From Alzner to Varlamov, we took a look at and graded the 2009-10 season for every player who laced 'em up for the Caps for a significant number of games during the campaign, with an eye towards 2010-11. 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 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.]
JP: Let's start with the regular season. The Caps ran away with the Eastern Conference and won the Presidents' Trophy handily. How much of that do you attribute to the guy behind the bench?
Stephen Pepper: I think Coach Boudreau deverses most all of the credit typically given the bench boss of a Presidents' Trophy winning team, by getting his players to perform to their regular season abilities, and consistently.
There was no prolonged losing streak and, instead, a franchise record-shattering winning streak. It takes a careful, thoughtful, and inspirational coach to navigate that kind of run. Nick Backstrom and Alex Semin each had career seasons, and several others reached, or at least closed in on, their fullest statistical potentials.
No collection of individual skill can orchestrate such a beginning-to-end dominant season effort as did the Caps in 2009-10, without an extraordinarily sharp and tireless figure behind the bench. But we are just talking about the regular season, right?
BeccaH: It seems like the longer Boudreau remains coach of the Caps, the more we figure out about his strengths and weaknesses – and a lot of the success from this season seemed to be a result of his strengths and in spite of his weaknesses.
He has an innate ability to coach performances out of players that I’m not sure other coaches would be able to get; Mike Green’s regular season play and continued evolution is a perfect example of that, as is the performance of any player who broke out of a slump and credited Boudreau with talking him through it. As you guys mentioned, the number of career years and the high caliber of play for so much of the regular season is something for which Boudreau deserves a lot of credit. The focus during winning streaks and the refusal to accept prolonged losing streaks came directly from Boudreau, and he understands that the up-tempo, offensively potent style he uses is perfectly suited to his team.
But it also takes a team this talented to overcome some of Boudreau’s weaknesses. He played favorites, using ice time as a punishment for some while stubbornly refusing to take it away from stars who might have been struggling or were playing irresponsibly. He never really got the penalty kill to click despite having some decent penalty-killers in his stable. And while he kept them focused most of the time, he still never seemed able to convey the importance of not overlooking your opponent – although not to the degree they did last year, the team still struggled with weaker opponents throughout the season.
David M. Getz: I really don't know. On the one hand the Capitals were absolutely dominant and, as Stephen noted, consistent. But at the same time, they had an incredibly skilled team and really did beat up on weaker competition by virtue of being in the Eastern Conference and the Southeast. Plus most of the problems we thought the team had coming in to the season were never really fixed. I guess I'd just say that I think the Capitals would have been one of the best regular season teams in the NHL this year with a competent coach, but it's hard for me to believe there are too many guys who would have led them to a 121 point season.
JP: Right. On the one hand, unbelievable regular season success, but problems that were there a season earlier remained (the penalty kill still struggled, Alex Ovechkin still took obscenely long shifts, etc.). He had a great team and had 'em playing great - just look at the number of guys who had career-type seasons - and I give him a lot of credit for keeping the team focused over the course of an 82-game regular season (something I had thought the team would struggle with).
Then, of course, came the playoffs and the epic fail of not only losing to an 8-seed after winning the Presidents' Trophy, but doing so after holding a 3-1 series lead. How culpable is Bruce Boudreau for the loss?
[Ed. Note: Be sure to keep reading after the jump, beneath the poll]
DMG:Very, though not as culpable as people might want to think.
At the risk of sounding like a sore loser or an apologist, the Capitals did encounter some incredibly bad luck in their first round series and were, as a whole, the better team. You can be the better team and still be undone by a hot goalie, bad luck, or, in the case of the Capitals, both.
That said, there's always going to be some element of chance involved in sports, especially in a seven game series format, and what a good team does is make sure they excel in the portions of the game they can control, so that the impact of the portions they can't control is minimal. I think you'd have a hard case arguing the Capitals, with their mediocre-at-best special teams play, questionable lineup decisions, bad shot selection, and refusal to get the puck deep and chase it down, did that. That's a failure that has to come back to Boudreau. You might not be able to make the players do exactly what you want at all times, but when they make the same mistakes game after game, you have to look at the coach.
Plus, and I hate to sound like I'm scapegoating or engaging in hyperbole, the decision to stick with Tomas Fleischmann for six games could have cost Washington the series.
Tuvanhillbilly: I have to admit, I’m really torn here. The Russophile side of me wants to apply Tolstoyan (aka "Russian to the core") philosophy to the situation—which believes that the outcome of any event is not governed by the plans or actions of a leader, but rather by the sum total of the individual actions of the participants, and the end results of said actions are selected not so much by the will of the participant, but by fate alone. While Tolstoy was talking about war and politics, I think a sporting team is a fair enough analogy. BTW, we’ve all actually seen this philosophy reflected in comments by some of the Russian players (Semin comes to mine right away), when he says things like "I did all I could but I just didn’t get any luck" or "things just didn’t go my way".
On the other hand, being ex-military myself, I remember one phrase drummed into my head at NCO school—"you can delegate authority but you can’t delegate responsibility". Meaning that whatever the outcome of the actions of those who serve under you, you are ultimately responsible for the outcome of their actions. They are only doing what YOU told trained them to do—and if they show a propensity or inability to not follow your directives, it is your responsibility to either get them to the level they need to be at or move them to a less critical position.
So ultimately I do think Bruce should be responsible to some degree for not fixing things that needed to be fixed, but I also think that some of the players are at fault for not being introspective enough about their own game, instead relying up the "fate" crutch to explain their shortcomings. Maybe Bruce should buy them all a copy of "The Power of Your Subconscious Mind".
BeccaH: Right after the loss to Montreal, I was ready to completely blame Bruce for the loss – now that I’ve had time and distance and seen many other playoff series, I’m more inclined to say that while Bruce definitely shoulders some of the blame, some of it has to fall on the team and some of it, like David said, comes down to a bad match-up, a hot goalie and a bit of luck. Most of us knew that Montreal was probably the worst draw the Caps could have gotten. Montreal came into the series knowing exactly how to shut down (or at least minimize) the offensive threat from the Caps. They had a frustrating penalty kill, the ability to clog the neutral zone and disrupt both flow and shot angles and a red hot goalie who provided the final push they needed.
Still, the Caps had the talent to overcome that and they didn’t. They had a chance to finish off the Canadiens – three times – and couldn’t. The fault lies with both the team and the coaching staff; obviously we don’t know what Boudreau and his staff told the team to do, but it’s hard to believe Boudreau would watch the same series we were watching and not at least try to get his team to adjust. But it’s also his job to keep them focused while in a position to eliminate their opponent, to instill in them a killer instinct, and for whatever reason he wasn’t able to do that.
Some of the decisions Boudreau made during the series were also somewhat strange. Flash getting consistent ice time until the end of the series is baffling, and benching Walker until Game 7 when it was clear the Caps needed a bit more grit and a bit less, er, flash is equally so. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome; that the power play unit remained (mostly) intact throughout the series despite scoring just one goal is a pretty good demonstration of that.
JP: What about accountability, a point we've harped on - admittedly from a distance - a bit in the past? Has anything changed there?
DMG: Maybe a little. He seemed more willing to speak frankly, even harshly about his players than in past seasons, and he did reduce Fleischmann's ice time and eventually scratch him in the postseason. But he also seemed unwilling to hold certain guys accountable. His attitude on his best offensive players skating long shifts has always been "yeah, well, what are you gonna do?" and that didn't really change this year, and it was very rare to see any of his favored player see their ice reduced, even when they perhaps needed it.
That sort of brings me to my bigger issue with accountability, which is that I'd like to see some more of it out of Boudreau. When he was asked about the playoffs series his response was that Montreal was the one team that he didn't want to face and they were a rough matchup for the Capitals. He's defended his style by saying that he was playing the players he was given, and excused the team's weak penalty killing performance the same way. He responded to an inquiry about Fehr's ice time by setting up a straw man about whether he should have take time from Knuble or Semin and ignored a question about whether he gave Flash too long a leash in the postseason. He complained about having the team's flight from Montreal being delayed by fog.
I understand that he's going to defend his tactics, his players, and his staff. I understand no one likes having their decision making or tactics questioned by the media. I understand that what Boudreau puts out for public consumption may be very different from what he's really thinking and may not be indicative of what goes on behind closed doors. But I also wish he'd respond to the criticism and questioning more, and dismiss it out of hand less.
BeccaH: I don’t see much of a change, either, and that’s frustrating. It’s great that he wants the players to be themselves and play to their strengths, but I can’t help but think he doesn’t rein them in as much not because he doesn’t want to but because he can’t. He seems unable to control Alexander Semin – not that many can – and hardly has more control over Ovechkin, Green and Fleischmann.
He has his favorites for sure, and they simply get a longer leash; we all remember Brian Pothier getting benched for a game or two when his play was subpar, or Eric Fehr getting stapled to the bench in the third if he struggled early in a game. The accountability is being instilled for those guys, where is that same response if Green or Ovechkin struggle? I understand that in theory, benching your best players would be detrimental to the team in the short term; even in a bad game those guys are capable of pulling off something big. But I can’t help but think that, long term, making an example out of those guys along with the "lesser" players would be beneficial – both to the individuals and the team as a whole.
And the excuses that D mentioned are getting pretty old, too. Boudreau has the ability to call out his team after a poor performance but he’s still just as quick to blame outside factors or couch the harsh criticism with excuses. As much as I hate to compare the Caps to the Penguins, or Boudreau to Bylsma, I know I wasn’t alone in being impressed with how the latter responded to tough travel conditions – tougher than a little fog and a flight delay – when the Pens had to play in DC during a snowstorm. No excuses, before or after the Penguins lost.
Hell, even then, Boudreau talked pre-game about how his guys were probably more fatigued after shoveling themselves out, as if to preemptively excuse a loss.
JP: To that travel point, it's kind of ironic that Boudreau even dismissed the Pens' snow travel as an excuse for them - "Other than a few of their players, they’ve played in the American (Hockey) League before. A bus ride has never hurt anybody." - and then used the travel excuse himself.
Tuvanhillbilly: From my point of view, I haven't seen much change in the accountability issue. I think is has to do with him still having some Hershey mindset. There, he was expected to divine the inner talents of really good players and train them and allow them to develop the self confidence to transform into great players. And he was a hella good "training" coach, with two Calder cup finals appearances and one win. This atmosphere of trust and faith also created a strong bond with his players, which also transferred over with his new role- which is a good thing. But he still seems to retain some of that "mentor" mindset, trying to bring out some hidden internal quality he sees in some of the players (Flash, I'm looking at you), when he needs to be more accepting of the shortcomings that some of these players have and react accordingly.
JP: OK, final question(s). I think we all agree that Bruce Boudreau is in no danger of losing his job any time too soon, but if things next year end somewhat similarly to how they did this past spring (i.e. without any progress when it mattered most - in the post-season), or if the team stumbles during the regular season, will - or should - Gabby be relieved of his duties? Can Bruce Boudreau lead this team to the promised land?
DMG: I certainly agree with that. I think it'd be awfully hard for Boudreau to lose his job during next year's regular season; I can only see it if the Caps completely tank, and I can't see the Caps completely tanking. But if they go out in the first round next year, I think he's gone (barring, of course, extenuating circumstances like six top six forwards/top four defensemen being injured and out of the lineup or something). And I think if they go out in such an inglorious fashion, the team should move on, no matter what they do in the regular season. This team has so much talent - including developing talent - that to make no progress in terms of postseason success over a four year period means something has to change.
Do I think Boudreau can lead the team to the promised land? I do, because I think he's smart enough, hard working enough, a guy who can get the most out of his players, and a guy who legitimately eats, sleeps, breathes, and loves hockey with every fiber of his being.
Will he? That I'm less optimistic about. I can't imagine it happening without Boudreau making some changes to way he does things, both in terms of tactics and overall approach, and so far we haven't seen a ton of that out of Gabby. If he's willing to sit down and honestly evaluate the strengths and weakness of his team - himself included - I have no doubt he's good enough to get the job done. If not, I don't see it happening because, to put it bluntly, I can't imagine a team that has the failings the 2008-09 and 2009-10 Capitals have had winning the Stanley Cup.
JP: Here's an uncomfortable truth: in his eleven seasons as a head coach in the AHL and NHL, Boudreau has lost in the first round of the playoffs seven times, and in five of those series, his was the higher-seeded team (there's also a second-round loss to a lower seed - the Penguins last year - and a Finals loss to a lower seed back in 2007 in the AHL). There are mitigating factors in lots of those series and varying degrees of "upsets," but it's certainly not a stat that gives Caps fans the warm n' fuzzies. Not many NHL coaches get to hang around long enough to get bounced three-straight times by lower-seeded teams, much less stay employed thereafter - if it happens for a fourth-straight year, it's hard to envision Gabby returning.
Tuvanhillbilly: I don't know that I would want anyone else besides Bruce behind the bench now. Why? He inspires confidence, he respects his players, and most importantly, the players respect him. If we were talking about regular season alone, we (and a lot of fans) wouldn't even be having this conversation -- yes, there were some maddening bouts of inconsistency, but c'mon-- you can't bitch too much about the Presidents' Trophy and 121 points. The Baby Ruth in the Punchbowl here is, as Stephen alluded to, the post season. And looking solely at that, I have to agree wholeheartedly with David that sometimes you can't overcome a team even when you beat them in every statistical category. Except scoring.
In other words, I can't think of any other team in the league that could have beat Montreal in the first two rounds, so I'm not ready to throw Bruce under the bus for this.
As for what might happen next season if there is another choke-- well, I have to say I really hate ifs-- if frogs had wings; if wishes were fishes; if ands and buts were candy and nuts---hate 'em, hate 'em hate 'em. The reason is that the team is a dynamic organism and is necessarily going to change over the next year-- so any analysis of fault in the future would have to analyze the team as a whole at that point, not just the single question of who is behind the bench. And if all things are somehow equal then to now, I would have to ask why GMGM didn't make changes in the offseason/trade deadline. That's not to say that an analysis at that point wouldn't point to a breakdown behind the bench-- it very well could, and if that were the case then you have to take emotion out of the question and seriously consider if you've got the right man for the job.
Of course, even an off goalie usually gets to let in three before he's yanked.
SP: Tuvan nailed it. The playoffs require a much greater attention to detail for both players and coaches. We all know that Boudreau likes to roll lines and doesn't often play match-ups. In this way, I'd offer that he often delegated too much responsibility to certain players who either couldn't complete the task at hand or weren't capable of doing so for that many shifts, that many minutes that many ferociously contested games. This is certainly a good strategy to keep all of your players' motivation, confidence, and morale high (which it seemed to accomplish during the 82-game stretch), but it doesn't account for the difference in individuals' styles and skills which, either significant or subtle, have such a profound effect in a short series. In other words, the team brought regular season tactics to the playoffs, where the landscape changes considerably.
BeccaH: If they don’t have some playoff success or stumble dramatically in the regular season…absolutely he should be gone. There’s been a lot of talk about how small a window can be for a team to win the Cup nowadays; this is a very talented team with a lot of potential, and if Boudreau isn’t able to get it done there’s just not a lot of time to wait around for him to continue to try. The first year they weren’t even supposed to make the playoffs, the next they fell to the eventual Champs. After going out in the first round again to a lesser team, there HAS to be improvement next year – no excuse for there not to be.
By next year Bruce will have been behind the bench for three and a half seasons, a long time in today’s NHL, and if he can’t get it done with the talent he’s been given – or at least make significant strides toward doing so – they need to find someone who can.
That being said, yes, I think he can lead this team to a Cup. They’ve proven his system works in the regular season, whether it’s blowing out the other team in a lopsided offensive explosion or buckling down for a tight, defensively-sound game. In my mind they didn’t lose in the playoffs this year or any of the last three years because they were playing the wrong way or coached particularly badly. There just needs to be a complete team buy-in to the system at both ends of the ice, and I think Bruce’s system is a good one – that system, combined with what (we hope) will be a lot of anger over how this year ended, should be able to get the Caps there.
DMG: You don't think they lost in the playoffs because of the coaching? I mean, I don't think it was the sole factor by any stretch, but I also think better coaching could have certainly led them to beat Montreal, would have made them more competitive in the Pittsburgh series, and would have let them get out of the Rangers series more quickly (which obviously would have helped against the Penguins). In all three cases I thought the Capitals were far too complacent playing their flashy style and wound up turning the puck over or taking bad shots far too often, rather than getting it deep and trying to keep possession in the opposing team's end.
I also think you can make the case they were hurt by their regular season both this spring and last spring. When Ovechkin comes out and says he doesn't feel power in his legs or Mike Green reveals he picked up an injury late in the season, it doesn't make sense to look back and see how much they played in meaningless (or virtually meaningless) games. The same can be said of the tendency to play 20 or 30 minute games, or have poor play excused during the regular season.
All I've wanted to see the last two years was progress being made in the regular season; treating it as an 82 game warmup to the postseason, and I haven't seen it. It seems silly to assume, from a coaching standpoint, that you're going to let the guys do whatever they want for six months and then try and change their style of play and eliminate their weaknesses in a week in April.
BeccaH: I suppose so. I certainly don’t excuse his role in any of those series, but I don’t consider it the biggest factor. At the end of the day regardless of the system or the coach, the team needs to carry out the plan and it looked to me like they didn’t. Obviously he needs to find a way to get them to do it, which is why I think one more year of the same crap won’t fly.
I think that just as it sometimes takes a player a few years to make the adjustment from AHL to NHL, it sometimes takes coaches a few years to do the same. Perhaps Boudreau’s been able to keep his adjustment under the radar because of the talent he’s been given to work with, but there’s still a lot for him to learn – as you pointed out, using the regular season as a tune-up for the playoffs and not as a separate entity would probably fall into that area. NHL playoffs are much more of a grind than AHL, if for no other reason than the level of skill and strength in the NHL is higher. Not relying so much on your stars, even in meaningless games, would fall into that "AHL to NHL" category as well, because I’m sure the temptation is to throw Ovechkin and friends out on every other shift regardless of the circumstances. I think he’s even mentioned that at times.
I guess I just like the system – I think it fits the players – and it feels like they’re always so close to making it work. If we get to three years of that not happening, it’s time to be done with Bruce.
JP: Alright, I think it's time to turn it over to the readers for their votes and thoughts. Thanks, all.
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 2010-11? Is there any chance he doesn't finish the season in Washington? What would it take for him to earn a 10 next season?