Don't Bring Me Down Bruce: Evaluating Boudreau on the eve of the playoffs

This was originally a response to a FanPost by fat daddyo. To paraphrase his post, he suggested, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that the Capitals might want to consider firing coach Bruce Boudreau as a means of snapping the team out of its funk prior to the playoffs. The inspiration for this idea was the Devils' firing of coach Robbie Ftorek prior to the 2000 Stanley Cup playoffs, which the Devils went on to win. 

The general response to this suggestion was, to put it mildly, overwhelmingly negative, and I was no different. However, I sensed a feeling in the comments that I've seen before, sometimes here at the Rink, but more frequently on places like the Caps Insider responses. The gist of this sentiment is, "In Bruce We Trust." Essentially, Boudreau has done such an amazing job turning around the fortunes of this recently moribund franchise, that his decisions are largely unquestioned. It's as though many fans have chosen to blindly trust him. While I think Boudreau is an outstanding coach, and I would never suggest that he be removed from his position, I also think that blind faith tends to leave one in the dark. I order to counter what I termed the "rose-colored optimism" of many Caps fans toward Boudreau, I wrote the following analysis. 


Boudreau has definite weaknesses as a coach. I still think it would be ludicrous to fire him, but there are several issues that I think need addressing.

1. Over the course of the season, this team has essentially become entirely dependent upon the PP for offense. This is especially odd because at the beginning of the season, the PP was struggling and the Caps were monstrous 5-5. What worries me about this is that: a) there are fewer penalties in the playoffs, and b) other teams have figured this out and focus a great deal on not taking penalties when playing the Caps.

2. Closely tied to point 1, the Caps simply refuse to go to the net consistently as a team. This makes opposing goalies look better than they really are, while depriving the team of the “ugly” secondary goals that every team needs to win consistently, particularly in the playoffs. Moreover, going to the net and other high-traffic areas is a sure-fire way to draw penalties, but the Caps don’t do it and thereby decrease their scoring opportunities even further.

This isn’t a new problem; it’s been a constant sore point in Boudreau’s post-game comments, in on-air analysis by commentators, and it’s a frequent topic of discussion here at the Rink. So if the problem is clearly identified, why hasn’t it been fixed by this point? My feeling is that the fault for this is one part personnel (GMGM) and two parts coaching. It’s no secret that the Caps are loaded with skill players, particularly European skill players. The style of hockey they grew up playing, and that they excel at, is not the ol’ North American “chuck it at the net and whack at the rebound” style of hockey (AKA The Esposito-Smyth Method). That being said, that Caps’ third and fourth lines are made up primarily of North American players who excel at just that kind of hockey. Guys like Brooks Laich, and at times Eric Fehr, who Mike Vogel once told me would be the “poor-man’s Tomas Holmstrom,” have shown the willingness (albeit with sporadic execution) to go to the net. However, neither of these guys gets sufficient ice time, particularly on the power play. How often have we complained about watching Tomas Fleischmann skate ineffectually around the perimeter for 15-17 minutes per game while Fehr dutifully skates his 11 minutes of even-strength time? If it’s obvious to us, it’s obvious to the video scouts and the coaching staff. . . and yet nothing has changed.*

(*See Below)

To connect this point to JP’s post this morning about Tom Poti, the unwillingness to go to the net also impacts the defensemen’s ability to score. When players go to the net, teams tend to collapse defensively around them. This does two things. First, it leaves the points with time and space to take well-aimed slapshots. Second, it effectively doubles the traffic in front of the net, since a defenseman presents just as much of an impediment to his goalie’s vision as the forward he’s trying to guard. The net result of this is more shots by defensemen, more traffic in front of the goalie, more “seeing-eye” goals, more deflections, and more penalties drawn. The Caps just plain don’t do any of this with consistency.

3. The penalty kill is still an area of weakness, and it has been all season. While it’s true that many of the Caps’ best penalty killers have been injured (such as Poti and now Gordon), this isn’t an excuse. Many teams with far less talent manage to kill penalties more effectively than the Caps. This is especially problematic given point 4. . .

4. The Caps continually take stupid, lazy penalties. We all know exactly what I’m talking about. Certain players on this team (Semin, Nylander, Jurcina and Erskine) take an enormous amount of lazy stick infractions, particularly in the offensive or neutral zone. For all the talk by Boudreau this season, the situation doesn’t really seem to have improved and nobody’s ice time changed as a result. Yes, Nylander doesn’t play much anymore, but that has more to do with the fact that he’s just generally useless in this system and less to do with his stick infractions.

5. In part, some of these unnecessary penalties can be chalked up to what I see as Boudreau’s biggest weakness: line matching. When players are caught out against the wrong line, they do whatever it takes to play defense, which often results in penalties. I don’t know if Bruce just doesn’t care to match lines at all until the 2nd half of the 3rd period, or if he’s just really bad at matching personnel, but his line choices often leave me scratching my head. This is most pronounced at home where the Caps have the second change. For example, in the last home loss, I counted no less than three times when the Caps rolled out the 4th line of Bradley-Gordon-Brashear against the Crosby-Malkin line. That was an egregiously poor decision which led to at least one goal against and a penalty. Those kinds of mistakes can torpedo a playoff run.

I’m certainly not saying that Bruce should be fired, but I think that we should collectively take off our rose-colored glasses and realize that, while he’s a good coach, there is a lot of room for improvement. I for one am particularly concerned about the problem areas, such as the PK and traffic in front of the net, that have shown zero to little improvement over the course of the season. There seems to be a pervasive attitude of “In Bruce We Trust,” and I’m not sure that’s totally justified. The guy has a little over one year of NHL coaching under his belt – it’s not like he’s Toe Blake, Al Arbour or Scotty Bowman.

Now, before we all go and get overly pessimistic, I’m now going to caveat my own posting by saying that I think part of the reason that the Caps have been so inconsistent since the All-Star break is not necessarily Boudreau’s fault. First, this team has had a playoff spot all but locked up since New Year’s. We’ve seen what kind of deleterious effect that can have on teams like Boston and even San Jose to some extent.

Second, and I think this is probably more important, the Caps haven’t had any prolonged periods without games since the break. Boudreau constantly stresses how important consistent practices are for getting the team to adhere to his system, so it would follow that the Caps would benefit from a break. Looking at the schedule, they had one three-day break after the All-Star Game in January and one more in February. The results after those breaks?

January= 4 wins (Detroit, Ottawa, NJ and Fla) 1 loss (LA), 23 goals for, 14 goals against. 
February= 6 wins (Tampa, Fla, Montreal, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Boston) 2 losses (Colorado and Philly) and one shootout loss in NY to the Rangers. 33 goals for, 27 goals against.

Crucially, after that brutal stretch of games with just two two-day breaks in February ending with the win in Boston, the Caps proceeded to poop the proverbial bed, losing their next four in a row to Florida, Carolina, Toronto and Pittsburgh (in the shootout), with 8 goals for and 17 goals against.

(BTW, if you’re checking my numbers, they may look odd, because I’m counting shootout winning goals. I don’t know if the NHL does this officially or not. I was using the team schedule calendar.)

So what does this (extremely) long-winded post mean? Primarily, Bruce should be treated like any other coach. He's not Hockey Moses, come to lead us out of the hockey desert after 35 years. Heck, he's not even Scotty Bowman. He's human, and just like the rest of us he makes mistakes. His team will have shortcomings that reflect those mistakes. We don't need to get on him for every little thing, but we should most definitely call him out when there are glaring issues with this team that have been evident since the beginning of the season. Have events (injuries, illness, schedule) conspired to make his task more difficult? Surely they have, but the NHL doesn't engrave the excuses of the runners-up on the Stanley Cup. 

So as to not finish on a down note, as Caps fans, we should take heart in two things. First, Bruce is clearly his own man and he's confident enough in himself to admit mistakes. Remember the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Nylander debacle of a line before the trading deadline? Haven't seen that one since, and good riddance. I can think of any number of other instances, but the news from today's practice is more important: after months of harping on his players to create traffic in front of the net, Boudreau finally put his money where his mouth was and bumped Eric Fehr up to the top line, Brooks Laich to the second, and dropped Flash and Kozlov to the third. What happens on the power play remains to be seen, but that's surely a good sign.

The second reason for optimism is that the Caps have had two two-day breaks this week, which allowed them to get some practice time in. After Friday night's game though, the Caps have four full days of rest and practice to get ready for the final stretch. History shows us that the Caps usually play Bruce's system "to a T" when coming out of these types of long breaks. At the very least, we should see some good hockey, but personally, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Caps put up an excellent record down the stretch. I think that 5-2, or 4-1-2 might be well within reach. Either record would give the Caps 107 points on the year, which would tie them for the Caps' all time record for points in a season, set by the 1985-86 team. 

If this FanPost is written by someone other than one of the blog's editors, the opinions expressed in it do not necessarily reflect those of this blog or SB Nation.

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