(photo by Brian Murphy)
I understand why the Washington Capitals opted to part ways with coach Bruce Boudreau, but that doesn’t mean I have to like the decision.
I’ve followed sports long enough to know that once a coach loses the locker room, the front office can either do nothing and watch things spiral out of control or management can make a bold move to try and salvage what’s left of the season.
And yet, I still can’t help but be bummed out that the man affectionately known as Gabby will no longer be calling the shots in Washington.
If I’m being honest with myself, I’d admit that this very well could have happened before the season even began. Lord knows there were plenty of people calling for the coach’s head after the Capitals were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the playoffs.
But Caps general manager George McPhee essentially pointed the finger at his players after the team’s last playoff collapse – and he went about reshaping the bottom half of the roster to bring in players he believed were better equipped to excel in the postseason.
Had McPhee listened to the critics (and a vocal minority of Caps fans), he would have replaced Boudreau then. But GMGM opted to publicly support his coach and appeared to do anything and everything he could to upgrade the roster for one final chance at that elusive playoff run.
Boudreau had to know he very easily could have been let go then, which is why the Caps coach suddenly embraced a more disciplinarian mindset with his players this season.
If his words fell on deaf ears, players found themselves listed as a “healthy scratch.” If someone missed a meeting, they too were removed from the lineup.
Unfortunately for Boudreau, it’s tough to change a clubhouse’s culture overnight. When little stuff like that has been swept under the rug in the past, no one is going to be thrilled that Boudreau suddenly began holding players accountable to a tougher standard.
And honestly, that’s where things went south in Washington. For all the good things Boudreau did for the Capitals, he also allowed this franchise to lose its identity.
During Boudreau’s first few seasons, the Caps were once known as an offensive juggernaut. They were happy to trade goals with any team silly enough to run and gun with them.
While that was great fun to watch for the hometown crowd, it wasn’t exactly a style of hockey that translates into postseason success. So Boudreau did something rarely seen in professional sports – he attempted to overhaul his team’s mentality overnight.
The players largely remained the same, but the system was blown to pieces. No longer was “firewagon hockey” deemed acceptable.
Now, offensive-minded players such as Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin were suddenly asked to embrace previously unthinkable things like back-checking as opposed to waiting at the blue line for someone else to get them the puck.
It was a difficult transition, to say the least, but the Capitals did appear to begrudgingly embrace the more playoff-proven mindset.
Personal statistics dropped dramatically (with Ovechkin’s point production going from 109 to 85), but it was okay so long as Washington finally lasted more than a round or two in the postseason.
That didn’t happen, and suddenly the Caps were faced with a dilemma. Their core players were basically square pegs trying to fit in round holes – offensively-gifted players being asked to play in a way that stifled their creativity to a certain extent and shying away from what made them household names.
At least when the Capitals were bounced from the playoffs in Boudreau’s earlier days, players like Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green were thought of as elite players. Last season, they looked completely out of place, and yet, the team’s postseason results remained the same.
And when a coach attempts to remake a team year after year, it’s only a matter of time before the team completely loses its identity and the players begin to tune him out.
Boudreau was the fastest coach in NHL history to win 200 games and called the shots during the best stretch in franchise history, but it didn’t matter anymore because too many of his players gave up on him.
And that’s what bothers me most.
These players – starting with the captain Alex Ovechkin – quit on their coach. They selfishly chose to turn their back on Boudreau because they no longer liked what he had to say.
It was easier to get confrontational and cop an attitude with Boudreau rather than realize he’s only trying to do what he feels is best for the team when he benches a guy like Semin for his steadfast refusal to avoid taking selfish penalties at the worst possible time, so they tuned him out.
A once-promising season that started with the Caps winning their first seven games, quickly turned ugly. With the Caps mired in a 5-9-1 slump and getting blown out by teams fielding minor-league caliber talent, McPhee had clearly seen enough.
Boudreau was let go and fan favorite Dale Hunter is now the man in charge.
Whether he’s successful or not hinges largely on whether or not his players are willing to do for him what they no longer did for Boudreau. When the going got tough, they caved on their last coach.
This time around, will they be willing to sacrifice personal accolades for the good of the team? Will forwards hustle back on defense or will they continue coast into the defensive zone at a leisurely pace while hoping someone else will do the dirty work? Will the same message coming from a different voice be enough to get these players back on track?
One way or the other, we’re about to find out.
During the offseason, McPhee said it wasn’t the coach; it was the players who were responsible for the team’s failures. Now, he admits the locker room no longer listened to Boudreau, so he felt obligated to make a change.
With those two moves, management has turned over the bottom half of the roster and changed the coach – but McPhee, for better or for worse, has continued to back his star players.
Will Ovechkin, Semin and friends reward GMGM’s trust? Do they understand that they’ve officially run out of scapegoats? That’s the next chapter of this story, and for the sake of everyone involved, here’s hoping things get better before they get any worse.