From Alzner to Wideman, we took a look at and graded the 2010-11 season for every player who laced 'em up for the Caps for a significant number of games during the campaign, with an eye towards 2011-12. 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: Hmm. I think it's important to acknowledge that he did something this year that he hadn't really done before - he drastically changed the team's even-strength system mid-season, and had success with it. Granted, the change was no doubt necessitated, in part, by the fact that the goals weren't coming as easily as they had in the past (does anyone think they'd have changed to a more "playoff-friendly" style had they still been pouring in three-plus goals per game?), but the fact of the matter is he took the run-and-gun Caps (that had become the pop-gun Caps) and turned them into a very solid defensive team at five-aside.
He also managed to win the Eastern Conference with a rookie (and a near-rookie) in his top D-pairing, a couple of rookies occupying the second- and third-line center positions for most of the season, and a trio of baby-faced goaltenders.
That said, he wasn't able to get the power-play straightened out, and wasn't able to get anything close to the best out of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom (which is, of course, more on them than it is on him). And then there was the playoffs, where he couldn't coax even a single win out of his team in the second round.
My thoughts on Boudreau at this point are pretty well-documented. This past season was more of the same - which isn't to say "bad," just to say that I'm not sure it was progress. The team has seemed to have stagnated, and while there's plenty of blame to go around, a good bit of it falls on the guy behind the bench.
Pepper: J.P.'s absolutely right to credit Boudreau for getting his team to win the Eastern Conference again with so many inexperienced players at key positions. He's clearly a fantastic regular season coach. And in that regard, he might have exceeded his work of last season, given the roster he was dealt. Again, he demonstrated the skills at which he best excels: instilling confidence in young players and unleashing their talents on the NHL stage.
But I maintain, in the face of another playoff calamity and still no evidence to the contrary, that regular season success is his ceiling, at least for this Caps team. Post-season progress had to be made in 2010-11. And defeating an injury-depleted Rangers team that hung on the edge of the playoff seeding cliff, while allowing fans the anticipation of two more home games in the second round, did not to me represent progress. (And let's not forget that this Boudreau-led team, if not for a miraculous Madison Square Garden comeback in Game 4, seemed on its way to putting a first-round victory, over an opponent decidedly outmatched on paper, in doubt.)
So, ultimately, I think Bruce Boudreau failed in the mission last season, which was a deep playoff run (certainly giving a second-round opponent a back alley fight, if not getting to the Conference Finals). I can't say it any better or more clearly than did J.P. a month ago: "either Bruce Boudreau had the wrong message, or he had the right one and was incapable of getting his players to execute it. Whichever it was, it's ultimately a poor reflection upon the coach."
Becca: As everyone else has done, I have to categorize Bruce’s progression by regular season and postseason; in terms of the regular season I thought he was much better than last year, not just because he implemented (and was successful with) a new defensive system but also because he acknowledged the need for such a change after years of stubbornly sticking with the same offensive-minded style. One of the biggest criticisms of Boudreau in his time with the Caps has been an unwillingness to adjust, and the fact that he saw a need to do so and then implemented a system that was way out of his comfort zone – and his team’s, for that matter – is at least a small sign of growth.
As for the postseason, even that was slightly improved from last year, and that’s not just because it was the first series in which they defeated an opponent in less than seven games since Boudreau took over. Yes, they needed a "miracle comeback" in Game 4 to avoid pushing it to at least six games, but there also weren’t many times in that series where I felt like the team was being outworked by the Rangers – I’m not sure I could say the same for most of the playoff series in years past. He had them focused, at least in the first round; it was the second round where the wheels fell off.
That being said, they did fall off, and while you can blame injuries to key players for some of it the fact is that once again Boudreau was outcoached, this time by a rookie bench boss.
2. What are your thoughts on the system changes this team incorporated this season, both at the beginning (with a general focus on improved defense and penalty killing) and mid-losing streak (when the team moved to a trap-like system)? Were they necessary? How effective do you think they were?
[Ed. Note: Be sure to keep reading after the jump, beneath the poll]
Kareem: It was a necessary and incredible transformation, indicative of a very good regular season coach. Shots stopped falling, and Bruce changed the system to find ways to win. It worked. The Caps were a 110-point team on paper, and they finished with 106 points. That looks like a bit of underachieving, but considering that Bruce changed the system mid-season, it's pretty darn impressive.
JP: What's not to love about the adjustments made to the PK? Dean Evason managed to turn the team's biggest situational weakness into its biggest strength. But that exists in a vacuum - a better PK should not have meant less offense at fives or on the PP (with the exception of the very minimal impact that the change in PK personnel might have had). And it's that lack of offense at even strength that necessitated a change to the system and, yes, the trap (diagnosed as such - not just "trap-like"!).
To be sure, one of the drivers here was the team's struggles with the defensive scheme that they were playing at the time and how the slightest breakdown was nearly impossible to recover from. But they were also having trouble scoring, so Boudreau essentially said, "Well, we're not scoring - might as well tighten up the D." Necessary? Probably - simple math will tell you that when your goals are tougher to come by, you'd best be certain the other guy's are as well. Effective? The Caps' record after the change would seem to suggest it (though it was notably ineffective when certain players decided to freelance a bit). Neutering the offense, though, seemed to sap the team of its identity, and it will be hugely important for Boudreau to find a happy medium that incorporates both responsibility and aggressiveness going forward.
3. With 20/20 hindsight, what one decision made by Bruce would you have made differently?
Becca: I guess it would be considered a different approach rather than a different decision, but I’d have kept some of the forward lines together for longer than Bruce often did. I understand that when things aren’t going well there’s a tendency to want to change things up, and line combos are the easiest things to tackle, but this need to shuffle the lines after just one or two games – or even one or two periods – rather than waiting to see if chemistry develops drove me nuts and I think was a hindrance to some of the guys, particularly with someone newer to the lineup like Marco Sturm who never really found his place on this roster.
Kareem: I would have liked to see him tweak the power play earlier in the season. It was static, predictable, and ineffective for large parts of the season. Bruce was too patient with what was an underperforming PP unit and should have done more to address it.
JP: I'd have converted Brooks Laich into my full-time third-line center and developed a defensively responsible third-line earlier on, which would have freed up Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin to take more offensive zone draws .
I'd also have given Varly a start against Tampa, maybe as early as Game 3. He dominated them during the regular season and the team needed a spark. (I know... I cheated on "one decision.")
Pepper: Tough call to come up with any one specific decision. Kept a tighter rein on line changes in the Tampa series!
4. Is GMGM right - is there no difference between a good regular season coach and a good playoff coach?
Kareem: In theory McPhee should be right. But Boudreau has shown himself to be an exceptional data point. I cannot think of a coach is who is so good in the regular season and so poor in the playoffs. It's highly unusual. Bruce has demonstrated the ability to make incredible adjustments during the course of the season, but it usually takes him 20+ games. It took the preseason plus 20 regular season games to transform the PK from a poor unit in 2009-10 to a top one in 2010-11. It took him about 30 games to complete the transformation of the team from an offensive one to a defensive one this past season. Those are very impressive results. But fact is, Bruce has never demonstrated the ability to quickly adjust to an opponent on the fly as he must in the playoffs. And it's why he's 2-4 in knockout rounds, with the only two series wins coming against a badly overmatched Rangers team.
Becca: I’m not sure I’d even say in theory he is right, to be honest, because the regular season and the playoffs are two completely different animals. It’s possible for there to be good regular season players who never step up in the postseason, why isn’t the same true for coaches? It’s all about adapting your style to fit that of the playoffs; the regular season is just a bunch of one-and-done matches; you can strategize for one game, one opponent and then move on to the next.
In the playoffs it’s about adjusting to your opponent – and having them adjust to you – over time. Stubbornly sticking to the same system isn’t always going to work because eventually the other guy is going to figure you out, and that has happened to the Caps time and time again under Bruce’s watch.
JP: Tough question, but I think that if I'm Bruce Boudreau I hope there is a difference - because if there isn't, it means that he's not a good regular season coach either. The playoffs are where coaches are made and broken, and, so far, Boudreau has been broken, most recently by a rookie bench boss. In how many series can you say Boudreau has out-coached his counterpart? How many times has he been outcoached?
But to answer the question, facing the same team four-to-seven straight times places an emphasis on making adjustments and de-emphasizes pure skill and static systems (no matter how successful in one-off match-ups), so it's certainly conceivable that a guy could be a good regular season coach and not have the skills to be successful in the post-season.
Pepper: Totally agree with J.P. here, i.e. that there is a significant difference. But to further the conversation, how then would you explain Boudreau's playoff success at minor pro levels?
Is he simply good enough to "out-coach his counterpart" at a lower level of competition, but perhaps not quite good enough at the NHL level?
JP: Well, since you asked, here's what I said in last year's Boudreau Wrap:
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.
We can now add to that another second-round loss to a lower-seeded team. He's certainly had some impressive success at lower levels, but it hasn't been all rainbows and puppy dogs there either.
5. And finally, after last season the consensus seemed to be thatBoudreau was on a short leash. After another year where the team failed to advance past the second round, how short should the leash be in the 2011-12 season?
JP: How short a leash can he have at this point? I obviously argued that he should be replaced but since that hasn't happened, I think he's back for another shot at the post-season, barring an obvious mid-season "loss of the team." What can Boudreau prove or not prove during the regular season?
Becca: I’d agree, there’s just not much more he – or the team, for that matter – can prove in the regular season. But then I feel like we said that last year, too. This team has now done everything they can in the regular season, they’ve won the Presidents’ Trophy, they’ve won the East (twice) they’ve won the Southeast Division (three times), they’ve had guys set personal records, they’ve played a more defensive scheme, they’ve brought in veterans and broken in rookies…I say, barring a complete meltdown next year that makes this year’s losing streak seem like the smallest of stumbles, his leash extends about as far as I can throw him. To put it bluntly, get out of the second round or get out of town.
Kareem: Expectations of the Caps seem to dull every year. Cap fans are no longer dreaming of Stanley Cups. We'd simply be thrilled with a Conference Finals visit. If Bruce can't get the Caps there next year, my guess is that it will be his last year with the Caps.
Becca: And now over to the readers for votes and thoughts…
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 2011-12? Is there any chance he doesn't finish the season in Washington? What would it take for him to earn a 10 next season?