Thursday, January 05, 2012

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 4: "Coaching Change"

We are down to the last four of the top-ten, and number four involves more personnel matters.

On November 21, 2007, the Washington Capitals sold 11,667 tickets to a Thanksgiving-eve game against the Atlanta Thrashers. It was the third smallest paid crowd of the 2007-2008 season to date, and unless a third of the crowd was dressed as purple seats, then the actual attendance might have been two-thirds of that number.

The Caps were having problems, on and off the ice.

Going into that game on that November night, the Caps had a 2-6-0 record at home and had drawn an average (paid) of 14,314 fans to those eight home games. The Caps were not giving fans a reason to attend, and the fans were obliging by not showing up. You would not think it could get worse…until the puck dropped to start that game.

The Caps actually showed signs of life in the first 25 minutes or so, getting a power play goal from Alex Ovechkin not three minutes into the second period to stake the Caps to a 1-0 lead against the Thrashers. Then the roof fell in on the home team. Atlanta answered with three goals before the second intermission, added two more after the intermission, abused the Caps with impunity in the third period (taking four minors – none of which were converted into power play goals – and a fighting major), and lost meekly to the Thrashers, 5-1.

Not 12 hours later, the Caps had a new coach. Whatever faults Glen Hanlon had as a bench boss, trying to get all that he could out of a young team such as the Caps was not among them. But by late November it was clear that the Caps just were not moving the needle on the improvement meter. Worse, they started looking ugly by staying in place. The Atlanta loss was their fifth in a row (by a combined score of 21-9) and their 15th in 18 games since opening the season on a three-game winning streak.

Enter Bruce Boudreau, who had compiled a 103-44-28 record in two-plus seasons with the Capitals’ AHL affiliate in Hershey, and who had gone to the Calder Cup finals in each of his two post-seasons with the Bears (winning the Calder Cup in 2006). Not much was expected, though.. The Caps were mired in 15th place – dead last in the Eastern Conference and with the worst record in the league (6-14-1) when Boudreau took over on an “interim” basis.

Boudreau won his first game, a 4-3 overtime decision against the Philadelphia Flyers remembered for Nicklas Backstrom’s game-winner but that also included a 3-0 Caps lead built in the first 35 minutes that they surrendered to the Flyers in the last 25 minutes. And it was not as if Boudreau had the Caps sprinting out of the gate of his tenure. Washington was 3-3-1 after Boudreau’s first seven games, but the important part of that is that the bleeding of standings points was arrested.

After a 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils in Boudreau’s seventh game, he led the Caps upward through the standings (getting the "interim" tag removed from his title on December 26th), compiling a 34-14-6 record culminating in a 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers in Game 82 to clinch the Southeast Division title and a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was an unprecedented “worst-to-first” climb for the Caps, and Boudreau was rewarded by winning the Jack Adams Award as top coach in the NHL.

Boudreau would go on to build a resume of more accomplishments than any of the 13 men who preceded him behind the Capitals’ bench. In addition to the Adams Award (the second Caps coach to win the award), he would compile a record of 201-88-40 in 329 games. His 201 wins represented the fastest-to-200 wins record of any coach in modern NHL history. He coached the Caps to four consecutive Southeast Division titles, two Eastern Conference titles, and a Presidents’ Trophy when the Caps became the first non-original six team (and only the fourth overall) to compile more than 120 points in an NHL regular season.

But there is where the problem arose – “regular season.” In his long and varied coaching career in a lot of cities before settling in Washington, Boudreau coached teams to the playoffs 12 times. He had two championships on his resume (one with Mississippi in the ECHL in addition to the title earned at Hershey) and two appearances in league finals (once with Hershey and once with Fort Wayne of the IHL). But on seven occasions his teams were eliminated in the first round (including five in a row between Lowell and Manchester of the AHL before moving to Hershey).

The post-season troubles continued in Washington, where his Caps could not beat a team not playing their home games in Manhattan. The Caps did beat the New York Rangers twice in opening round series (2009 and 2011), but they would lose in the second round in those years, and in the other two years were eliminated in the first round by Philadelphia (2008) and Montreal (2010).

Boudreau brought a hell-bent-for-leather approach to his team, one that was entertaining to watch on most nights (at least until the spring) and confounding to watch when the games mattered more. Still, that style married well to the young and appealing talents the Caps had – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green in particular – brought fans to the stands to such a degree that “Rocking the Red” became the phrase identified with Capitals hockey, and the Verizon Center was filled every night (the Caps have recorded more than 100 consecutive sellouts and probably will not end that run soon).

It was this mixture of regular season success, an exciting team, and disappointments in the playoffs that was the stew served up to start the 2011-2012 season. The disappointments in the playoffs were defining Boudreau’s tenure in Washington as much as anything else, and he was on a short list of NHL head coaches thought to be in jeopardy of being replaced.

That talk was set aside as the Caps stormed out to a 7-0-0 record to start the 2011-2012 season. But that start hid some serious problems. First, that record was compiled against something less than top-flight competition. In those seven games the Caps beat two teams that struggled to start the season (Carolina and Tampa Bay) and two other not thought of as especially strong, even if they are currently playoff-eligible (Ottawa and Florida). Further, the Caps faced no fewer than five backup goaltenders and another (Dwayne Roloson) who has had considerable trouble repeating last year’s performance in Tampa.

The Caps’ streak ended with consecutive losses to Edmonton and Vancouver on the road, leading up to a home game against the Anaheim Ducks. With the Ducks holding a 4-3 lead in the third period with just over one minute to play in regulation, Bruce Boudreau did two things. First, he pulled his goaltender to go with six skaters. Second, he did not send Alex Ovechkin out as one of those skaters. Backstrom mad Boudreau look like a genius when he scored the game-ying goal with 42 seconds left (the Caps would win on a Backstrom goal in overtime), but the subplot of Ovechkin sitting on the bench in what would normally be considered “Ovi-time” appearing to mouth the words, “fat f**k,” after his teammates got their instructions at the bench and Boudreau told him he was not going out on the ice was what had hockey wags buzzing.

It did not help that following that win against Anaheim (Ovechkin was on the ice for the overtime winner), the Caps would go 2-5-1 in their next eight games, starting a slide that rekindled talk of Boudreau’s job security. Wins over Phoenix and Winnipeg just before Thanksgiving did not stop the bleeding, only interrupted it. The Caps would lose on “Black Friday” to the Rangers, 6-3. But the telling game came next, one in which the Caps played perhaps the ugliest game for the franchise since the lockout, a 5-1 loss in Buffalo to a Sabres team decimated by injuries that resembled their AHL affiliate Rochester Americans more than a bona fide NHL roster.

It would be simplistic to say that a coaching change was the product of one event, although there were quite a few “one event’s” leading up to that last weekend in November. There were the playoff losses to teams such as Montreal and Tampa Bay thought to be the Caps' lessers in talent.  There was training camp last September in which a new sense of “accountability” was the rule and no one was exempt from it, not even a former Hart Trophy winner. There was the parceling of ice time that reduced Ovechkin’s ice time from the 20-plus average he had been carrying to the high teens. There was the tight leash on the offense that might have been accepted the previous season when the Caps were searching for a way out of what would be an eight-game losing streak, but that might have been seen too much as “eat your vegetables” by players who had considerable skill to show off. There was the night against Anaheim and “The Benching.” There was the inexplicable inability to win a game on the road (the Caps were 2-7-0 on the road from October 27th through November 26th in which they were outscored, 38-20, and managed only a single goal in each of the last four games of that stretch). Finally, there was the ugly loss to what was little more than a minor league team.

What might have been the last straw, though, was a comment Boudreau made after the 5-1 loss to Buffalo. When asked how a team has to prevail in the face of adversity, he said:

“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.”

Coaches do not have the luxury of saying “I don’t know” in answer to a question of how they will get their team back on track when they falter. But in that moment, one had to know that for all his experience behind a bench in so many cities, riding so many buses, Bruce Boudreau had run out of answers of how to pull this team out of the ditch.

Not 12 hours later, Boudreau was relieved as head coach. The circle was complete, almost four years to the day from when its arc began.

The Caps might have gone a safe route and brought in a coach with an accomplished NHL resume. One could cobble together an argument that this team needed someone with bona fides as an NHL coach to keep the players on the straight and narrow path. But the Caps apparently do not do that. This is a team that hired one AHL coach from another organization (Bruce Cassidy), promoted another from within their own (Glen Hanlon), then went that route one more time (Boudreau). This time, the Caps named Dale Hunter – he of the 872 games played as a Capital – as head coach. Hunter had compiled an enviable record as head coach of the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League – more than 450 wins in 10-plus seasons, including an unfathomable 59-7-2 record and a Memorial Cup in 2004-2005. But he had no experience behind the bench of a professional hockey team at any level.

How the Caps would respond to this relic of the club’s past (one way to look at it) would be critical to the matter of whether this team could finally reach – or at least approach – its potential to win a Stanley Cup. It did not look promising at first. The Caps lost their first game under Hunter (a 3-1 decision against St. Louis – with their own mid-season replacement behind the bench in Ken Hitchcock, a coach with plenty of NHL experience) and went 1-3-0 in their first four games under the new coach, the only win in overtime against Ottawa.

That might be the low point, though. The Caps finished the 2011 portion of the 2011-2012 season with a 7-3-1 record under Hunter in their last dozen games, including wins in the last three games of the year.  That represented their longest winning streak since the seven-game streak to start the season. Hunter seems to have refreshed (or at least has been around to benefit from) Alex Ovechkin and his return to productivity after a long slump. Ovechkin finished 8-6-14, plus-3, in 15 games to close the year, but he was 6-3-9, plus-5 in his last six games of 2011. What is more, since a 5-1 loss to Philadelphia on December 13th, the Caps allowed only 14 goals in eight games to end 2011 while scoring 22 of their own.

Coaching changes in any team sport are as common as raindrops in Seattle. But the twists and turns leading up to the change behind the Caps bench, starting years before the change was made, and all the intrigue leading up to the change make this one of the top ten stories for the Washington Capitals in 2011.