From Alzner to Varlamov, we took a look at and graded the 2008-09 season for every player who laced 'em up for the Caps for a significant number of games during the campaign, with an eye towards 2009-10. Now that we've covered the players, it's time to turn our attention to the man behind the bench, Bruce Boudreau.
Head Coach / Washington Capitals
[Since a coach's season is hard to quantify beyond the numbers above, we figured we'd have a roundtable discussion on what Dirt, err, Gabby did well and what he may not have done so well. Feel free to weigh in on any of these points in the comments.]
J.P.: Alright, guys, time to Wrap the guy behind the bench. Let's talk regular season for now - what did the reigning Jack Adams Trophy winner do that impressed you over the first 82 games of the campaign?
DMG: I thought Boudreau did a very good job of mitigating the Capitals' two most dire early season problems - Jose Theodore's slow start and injuries to the defense.
The goaltending situation could have gotten very messy with Theodore underachieving and Brent Johnson keeping the team in games early on. Yet rather than stubbornly stick with a sub-par Theo just because he was supposed to be "the guy" or make the assumption that he had flaked out on the team, Boudreau was able to use the hot hand to help the Capitals win games without shaking Theodore's confidence.
When it came to the defensive injuries, I think Boudreau did something that he doesn't always do all that well: he put players in a position to succeed. I know Gabby's said a number of times that he tries not to worry too much about matchups or whom his players are playing against but if you look at the quality of competition rating for the team's defensemen from this past season, it seems pretty clear Bruce was trying to protect the AHL callups.
Pepper: I agree on the goaltending point. While a certain legendary former Caps goalie once famously criticized Boudreau for not understanding goaltenders, Gabby seemed to have the pulse on all four (five?!) of them utilized this season, when to start them and when to rest or bench them, and that, of course, extended into the playoffs.
One could even point to the December 23rd "Miracle on 34th Street" for a microcosm of that ability which he showed this past season.
Second, his motivation of the players -- his positive, challenging messages to urge the players to tackle new challenges, push the limits of their game. Continual encouragement and second chances given. It didn't work out with all of the guys (and eventually, I fear, that sort of message will grow stale), but giving Brooks Laich a chance once ot play D, sending Alex Semin out on the PK, occasionally extending Matt Bradley's role beyond just a fourth-line grinder, are shining examples.
[Make sure to click through below the poll to read the rest of the roundtable after the jump.]
J.P.: To that second point, I think we'd agree that the mark of a good coach is that he brings out the best in his players and that he creates a "whole" that's greater than the sum of its parts. Do you think that Boudreau did that this season (again, regular season)?
Tuvan Hillbilly: I do think he has the ability to bring out the best in his players, but at times his giving of second chances as Pepper mentions could be frustrating to watch, as his belief in some players abilities was, shall we say, overly generous.
Pepper: I'm not sure that Boudreau created a "machine" that exceeded expectations. I think he got more than expected out of role players, but remained frustrated and unable to really re-direct the energies of the skilled guys (or, like Fehr, would-be skilled guys) into a more productive direction. This goes back to J.P.'s point about accountability.
Tuvan Hillbilly: Right on, Pepper. I think that some players took to Bruce's supportive, "I believe in you" coaching philosophy like a duck to water, and others were somewhat befuddled by it. Some excelled beyond expectations and others never saw the need to push themselves.
Pepper: Right, and sometimes staying positive and constantly preaching "you can do it, you've got the talent" might backfire to where players believe that they can coast until the last moment, believing that their supreme skills will carry the day, be it a dash to the end of the regular season and a playoff berth, or getting behind in a playoff series, or waiting until Game 7 to close it out (or not).
Even in the course of individual games, there seemed to be a sense of "we can dog it for 40 minutes and then commence an all-out offense assault, and still pull out the 2 points."
DMG:It's awfully hard to argue with the numbers: the team had a great season as a whole and a lot of guys on the team had great seasons individually. Yet it seems like for every Tyler Sloan or Brooks Laich - guys who aren't the most skilled but were valuable contributors because Boudreau put them in positions to succeed - it seemed like there was an Eric Fehr or Michael Nylander, guys who were juggled around in a 'throw-crap-against-the-wall-and-hope-it-sticks' way rather than a process looking at their strengths and weaknesses analytically and trying to fit the best fit for them. I don't know exactly what the solution for those guys would have been, and certianly you can say Fehr didn't step it up when he was given chances and Nylander looked lost pretty much the whole season, but I just don't feel Boudreau used all his guys as effectively as he could have.
I also think you have to look at what this team did as compared to what it looked like it would do in paper and, in some ways unfortunately, it was exactly what you would expect: the team was great on offensive, great on the powerplay, mediocre on the penalty, and sometimes was guilty of lazy play (i.e. not showing up for sixty minutes and taking lazy restraining infractions or stupid retaliatory penalties, particularly among forwards). I feel like a great coach is going to find a way to mitigate his player's weaknesses and Boudreau didn't do that all that effectively. I was starting to wonder if it was just that the players were too stubborn or that their bad habits were too deeply ingrained, but Boudreau's attitude towards the whole thing, more or less saying, "If the guys don't want to do what they need to do, what can I do about?" is making me think a lot of the onus is on him.
J.P.: That segues nicely into the next question - what's the regular season formula for post-season success? Here's a team that scrambled like hell a year ago to make the playoffs and was spent when they got there. Then this year they were on cruise control after the All-Star break and had trouble flipping the switch back to "on" once the post-season rolled around.
What type of team you're going to be in the playoffs is, to a large extent, formed in the regular season when it's easy to develop habits both good and bad, but when you see the Eastern Conference Finals pitting two teams that dogged it for half the season before canning their coach and making a run, how does Bruce keep his guys focused enough in games in November against Atlanta and still keep them fresh for when the games start to mean something?
Tuvan Hillbilly: I think the key word here is consistency during the regular season, and while Bruce knows this he hasn't effectively figured out a way to get the boys to buy into it. It was pretty obvious his "you can't turn it on and off like a water spigot" speech didn't strike a nerve. The carrot is a great motivator but sometimes you gotta use the stick.
DMG: I think you can keep the team focused by providing them with increasingly specific "game within the game" tasks to focus on and improve upon, both in games and in practices. The team has gone from losing to winning despite their bad habits; they should now look to go from losing to winning with bad habits to winning without bad habits. Don't get me wrong, like all Caps fans I'm thrilled the team is winning and love watching the exciting brand of hockey they play. But if they can play the way they've been playing only with fewer bad penalties and bad decisions they're going to become even more difficult to beat.
I think Tuvan Hillbilly is completely right about needing to be willing to use the stick in that type of situation. It seemed to me that most of 08-09 was a honeymoon period for Boudreau; like he was happy to let the team do what they wanted as long as they were winning regularly. That's a pretty stark contrast to a lot of what he said and what was said about him when he first arrived from Hershey. He was really big on constantly striving to get better regardless of what you'd already achieved and setting seemingly impossible goals for yourself. Hopefully he brings some of that type of attitude back next season because if he doesn't, this team is destined for another disappointing playoff exit.
J.P.: Alright, I think we're at a point where people have stopped reading and skipped directly to the vote and comments, so it's time for us to join 'em. Nice work, fellas.
The Vote: Rate Boudreau below on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the best) based on his performance for the season - if he was perfect, give him a 10; if he was average, give him a 5 or a 6; if he was terrible, give him a 1. Note: This is a different rating system than our normal "relative to expectations" system.
The Discussion: What would you like to see Boudreau improve upon in 2009-10? Is there any chance he doesn't finish the season in Washington? What would it take for him to earn a 10 next season?