Monday, November 28, 2011

A New Era Begins

Day One in the Dale Hunter Era was not a happy one. Not when a predecessor gets word at 6:30 in the morning that he is being relieved, not when the team who is changing coaches is in the midst of a 5-9-1 slump, not when questions swirl about this player or that and whether they tuned out the departed coach.

Hunter did have a big grin on his face as he took the ice, though, and for a coach who is getting his first opportunity behind an NHL bench it was altogether understandable. It was a strange practice in a way, attended as it was by more than the usual contingent of fans (we didn’t anticipate going, but we are on a break, and hey, what the heck?), populated by the whole gamut of Washington hockey media (and those from other outlets), and the brain trust of the Caps – Ted Leonsis, Dick Patrick, and George McPhee – looking on from above.

The focus of the exercise was, of course, Hunter. It was not a typical practice in that Hunter spent the first 45 minutes of the noon session looking on as Dean Evason and Bob Woods ran the drills. Hunter was working the wall, stopping by players and sharing a few words (or in the case of Tomas Vokoun, a lot of whacks of Vokoun’s pads with his stick). Watching him linger a few minutes with Alexander Semin at the bench made one wonder, “will he be the one to pick the lock of Semin’s talent?” And one might have been wondering what Hunter said to Alex Ovechkin as they stood together at center ice – what they said, one captain to another.

In the last 20 minutes of the session, Hunter took more of a command role, drawing up plays on the white board at the Caps bench, probably an effort to feed them a little bit at a time after he looked on for 45 minutes wondering what he was that he inherited.

If anything, the players seemed energized, but given the state of the club the last few weeks it might have been a “first day of school” kind of energy when kids are trying to impress the new teacher. If the Dale Hunter that Caps fans knew for 12 seasons is the one taking over as coach, “new teacher” is going to give way to “stern taskmaster.” And for this team it will be quite a culture change. Change for the better? We have 60 games – and hopefully a lot more – to find out.

Here are some pics of this morning (which made us regret being downstairs trying to find a clear spot in the glass)…

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.

That Was The Week That Was -- Week 7 (November 20-26)

Week Seven was better than Week Six, but these things are relative. At least the Caps won twice this week. But since their 7-0-0 start they are 5-9-1 in their last 15 games. To put that into perspective, the worst team in the league, the Columbus Blue Jackets, are 6-7-2 in their last 15 games. Right now, this is not a very good hockey team.

Record for the week: 2-2-0

It is said that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. In other words, what have you done for us lately? And when you win the first two games of the week in barely get outta town fashion, then lose the last two by a combined 11-4 score, well…you didn’t finish the week very well. At the moment the Caps are on a pace for 93 points. If you are going to find a silver lining in that, it is that when the Caps went to their only Stanley Cup final, they finished the season with 92 standings points.

Offense: 3.00/game (season: 3.14/game, rank:4th)

If you are looking to rationalize the 12 goals for the week as not so bad, you do it by convincing yourself that the Rangers, Coyotes, and Sabres are all top-half teams in the league’s goals-against rankings. But the guys who have to produce are not. With Mike Green still out, that means Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Alexander Semin have to contribute on a regular basis, and this week was middling at best. For the week, this trio was 4-5-9 in four games. When one remembers that Jason Chimera scored three goals by himself, this total is not all that impressive. And that is especially so when one considers that Nicklas Backstrom was 2-3-5 for the week, a very good points output. The Alexes?... 2-2-4. Not awful, not good. A whole lot of “meh.”

Defense: 4.25 goals/game (season: 3.27, rank: 29th)

Awful. At the end of Week 2 the Caps had allowed 2.00 goals per game and were tied for the fifth best goals against per game in the league. As this week ends they are ranked 29th and have allowed 58 goals in their last 15 games (3.87/game). And here is the scary part. The 11 goals in consecutive games to end the week is the second time the Caps have done that in their last six games (they lost 4-1 and 7-1 decisions to Winnipeg and Toronto on November 17th and 19th). In their last 11 games they have allowed ten or more goals in consecutive games three times. The Caps had not allowed as many as ten goals in consecutive games since dropping a 3-2 decision to Colorado and a 7-0 decision to the New York Rangers last December. It is not as if teams are peppering the Caps with shots – 109 for the week. But 17 goals? That brings us to…

Goaltending: 4.22/.844

This was a communal suck for the week. Tomas Vokoun played in three of the games and allowed 11 goals on 76 shots (.855 save percentage). Michal Neuvirth allowed six goals on 33 shots in his only appearance for the week (.818), cementing his position as keeper of the baseball cap. When the week ended, Vokoun had four consecutive appearances with at least three goals allowed (seven of his last ten appearances), and Neuvirth had three of his own with at least three goals allowed (six of his eight appearances this season). Goaltending was not supposed to be a problem for this team. At the moment, it is.

Power Play: 2-for-16/12.5 percent (season: 16.3%, rank:16th)

It isn’t getting better, at least not much. This is a team that has not had more than one power play goal in a game since the last game of their 7-0-0 start. This week the Caps were 2-for-16. In 26 minutes and change of power play time they managed a total of 23 shots on goal. Alex Ovechkin had two of them in 14:25 of power play time. In 6:57 of power play time in three games, Alexander Semin did not have a shot on goal in the man advantage (that’s two weeks in a row without a power play shot on goal from Semin). What is worse, the Caps were outscored for the week on their own power play, allowing three shorthanded goals (one of those was a penalty shot). It did not matter a lot in the larger scheme of things – the Caps won the game in which they allowed two shorthanded goals and were already out of the game in which they allowed the third – but it was indicative a grisly week overall. As for the power play, though, does it all start with Mike Green? The Caps were 8-for-27 with him in those first seven games (29.6 percent), 6-for-59 since (10.2 percent). Here’s the thing. In those first seven games Green had three power play goals and was on the ice for each of the other five. Think it matters?

Penalty Killing: 10-for-11/90.9 percent (season: 80.0%, rank:T-22nd)

Hard to find a lot of fault here. Only 11 opportunities allowed; only once allowing more than two power play chances to opponents. And the Caps allowed only ten shots on goal in those 11 shorthanded situations in almost 16 minutes of shorthanded time. It was an especially welcome outcome after allowing three power play goals on five chances to Toronto to close the previous week.

Paying the Price: 130 hits/49 blocked shots (season rank: 15th/24th)

Getting more than 30 hits in a game might be a product of scoring idiosyncracies, but averaging more than 30 over a four-game week was indicative of at least trying to engage physically. Almost a third of those hits, though, came from Troy Brouwer (25) and Alex Ovechkin (17). Brouwer had a 10-spot in about 19 minutes of ice time in the 4-3 win over Winnipeg on Wednesday. Ovechkin had eight in the 6-3 loss to the Rangers on Friday. On the blocked shots, Karl Alzner had seven for the week, but none in either of the last two games of the week. But it was Dennis Wideman who led the Caps with eight – one fewer than the number of goals he was on the ice for in the four games. He was on the ice for nine of the last 13 goals scored against the Caps for the week.

Faceoffs: 118-for-234/50.4 percent (season: 50.4 percent, rank: T-15th)

The Caps won 48 of 82 draws in the defensive zone (58.5 percent) and still allowed 17 goals. That’s how bad things were on defense this week. All in all, Jeff Halpern had the best week in the circle, winning 24 of 35 draws (68.6 percent). What that meant was that the rest of the team was not all that great. Of the other big three on faceoffs – Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, and Marcus Johansson – they were 85-for-174 (48.9 percent). But hey, they did win something this week. Let’s not be too picky.

Turnovers: minus-28

The Caps lost every game and the week in this measure. They had 47 giveaways for the week, 30 more than they were charged with in the previous week. Almost a third of them were charged to Dennis Wideman (eight) and John Carlson (seven).


Two one-goal wins, two losses by at least three goals. It was not a good week for any individual or for the team. The losses are especially distressing. The two losses by three or more goals makes six in the last 14 games, four in the last six. Even in the eight game losing streak last season the Caps had only two losses of three or more goals. Five of the losses in that streak were of the one-goal variety, two of them in extra time. The Caps have now lost eight of their last 11 games, and only once did a loss come on a one-goal decision.

This week the Caps fell behind first in three of the four games and in fact gave up at least the first two goals each of those three games. It is the profile of a team that just is not playing well at all. At least in last year’s losing streak there was fight in the team, and they just were not being rewarded for effort. This team just does not have the look of one that cares very much at the moment. Last week we said that this was on the players, and we still believe that. But just as a coach sometimes pulls a goalie to send a message to the skaters, the coach might be “pulled” soon if the players can’t find their way out of this funk.

And this week does not provide a lot of promise in that regard. The Caps’ first opponent this week – St; Louis – has allowed more than two goals just once in 12 games in November. Pittsburgh, who visits on Thursday, is 3-0-1 since the return of Sidney Crosby (the loss came in overtime to St. Louis). Even Ottawa, the Caps’ opponent on Saturday, won three in a row before dropping decisions to Vancouver and the Penguins. They beat Carolina on Sunday.

With 60 games left, one would have to think the Caps will work this out at least well enough to secure a playoff spot. Right now, though, this is a team that doesn’t seem to be doing much right and seems to lack any urgency to correct their deficiencies. One would like to think that the low point was the last game, a 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres in which five Caps were a minus-3 or worse, and Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin were each a minus-4. Ovechkin had been as bad as a minus-4 only three times in his career before Saturday night (none since November 20, 2008), and Backstrom had recorded a minus-4 only once before (November 20, 2008). Both Ovechkin and Backstrom are minus-8 over their last 10 games.

In the end, over the last two weeks there is almost nothing anyone can point to and say, “this…this is what we can build on.” And that is a really bad place to be.

Three Stars of the Week: