win seasons in franchise history. But despite his record of achievement, there was the matter of the Capitals being swept out of the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Add that to the disappointing performance of the 2009-2010 edition of the Caps, the one that won the league’s Presidents Trophy and then lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, and Boudreau was a coach on the hot seat to start the 2011-2012 season.
The clouds parted for a time when the club sped out of the gate, winning its first seven games. That would turn out to be an illusion. In five of those seven games the Caps would face their opponents’ backup goaltender. Four of the games would be one-goal decisions, three of them in extra time, a thin margin of decision. Five of the games would be in the friendly confines of Verizon Center, where the Caps had been difficult to beat in the regular season the previous three years (84-22-17).
The streak came to an abrupt end at the hands of an unexpected source. The Edmonton Oilers ended the streak when the Caps took to the road for their first western swing of the year. And against the precocious Oilers the things that would cause the Caps’ early season unraveling were exposed – too many shots from the perimeter with little purpose (35 shots on Nikolai Khabibulin), quiet performances from the players expected to contribute (no points from any of the three “Young Guns” playing in this game, Mike Green out with an injury), inopportune penalties (nine minor penalties) and an inability to kill them off (both Oiler goals scored on the power play). In all, it added up to a 2-1 loss.
Things got worse – quickly. The Caps followed up their first loss of the season with a 7-4 loss in Vancouver in which the Caps allowed three first period and three third period goals. Then there was the next game, at home against Anaheim, in which the fractures hidden below the surface might have been laid bare. With the Caps trailing the Anaheim Ducks by a goal and barely a minute left in regulation, Boudreau chose to leave captain Alex Ovechkin on the bench as the Caps pulled goalie Tomas Vokoun for an extra skater. Ovechkin muttering an epithet under his breath was captured on video, but it hardly seemed to matter when the Caps scored to force overtime, then won in the extra session.
We do not believe that one could draw a bright line from Ovechkin’s benching to what would happen three weeks later, but it was a clear indication that things were not all well. The Caps were being uncovered as something of a mirage, not as good as their seven-game start suggested. And when the Caps went 2-5-1 after their win over Anaheim, the rumbling got louder.
Washington won its two games immediately before the Thanksgiving holiday, but lost in embarrassing fashion at home to the New York Rangers in a matinee game on the day after Thanksgiving. The Rangers scored three goals in the first eight minutes of the second period and coasted from there to what was to that point their best offensive output of the season, a 6-3 win over the Caps. That set up a game in Buffalo the following night. The Caps would catch a break in that game, the Sabres having to ice a team that was missing nine regulars, including number one goaltender Ryan Miller. But the Sabres scored twice in the first period to give them the sense that they could win despite the absences, and would light up Tomas Vokoun for three more. The Caps managed only a penalty shot goal by Jason Chimera, and the Caps were embarrassed once more, 5-1. After that 7-0-0 start, the Caps were now 12-9-1 and in ninth place in the Eastern Conference.
Bruce Boudreau was fired two days later. General Manager George McPhee expressed the problem thusly, “The reason for the change was we weren’t winning, obviously, and this wasn’t a slump. You can ride out slumps. This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce.”
By this time, the ledger of plusses and minuses in Boudreau’s approach had tilted heavily to the minus side. On the plus side, as a hockey lifer he had compiled an encyclopedic knowledge of the game. And, he had won championships at two stops in the minor leagues. He was widely viewed as a “players’” coach, one who would give the players a considerable amount of on-ice freedom to express their skills (although this might have been overplayed somewhat as an absence of structure).
On the other side, Boudreau had reengineered his approach twice in less than 12 months. From the pressure offense that he employed to great success in his first two and a half seasons (the problems against the Canadiens in the 2010 playoffs notwithstanding), he retooled the club into a defense-first, trapping team after an eight-game losing streak in December 2010. Then, after the second-round sweep at the hands of Tampa Bay in the 2011 playoffs, he came to camp looking to impose an “accountability” regime. What the Caps were left with was a team that could score (3.14 goals per game in the 22 games under Boudreau), but had reverted to old (read: bad) habits on defense – 3.27 goals/game, but truth be told, that might have been as much a product of poor goaltending as bad team defense.
If the players were not listening to the coach, was it a case of too many messages in too short a time? Whatever the reason, a change was made, and Dale Hunter, perhaps the most revered player in team history, was named head coach. Many thought that the hire would instill a sense of fire among the players, that somehow Hunter could impart his hard-edged style to a team that might have had too many peripheral players, too many floaters.
What they got was almost hockey’s equivalent of the rope-a-dope. The Capitals were not an especially aggressive forechecking team, and they did not produce on the other end of the ice at in a manner consistent with what was perceived as their skill level. In fact, the Caps started quite slow under their new coach. They scored one goal in five of their first nine games under Dale Hunter (2.33 goals/game). Their defense showed some improvement (two or fewer goals in six of those nine games; 2.56 goals/game), but the Caps were still only 4-4-1.
The Caps seemed to get whatever it was Hunter was trying to communicate starting in the games just before the new year. Starting with a 4-1 win over Nashville on December 20th, the Caps would not score fewer than two goals in nine consecutive contests (3.00 goals/game). Their defense seemed stuck, though, still allowing 2.56 goals per game. It left the Caps still largely treading water in terms of wins and losses, going 5-3-1 in those nine games.
It would be a problem that the Caps had for the rest of the regular season. You will recall that in the last three seasons, the Caps have had nine separate winning streaks of at least five games. Under Dale Hunter the Caps could not get enough traction to peel off more than three wins at a time. In Hunter’s 60 regular season games the Caps had a pair of four-game winning streaks and a pair of three-game winning streaks. But they also had three three-game losing streaks as well. It made for an overall record of 30-23-7 over 60 games, which was actually a slightly lower points pace (91.6 over 82 games) than that compiled by Bruce Boudreau in his 22 games (93.2 points).
The Caps made the playoffs – barely, clinching a spot in Game 81, but their history of ups and downs and their net minus in goals for/goals against under Hunter (2.48 GF/G; 2.57 GA/G) left the Caps as something less than a dominant team and one that would play close to the edge in its games (27 of the 60 games under Hunter one-goal decisions). Making things more difficult for Hunter was the fact that he would go into the playoffs with what was the number three goaltender on the depth chart – Braden Holtby – his other two netminders (Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun) injured.
And close to the vest is how Hunter played it. The Caps were hardly an offensive powerhouse, scoring only 29 goals in 14 games (2.07/game). But they were stingy, allowing only 30 goals in those 14 games (2.14/game). By deploying a strategy that emphasized collapsing in front of the net and defending shots, whatever shortcomings or nerves that might have accompanied Braden Holtby to the net for 14 games were minimized allowing him to finish the playoffs as the only goaltender not named Jonathan Quick to have a goals against average of 1.95 or lower and a save percentage of .935 or higher. The result was a lot of close games (13 of 14 being one-goal decisions, seven of which the Caps won)
Looking at their respective records this season…
(click pic for larger image)
…Hunter realized some marginal improvement in the performance numbers, but in terms of standings points earned could not much drag these Caps toward an improved performance level any more than could Bruce Boudreau.
In a way, Hunter’s performance might signal a fundamental problem with this team. It was built and nurtured with one style of hockey in mind, that being one that allowed for an expression of offensive skill. The core four of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green have been, for most of their respective careers, primarily offensive players. To that add a Brooks Laich, who improved his goals and points production in the Boudreau years, or a Dennis Wideman, who could be considered more an “offensive” defenseman. Youngsters coming through the system have substantial offensive gifts – John Carlson, Mathieu Perreault, Marcus Johansson.
This was not a team engineered to “grind” out wins. It was arguably most successful when it steamrolled opponents. This presented Hunter with a problem. How could he implement a style that he evidently preferred that might not have been a good match for his roster? You might argue that Bruce Boudreau got this roster to adopt a more trapping style of play when they endured an eight-game losing streak in the 2010-2011 season. True enough. But did it have staying power as a mind-set among the players? Evidently not. As George McPhee pointed out when Boudreau was dismissed, “the players were no longer responding to Bruce.”
Given the cards he was dealt, perhaps what Hunter was left with was a situation of having to implement what he could in “chewable bites” to a roster not necessarily structured to be a team of cautious, patient counter-punchers. This idea manifested itself with clarity in the playoffs, where the Capitals played games so close to the vest that the largest lead they ever held lasted all of 4:56 (Game 2 of the second round series against the Rangers). Not only did they shutter their attack when holding one-goal leads, Hunter all but shouted that certain players would not be trusted late with one-goal leads, most notably the captain himself, Alex Ovechkin. That might have been an acknowledgment of a particular reality with this team. It was not equipped to play with the 200-foot discipline that allows for attack when opportunities arise, balanced with responsibility to know when those opportunities are not present and to play sound defensive hockey.
In the end, we are left with a bifurcated coaching situation in the 2011-2012 season – two coaches with very different philosophies, with very different personalities, but in the end with all too similar results.
On the one hand there is Bruce Boudreau, hockey’s “everyman,” a coach who has probably logged more bus miles in his career than half the drivers for Greyhound Lines. A coach who wears his emotions on his sleeve and says what’s on his mind. A coach who favors a pressure style that puts opponents back on their heels. For most of his tenure in Washington, it was a style that meshed with the talent available. But his personality almost got in the way by the end. A “players’ coach” who preached “accountability;” a pressure coach who now taught a trapping style. That the players spit the bit was, in retrospect, not all that surprising. This is not to absolve the players of blame; they, after all, had it pretty good with an accommodating coach who imparted a style to their liking, and they still did not meet expectations. But too many changes – in style and temperament – in too short a time doomed Boudreau.
It left Dale Hunter almost in a no-win situation. He inherited a team adrift and a situation in which he might not have had a practical path to implement his own style in its entirety to this team. It was one more change -- more passive, less opportunistic; more disciplined, less explosive. He fed them as much as they could seemingly handle, and it made for a more boring game, to be sure. But it provided enough structure that the team could function at a high enough level to make the playoffs. It was not, however, a style that could realistically be held together to keep winning long playoff series characterized by too many one-goal games. If a team plays enough of those games, chance events – a player missing an open net in overtime, another player taking a penalty late in a one-goal game – take on outsized importance.
Bruce Boudreau was not as bad a coach as he might have seemed at the end; a lack of maturity on the part of the players has to explain a good portion of the nose-dive after the seven-game winning streak to open the season. And Dale Hunter was not nearly as boring – at least in philosophy – as it might have seemed watching his team late in the season and in the playoffs. Both did what they could do with what they had. It just was not nearly enough for this team or these coaches. One hopes that the players will have learned that despite the difficulties this season, there were lessons to take forward from each of these coaches. Because now, it really is on them.