It’s very clear that at least this season, Bruce Boudreau had tried to instill a level of discipline that we hadn’t previously witnessed during his tenure with the Washington Capitals.
For a guy who had optional practices even in the playoffs and was known as a ‘players coach,’ these were moves that represented a dramatic shift in philosophy.
They came far too late.
Outside of scratching Marcus Johansson during the first game of the season, (Marcus immediately responded to his benching with three goals and four points in his first four games back.) the sudden shift toward discipline did not exactly pay off:
Action: Forcing all players to go through a rapid succession of wind sprint drills designed to test their endurance.
Result: The Caps sure looked like a team in top performance shape during their 7-0 start to the season. However it turned out the Capitals needed more than suicide wind sprints to force them into a new state of reality.
At times the Capitals appeared to literally give up in games in which they did not lead. It’s hard for even an NHL head coach to pull a Dr. Phil and force a full-scale attitude adjustment, but the endurance level of many like Roman Hamrlik also appeared questionable at times.
Action: Alexander Semin was benched for the latter half of a game against New Jersey after taking a costly penalty and appearing disinterested. He also was scratched later on after committing at least one penalty in at least seven games.
Result: After being given only 8:25 of ice time and kept off the ice for most of the 2nd period and all of the 3rd period during a November 11th game against New Jersey, Semin followed up this performance by committing a penalty the next night and only firing one shot on goal.
After that November 12th game against the Devils, Semin would go on to commit penalties in his next three games and continue to play a lackadaisical all-around game. In reaction, Boudreau would scratch Semin during a recent game against St. Louis. Message received?
The signs looked good as Semin came back from being scratched with his first ‘non-penalty’ game in nearly a month. Semin also scored a goal.
However in the two games since then, Semin has again regressed taking a penalty in both games and once again looking disinterested and not producing on offense. So much for a wake-up call.
Action: Boudreau did not put Alexander Ovechkin on the ice for a key 6-on-5, empty net situation in the last minute of a game with the Capitals trailing.
Result: In the short-term the result here was actually fantastic. The Caps would score with Nicklas Backstrom supplying the game-tying goal while Ovechkin was not on the ice.
In terms of good news, that’s certainly not all we can talk about. In the twelve games since being benched late against Anaheim, Alex has been far more physical.
On the negative side: Since the benching Ovechkin has not exactly lit the world up on offense, producing only three goals since then. At times he still appears to be floating on defense. It also doesn’t help things that even prior to the benching, Ovechkin had reportedly tuned out Boudreau and was not listening to the suggestions of the coaching staff.
Action: To send a message that it wasn’t only superstars, but also guys perceived as ‘hard workers’ who would be held accountable, Joel Ward would be scratched for oversleeping a team meeting prior to last Wednesday’s game against Winnipeg.
Result: What would turn out to be Boudreau’s final act to reprimand did not have the desired long-term affect. Yes the Capitals won the game that Ward was scratched against Winnipeg but Washington has looked anything but accountable in the two games following Ward being scratched.
With Ward back in the lineup again, the Capitals lost 6-3 to the New York Rangers. The situation was further exacerbated thanks to a 5-1 shellacking at the hands of the very undermanned Buffalo Sabres, the very next night.
Whatever you think of the man’s coaching habits, one had to admire the honest candor Boudreau displayed upon being asked about his team’s lack of heart following the Buffalo lose. “If I’ve got to teach them how to be tough, then I don’t know quite how to do that.”
For a coach who had no qualms about switching up his lines multiple times in a single game and who did not hesitate to completely revamp the Capitals into having a more defensive based system, Boudreau was at least two years late in implementing the most important piece: Carrying out discipline.
We’ve seen Ovechkin appear out-of-shape in years past, we’ve seen Semin play in a fog, and while he appears much stronger this season, we’ve seen Mike Green forget about his defensive responsibilities and too riskily carry the puck up ice. We’ve also seen guys like Jeff Schultz continue to play with less physicality then they are capable off.
In reaction to all of this, where was the discipline? Where were the ice time reductions? Why only now were all players being held to the same standards when scratches were doled out?
Furthermore, why did the Capitals have so many ‘optional’ practices? Optional or not, why did team Captain Alexander Ovechkin get away with missing so many of those optional practices?
Team leadership should not be optional. Team discipline needed to be far more strident.
So even while Boudreau became the fastest NHL coach to 200 win games, helped guide the Capitals to their first Presidents Trophy and their finest regular season ever in 2009-10 and had his Washington Capitals win the Southeast Division every full season he has coached, this was a move that had to be made. The reason why George McPhee told the media today that Boudreau’s message was being tuned out was because Bruce waited far too long too discipline his players.
It’s hard to knock the walls down on a country club when its members have lived comfortably there for over four years.
Meanwhile while the coach may have changed, the players remain. We can only tell you that in our opinion, many of those players need to look in a mirror today and give themselves an honest assessment.
Why should Boudreau have felt he had to ingrain a stronger mental toughness into this team? They are after all professionals, shouldn’t they already have it?
This team may be young, but they aren’t that young. It’s disturbing to know just how right they both were after John Carlson and Karl Alzner recently told reporters that Capitals confidence is on such shaky ground that merely giving up one goal is enough to rattle the confidence of this team. This team has been to the playoffs every year. Yes, they haven’t done well, but shouldn’t they be a little more battletested as to not lose confidence every time either the defense, and/or goaltenders let them down?
Besides players on the current roster, we can’t let George McPhee, (The man who directly fired Boudreau.) off the hook either.
No doubt McPhee knows the Caps were under-disciplined. As he admitted this off-season, he also knew the Caps were in need of grit.
So as you’re searching for guys who can add grit and are capable of being coached, why would you keep re-signing a guy in Alexander Semin, who seems to be tangentially opposed to helping you in either area? It just doesn’t make sense.
As for the new coach, Capitals great Dale Hunter, if you’ve only heard that name once, you may only know him as the man who cheap-shotted Pierre Turgeon after an Islanders overtime victory. Please read up on the man a little more.
Hunter was the Capitals’ captain from 1994-99 and had a playing career in Washington that stretched back to 1987. Hunter also is only player in league history with 1,000 points and 3,000 penalty minutes.
As undoubtedly the most rugged customer in the NHL during his time, Hunter had his number retired by the Capitals, and since then has become the fastest coach to reach 400 wins in the Ontario Hockey League.
“He wasn’t a big talker, but his play spoke volumes. You wanted to follow him around,” Craig Laughlin told USA Today. “Players will probably say he’s a ‘players coach’ because they’re afraid to say otherwise,” said George McPhee Monday.
After a far too lax Boudreau regime, is it a good thing some Capitals may be a little afraid of their new coach? Absolutely.
So while Ovechkin and company might be in part responsible for why Boudreau is now gone, they may find that life with Boudreau was a ‘walk in the park’ compared to what Dale Hunter has in store for them. For Capitals fans, this would be a most welcome change.