Rink Roundtable: Bruce Boudreau's Job Security

[With an unimpressive playoff record to his credit and at the helm of a team with a "Cup or bust" approach, Bruce Boudreau wasn't going to have a whole lot of margin for error in the 2010-11 season, and now that the Capitals have hit a rough patch questions about his job security are starting to be asked - even to Boudreau himself.  We know where Gabby stands on the issue, but we also thought we'd take a deeper look at a potential Capitals coaching change.]

David Getz: Let's not beat around the bush, folks. The Capitals are really struggling right now. They're losing games, they look disorganized, disheartened, and even dispassionate. Many of the bad habits of last season remain and, given that coach Bruce Boudreau's proverbial leash was almost certainly shortened given last spring's early playoff exit, it shouldn't be surprising that chatter about his job security has picked up in the last couple days.

But is it warranted? What's your take on considering replacing Boudreau? Is it preemptive, has it been something we should have already been talking about, or is now the right time to start thinking about it?

Stephen Pepper: "Many of the bad habits of last season remain." That's the bottom line, and why the discussion of whether a replacement is needed behind the bench is entirely appropriate. The beginning of this regular season was replete with acknowledgments -- if not promises -- that the Caps in 2010-11 were going to focus their regular season efforts on "winning the right way." Thirty-two games in, the team finds itself struggling to score a single goal, much less winning the right way, or any way.  It's also found itself on the wrong end of shutouts four times in the last 13 games, three times allowing five goals against or more.

A team with solid leadership, together with the level of talent that the Caps have, simply does not follow up a 3-0 loss at home against the 27th-best team in the league with an uneven (to put it charitably) effort in friendly confines, and then head on the road to get embarrassed to the tune of 7-0. Coach Boudreau looks dangerously close to desperate on the level of former coach Glen Hanlon just prior to the latter's dismissal.  As Hanlon struggled to put together line combinations and devised all manners of new practice drills designed to get the team's star players to work through opponents' relentless shot-blocking, similarly has Boudreau juggled the offensive lines to a frenzied pitch in the last two contests. And Hanlon had considerably less talent with which to work.

I'm sure you saw Boudreau's eruption on the bench following his timeout, when the Caps found themselves down 3-0, still early in the game last night at the Garden.  Mike Keenan during the MSG broadcast noted the risk inherent in that behavior -- a coach verbally lashing into his players in such extreme fashion -- if the course of the game does not begin to turn around. Only later in the third period was any shift-to-shift offensive momentum generated by Washington, after 4 more goals against had been tallied.

Further, whether you lay this at the feet of Alex Ovechkin or the head coach, a captain who gives away the puck with a lazy push of the biscuit up ice, and who then heads to the bench for a change when the opponent had possession in the neutral zone and was already on the attack, looks like a captain who has lost the ear of his coach.  (The two were, however, chatting dispassionately on the bench during the third last night -- what could they have been discussing at that point?)  Knee-jerk reaction?  Yes, it was one play, but one that was so absolutely inexcusable as to suggest a fundamental disconnect between coach and star player.

All of this in the context of a far-reaching offensive slump and still overly-long shifts being taken by some key forwards.

The flu can't be to blame for all of it.

This is a critical season for the team and the franchise.  So McPhee should always be thinking about the fitness of Coach Boudreau to carry his painstakingly-built team deep into the playoffs, particularly given the latter's mediocre NHL playoff coaching record.  Another couple of weeks of losing, and it's time for a change.

BeccaH: I think now is the time to start thinking about it – but only thinking about it. As much as we said Boudreau was on the hot seat going into this season, I think a lot of us agreed that he should be given a full year plus playoffs to see what happens (barring some catastrophic collapse, like a 20-game losing streak to start the season). 30 games in, I think we’re still seeing what this team can do and we’re still waiting for the roster to be healthy and clicking – neither of which has happened for prolonged amounts of time. I just don’t think a lot of the "failings" of this season so far can be solely attributed to Bruce.

It’s tricky because you don’t want to fire someone over a blip on the radar – and let’s be honest, as painful as this losing streak has been I believe it is nothing more than that – and you don’t want to do so as a knee-jerk, overly emotional reaction to not getting what we’re used to. I’ll admit, I’ve had to pull myself back from the "Fire Bruce!!" mentality a few times during this streak (sometimes more successfully than others) but I really don’t think the team we’ve seen over the last two weeks is the team we’ll see in another month or two.

I think the games where they’ve been really good, we’ve seen what the team is capable of and how, when the players execute it, this system can be strong both defensively and offensively. To carry it out the right way takes a lot of work and focus – some of that falls on Bruce to motivate them to work hard and focus, but at the same time these are grown men, they’re professionals, and they shouldn’t need a movie montage and a stirring inspirational speech once a week to get pumped up.

J.P.:  On the surface, there would seem to be two possible explanations for the Caps' current skid - either Bruce Boudreau isn't making the adjustments necessary to win games or the team isn't implementing the adjustments he is making. Neither one of those options reflect particularly well on Boudreau, of course.

But there is a third option, and that is that the team - the players - simply isn't executing at present. Is it on the coach when his goalies are letting in soft goals, his forwards are flipping 40-foot wristers, or his blueliners are making critical mistakes in coverage? Perhaps you could argue that he hasn't prepared them, mentally, but that's a bit tenuous. More likely, this team started struggling with its focus and that has snowballed into a lack of confidence with predictable results. And yet some of the very same people espousing the "Cup or bust" mentality since mid-summer are now calling for the coach's head when the team hits a skid in December (that has included key injuries and, yes, some awful luck)? Get real.

This is nothing like when Hanlon got fired. Hanlon had lost the team (per George McPhee, who, unlike the myriad of folks who now claim that Boudreau is in the same situation, would know). Hanlon's players were sick of losing and sick of being held back. These players aren't sick of losing - they're sick of December. And that's nothing over which to fire a guy who has won nearly two-thirds of his games behind an NHL bench.

Pepper: I think the current situation is comparable to Hanlon's tenure in this sense:  Hanlon, for his flaws as an NHL head coach, remade a foundation of hard work and consistent effort, one that was sorely lacking during the Jagr-era and was a cornerstone of Caps' hockey, the ethos of the organization, for two decades prior.  That appeared to be his limit as bench boss, which led to Boudreau's meteoric rise to regular season success.  Bruce rallied the burgeoning talent that McPhee had assembled and encouraged them to unleash the fury of their skills upon the rest of the league.  Until April.  There, Boudreau's playoff record to date features one series win in four, and three game seven losses at home, last spring's version completing a post-season collapse perhaps unrivaled in NHL hockey.  That looked then, and looks now, a lot like a ceiling.

Ah, but the hopes of turning regular season sparks into Stanley Cup parade fireworks this season were pinned on a steady development of the team's play during this season into a force that can withstand the rigors of post-season NHL hockey.  One more grand opportunity for Boudreau to lead the stacked Caps squad to glory (or at least deep into the playoffs).

Not only have the mistakes of last spring been repeated time and again in the fall and winter (and from regular season night one, not just during this six-game slide), but the current valley sinks ever lower into those lack-of-confidence depths you mention.  Which, if it persists much longer, is going to take a different voice to repair.  McPhee didn't acknowledge that the team was lost until the decision to fire Hanlon was already announced.

All teams have key injuries and awful luck.  Thankfully the Caps are still, for the moment, in the playoff mix.  The Flyers were certainly in danger of falling too far behind last season when they replaced John Stevens with Peter Laviolette, in December.  (After consecutive games shutout, by the way.)   With his "different approach to the game," he only led them to the Cup Finals.  And we all know what the Penguins did in replacing Michel Therrien with Dan Bylsma in February of 2009, when that profoundly underachieving team was in danger of missing the post-season, repeating its own set of mistakes over and over.  GM Ray Shero remarked at the time:  "It wasn't so much the outcome [of a recent game against Toronto], it was how the game was played."  Sound familiar?

Does Boudreau get a pass for now because his team is still within the top eight in the Conference?  Maybe, but time is perilously short for that grand development plan to get re-tracked.

DMG: Certainly a valid point, J.P., but it's also impossible to ignore just what the players are doing and how they're failing to execute, isn't it?  Whether it's a team problem like a stagnant powerplay or trying to force the play up the ice rather than dumping and chasing or more individual issues like Eric Fehr not getting to the net, Alex Ovechkin trying the same moves off the rush, or Alexander Semin taking bad penalties and looking disengaged, this is all stuff we've seen before.

Doesn't that come back to Boudreau either not knowing how to fix the issue or the players not making the changes?  And, if so, doesn't that make it harder to say the team's just not executing?

J.P.: Sure, there's something to that. As Boudreau himself noted last year, "The only thing that's free in the world is habits. And you either have good ones or you have bad ones."

But the Caps could be 32-0-0 right now and there'd be no assurances that the bad habits were all gone. What could this team "prove" in December that would give you confidence come April? The penalty kill, for example, is up from 25th in the League last year to 11th right now, but I don't think any of us would say, "Problem solved." By the same token, I don't think you can fairly say that there are systematic problems here just because they've lost a half-dozen games in a row (or because they haven't blown the doors off opponents year-to-date despite the impressive record prior to this slide, because - let's be honest - they won plenty of games early on that were less-than-impressive efforts).

Flash back to that Tampa game not even three weeks ago. That's what this team is capable of with its current personnel (when healthy) and Bruce Boudreau's system. Now tell me who you're going to replace Gabby with that's going to have the team playing better than that on a nightly basis.

Pepper: No coach can get a team to play at that level on a nightly basis.  But with a team with this amount of talent, you should not have to dig back three weeks into memory for an exemplary performance.

And how about those bad habits?  And being "sick of December?"  Isn't that essentially the same problem as was the case for the last two seasons -- deciding to coast in the "meaningless" games in March and believing that the switch can be turned on in the playoffs?

J.P.: I'm just not buying that Boudreau has hit his ceiling as an NHL coach. He took a team from the cellar to the playoffs on an unbelievable and emotional run in his first season. He took then one step further the following season and then he guided an absolute juggernaut through last regular season and four games into the playoffs before... well, we know. But a bounce or two here or there (or a non-call) and that collapse might have been forgotten as the Caps moved on to the second round. 

Yes, there were things that Boudreau could have done better in that Montreal series. There were certainly things his captain could have done better, and things the rest of the squad could have improved upon as well. But fire a guy with a .679 career points percentage because he lost a few games in early December? Premature.

DMG:  I agree that there's no way this team was going to demonstrate they'd made significant progress during the regular season, but at the same time there's a difference between the team looking like they've improved and being unable to "prove" it and looking like they're more or less where they were last spring.  A team that might have improved is in better shape than a team that definitely hasn't (for the record, that's more a conceptual point than one that relates directly to these Caps).

The question of whether someone else could have this team playing at as high a level does touch on replacement, which is a key issue so often overlooked in professional sports, whether you're talking about players, coaches, or guys in the front office.  If the Capitals did decide to dismiss Boudreau, who would you like to see replace him (note: this can be either a specific person or a coach with certain attributes), and what do you think the likelihood is the Caps would be able to find someone who could do a better job?

J.P.: Right, but the Caps have improved. Their PK is better. Their top-six D are better. Their goaltending situation is probably better. And on a late November night, we saw how good they can be. Then came December and we've seen how bad they can be. It's just way too early to over-react to a bad stretch of games, given that the team stuck with Boudreau this summer. And that last point, I think, is key - if you had confidence in Boudreau after the Montreal series, you have confidence in him now, and there hasn't been nearly enough to change your mind, precisely because so much lately has looked like that Montreal series. On the other hand, if you threw your hands up last April and said, "Enough with this guy," you're probably still there. Obviously, GMGM is in that first camp.

As for replacements, I'd think the Caps would want someone with a defensive conscience, the credibility that comes with winning the Cup (as a player or coach), and a guy who isn't too far removed from his playing days, as this is still a young team and one that needs a coach who is somewhat relateable and not necessarily a task master (sorry, Hitch). Guy Carbonneau and Craig MacTavish come to mind, but I honestly haven't given it too much thought. It's hard to imagine anyone coming in and getting a better effort out of guys that care so much for Boudreau.

DMG: I agree with you, J.P..  Resisting the temptation to add a taskmaster would be crucial, because I really can't see the Caps having the response you want from a guy like that.  The team's consummate professionals will do what they do either way, and most of the guys who might need a little pushing are guys who could just shut down in the fact of an ultra-stern bench boss.

Becca: I really like what Mark French has done with the Bears…but the idea of bringing yet another untested AHL coach in for a team that’s supposed to contend scares me a little. So if that narrows it down to veteran NHL coaches? Bob Hartley’s probably the best fit for a team like this, tough but not Mike Keenan-esque. The way this team is built now they’re not a Ken Hitchcock type of team (and there aren’t many who are anymore), and god help us all if Craig MacTavish takes over.

Having said all that, I’m just not sure that any of the available options would suit this team or be able to get as much out of guys like Mike Green as Bruce Boudreau does. As much as this team was built around Ovechkin it was molded and tweaked to fit Boudreau’s style. And the NHL coaches that I think could succeed with this team…well, they’ve all got jobs already. As scary as it is, without Boudreau it might come down to bringing Mark French in or promoting Bob Woods, someone who is familiar with a lot of the players already and who knows the systems.

Pepper: I think it would be foolish to promote from within again, if a move be made.  

I do agree that Hitch could be a disastrous move, the way the team is built, as you said, Becca.

Hartley seems the best option of the "name" available candidates, and he's got Stanley Cup-winning experience, otherwise lacking in the organization.  That would give the team much needed confidence if and when fortunes turn in the post-season, or particularly when the next Game 5 clincher presents itself.  He also might be enough of a disciplinarian that I think would be warranted, if this current swoon doesn't turn around immediately.  (Though the Islanders passed over him before hiring Scott Gordon in 2008.)   

DMG:  It's interesting to see the difference in opinion with regards to how much of the team's struggles can be attributed to Boudreau, and what it means in terms of how his leash is at this point. It also gives rise to another question: What would have to happen for you to say, "That's it, a change has to be made"?

J.P.: As much as there have been whispers in the past (recent and less-recent), there has never been as loud a buzz about possibly replacing Boudreau. As I mentioned above, this means that now, for the first time, the team is quite probably playing for his job. If that motivation - be it December or April - isn't enough to get things back on track, it's time for a change to be made. These next three games need to be better.

Pepper:  Here's one somewhat random point that may be relevant here.  We've talked about Boudreau's ability or need to be a motivator, but during an ESPN online chat today, Coach said, in reference to the constant camera attention from HBO: 

It certainly doesn't leave you with much privacy. There are times when you want to say things to the players when you wish it were more private. But we've learned to live with it.

Of course, the Pens have been flying high under the same scrutiny of the camera eye.

Becca: For me it would need to be a prolonged stretch of the team not just playing badly but doing so in a way that doesn’t make me think it’s an anomaly. As frequently as they’ve come lately, you’d have to think that these 7-0, 5-0, 3-0 games are so not the norm for a team like this. Ineffective power play? Backstrom putting up frequent minus performances? No offensive output whatsoever?

Some of this losing streak can be attributed to not working hard or executing the game plan, but there’s been an obscene amount of bad luck built in as well. Injuries to key guys (and yes, there are always injuries but having a flu bug coincide with injuries to your two big minute defensemen is just ridiculous), bad bounces, more posts than you can count, insanely low shooting percentage…none of it seems sustainable.

If they get everyone back relatively healthy, if they’re still unable to adjust to other teams and score more goals, if they continue losing for most of December and maybe even most of January…then we start seriously talking about looking for some new blood behind the bench.

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