Maybe I am just a bit out of touch with the political climate of the NHL, but Bruce Boudreau’s dismissal from the Washington Capitals took me wholly by surprise. I was aware things were less than rosy at the Verizon Center over the past months, as the hot 7-0 start that led many speculate this would be the year of Ovi quickly spiraled into a 5-10-1 record over the next 17 games. Furthermore, big scorers Ovechkin and Semin simply weren’t scoring like they had before. Ovi has hit twine just eight times this season, putting him on pace for around 30 goals yet again. Coming from a player capable of 50+ goal seasons and who carries the title of “GR8 One”, back to back 30 goal seasons (especially without lost time for injury) simply do not play. Ovi is supposed to be the gritty renegade challenger to league golden boy Sidney Crosby, not a slightly above average sniper.
It may seem unfair to pin the struggles of Ovechkin on Boudreau, were it not that Boudreau has vocally discussed his desires to focus on the defensive aspects of the team’s games. In theory it made sense; the Caps were notorious for giving up goals (they averaged 2.88 per game over the ’07-’09 seasons) and already had an established powerhouse of an offense, so lowering the goals against would only add to their dominance and possibly get them the elusive cup of Lord Stanley? Right. Indeed, the Caps did lower their GAA last season to 2.4, their best in over a decade. However, their high caliber offense took an even bigger hit, dropping off by 94 to a mere 224 goals in 2010-2011. Now, for the first time in five seasons, the Caps are looking at a negative goal differential (currently 71 goals for to 75 goals against) thanks to an abysmal 3.26 GAA. So if Boudreau’s goal was to improve the defense, he’s clearly not succeeded.
That’s not me saying Boudreau is a bad coach, far from it. He took a team that could barely make the playoffs and groomed them into one of the league’s regular season powerhouses. But the problem is his magic never seemed to carry to the playoffs for some reason or another. Maybe that’s not the kind of coach Boudreau is. He certainly became the scapegoat for the problem in Washington, and his recent clashes with superstar Ovechkin didn’t endear him to his fans. From a coaching standpoint, benching your all-star forward when he’s under-performing sends a message that he needs to shape up. From a PR standpoint, however, it makes you the villain, and from what I am gauging from online forums, the worm was beginning to turn for Boudreau’s image, at least among Cap fans.
Do I think a quarter-season coaching shuffle is the best thing for the club? It’s debatable. I think the organizational problems for the Caps run deeper than one person this season, but then again, a shake-up might knock the struggling team back on track. Getting a healthy Mike Green back will help too, but no NHL defense should hinge on a single player.
We’ll get to see a glimpse of things to come tonight when the Caps face their (somewhat fabricated) rivals the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight, and whether new coach and former Caps legend Dale Hunter will be able to whip the team back into shape. Sure, it’s early, but fans often demand quick dividends from such rash managerial shake-ups. Personally (in full Penguins bias mode), I don’t think it’s going to be pretty; the Pens have been the polar opposite of the Caps this year, finding ways to win even with missing stars. Having officially said that in writing, however, I am prepared to eat crow.
Meanwhile, Boudreau’s story ends happily enough: four days later he’s the new coach in Anaheim, hoping to work his magic on a similarly struggling team. He’s got potential superstars in Corey Perry and Jonas Hiller to work with. Will he work his magic again and turn the Ducks into perennial playoff contenders? It’ll be fun to see at least.