A Vexing Query of Leadership

It's been quite a roller coaster ride for Bruce Boudreau in Washington

The Capitals may or may not have a deficit of leadership on the ice and in the room with this roster, but dogging them most in the initial hours and days of yet another postseason far too early arrived at is an intense debate about their ultimate leader — Bruce Boudreau.

There is anything but consensus on this matter; in fact, it’d be difficult to identify a moment in Capitals’ history when as much high-pitched debate centering on the fate of the coach commanded as much speculation in print space, such a frenzy of pixels on line, and so much oration on the airwaves.

For his critics, Bruce Boudreau is a tale of two seasons — the terrific winning percentage of the regular season campaign juxtaposed by conspicuous struggle in the postseason. Moreover, he’s been bested in the postseason, while guiding favored clubs, by a host of wet-behind-the-ears coaches — John Stevens, Dan Bylsma, and most recently Guy Boucher. General Manager George McPhee on Thursday’s break-up day at Kettler seemed to offer both endorsement of the coach while also acknowledging that no firm decision on his future had been made.

“There’s no difference between a playoff coach and regular season coach. Either you’re a good coach or you’re not. He’s a good coach,” McPhee claimed. To which Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski replied, “has anyone yet heard from the Capitals why, then, there’s such a difference between their regular-season and postseason success?”

Puck Daddy adds:

“In eliminations against the Pittsburgh Penguins (2009), the Montreal Canadiens (2010) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (2011), Boudreau was outcoached. Bad line changes and too many men on the ice penalties — on a power play, no less — undermined the team against Tampa. He’s been unable to extract the same level of intensity from his players in the postseason as he has the regular season.”

Boudreau’s return for next season, Wyshynski wrote mere minutes after the Capitals’ expulsion from the postseason, “is rightfully in question.” For one of hockey’s most influential voices, Boudreau’s fate in D.C. this spring ought to be dire: “This should be Boudreau’s final game as head coach, because standards need to be higher than this.”

By Friday Jon Press of Japers’ Rink had seen enough of Gabby as well:

“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 — being an effective communicator and motivator is every bit as important as being an effective tactician and strategist here . . . for whatever reason, he’s never been able to consistently extract from this Caps team a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts when it’s mattered most. It’s time to find someone who can.”

In today’s Boston Globe Kevin Paul Dupont, taking up Washington’s latest springtime collapse and its implications, offers a commendable but brutally frank assessment of how short of success the Capitals have achieved while under Boudreau’s guidance: “Until a team makes it to the conference finals (a.k.a. the Stanley Cup semifinals), its playoff aspirations never really mature beyond “Off Broadway”’ status. Clearly, that cold reality was running through the fingertips of Capitals owner Ted Leonsis when he decided to tickle his computer keyboard immediately after his club’s wipeout Wednesday night at the hands of the Lightning.”

Dupont reminds that Bruins’ GM Peter Chiarelli publicly backed coach Dave Lewis early one offseason only to jettison him 60 days later. And Lewis didn’t get four cracks at postseason play with an elite roster as Boudreau has:

“Something has to change in Washington. It’s just not working when it needs to work the most. Blogger/owner/truthsayer Leonsis has all but written it on the subway walls and tenement halls. And it could be that McPhee will have to send his coach packing, or join him on the subway. For the Cup semis, all they’re hearing each year at the Verizon Center are the sounds of silence. “

Up in Hershey, Bears’ beat reporter Tim Leone, who knows Boudreau perhaps as well as anyone in hockey, defended the coach, stressing the vicissitudes of bounces and inches in the NHL  postseason:

“If Washington wins in overtime in Game 3 for a 3-0 series lead against eventual champion Pittsburgh two years ago, the Caps might already have a Cup in the bank. If Philly’s Jeff Carter gets the puck two inches higher in OT of Game 2 in the first round against Pittsburgh that same year, maybe the Flyers would have won it.

“A coaching change is a reaction way out of proportion to the small margins deciding winning and losing. A dramatic move might immediately feel like it gets you closer to a championship, but in reality it pushes you farther away.”

There are “Ifs” and “buts” that may be used to explain away every misfortune of a close call in a hockey postseason, and in every sport’s postseason for that matter. Ultimately what we have to evaluate are the final results, coldly and dispassionately. The Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t sweep the Capitals out of the playoffs by inches. Their star performers outperformed the Capitals’ stars by leaps and bounds. Michal Neuvirth was good, but Dwayne Roloson was appreciably better. And a real telling discrepancy in this series came from Tampa’s plumbers and muckers — Sean Bergenheim foremost among them — who lept over the boards for every shift and played inspired hockey. The men who wore the Lightning sweater were inspired by their coach. It’s difficult to look at any Capitals’ performance this spring save game 5 against New York and suggest we witnessed inspired hockey players in red and white. And the same could be said of Boudreau’s club when it counted last spring.

Boudreau’s defenders this spring fail to acknowledge that the coach entered this season with a bit of a mandate for the postseason — at least among fans and media. That’s what last spring’s shocking round one dismissal earned, coupled with going one for four in home-ice Game 7s. No one around Washington suggested that if the Caps could merely dust off an 8 seed in round one this spring all would be swell. The Capitals, most believed, needed to make discernible progress. They did not.

It isn’t just that there is a heavy accumulation of poor postseason results — shockingly early, uniformly, and always against lower-seeded teams — that is conspiring strongly against Gabby’s continuation here. It’s how they’ve looked in most of the defeats: tentative and indecisive, frightened at times, even, sloppy, and conspicuously lacking in emotion and drive.

Interestingly, there is probably a good deal of shared sentiment about Boudreau among the firing versus retaining camps this spring. Both sides would probably agree that on the whole, and relative to a majority of his NHL peers, Gabby’s a good coach, of inordinate achievement. Both sides would likely agree, too, that he’s well managed and developed George McPhee’s impressive stable of exceptional young talent. The divergence, I think, arrives at a point not unlike most of us arrived at with Glen Hanlon in the autumn of 2007: another level of accomplishment is needed and appropriate, and there is precious little evidence in this coach’s body of work in Washington that he’s likely to achieve it. Instead, his backers rely on faith.

The past week’s best assessment of the state of the Caps came from our city’s most accomplished and gifted sportswriter, the Post’s Thomas Boswell. Boz was out at break-up day at Kettler on Thursday, and he came away with a clear sense of a deeply troubled Capitals culture.

“At times like this, when a no.1 seed gets swept by a No.5 seed, you line up the firing squad or you line up the excuses. For the second straight year, the Caps went with the excuses . . .

“In a sense, the Caps are trapped by their own culture of decency, self-regard and optimism. They want to give everybody a second, and sometimes a fourth chance, even the coach. They don’t want to act in haste and repent at leisure, even if it means soft players aren’t traded and get to repeat their spring failures. They don’t want to blow up what they’ve built because they believe in sound foundations. But the Caps also flatter themselves that what they have created is a notch better than it actually is. And the Caps hate, hate, hate to admit any evaluation is wrong, until it’s so obvious they can’t deny it.

“Good intentions, good results, then playoff mortification, year after year, followed by the same mantra: There’s nothing wrong. We were just unlucky or injured. Next year: our turn. Keep the sellouts coming.”

Mortification indeed.

More beautiful Boz: “What team reacts to such devastating defeats with equanimity, common sense and a huge sigh of acceptance at life’s unfairness? How estimable. But it drives you nuts.”

This entry was posted in Bruce Boudreau, George McPhee, Greg Wyshynski, Media, New media, NHL playoffs, Print, Radio, Tampa Bay Lightning, Ted Leonsis, Tim Leone, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to A Vexing Query of Leadership

  1. HBH WC says:

    Except for the playoff collapse, BB did just what was asked of him. He did what all the pundits yelled for last year. After last years playoff loss it was said that the team had no defensive structure, they are too soft on “D” (Re-read “A plea for piss and vinegar hockey” from April of 2010). They need to change their play and strategy in the defensive zone. Well, in the 2009/2010 season, they allowed 227 GA for a GAA of 2.77 (16th in the league). This year they allowed 191 GA for a 2.33 GAA (4th in the league). They are not built to be a tight defensive team yet BB got buy-in from the players and turned them in to a top 5 defensive unit. Do you really think a different coach could have done what he did with this team? An average or even better than average coach would never had been able to pull that off without respect and buy-in from the players. That right there speaks volumes for the type of coach he is.
    The evident truth to me is that in the 2010 playoffs they simply got beat by a hot goaltender..it happens. Ask the Pittsburgh Penguins. They were 5th in goals for (3.04 GF/G and the Caps were first with 3.82 GF/G) and both teams got beat by the same goalie, same team. Think about that for a second.
    Now the critics got what they asked for this year (better “D”) and it didn’t work out and they’re still not happy.
    I think BB stays, gets back to the type of play this team seems to be built for and let the chips fall where they may.
    GMGM and BB’s biggest mistake was (and they may never admit this) listening to all the critics after last years playoffs and changing the personality of the team, with the same players. Kind of trying to make the team play like Glenn Hanlon was trying to have them play before BB was brought in and took the shackles off. No matter how hard you try, a square peg just won’t fit in a round hole.
    I say, back to fire-wagon hockey next year!!

  2. BB Stays says:

    This is an easy one, BB Stays. Take every coach that has ever been behind the bench at the NHL level, yes, thats right every single one of them and Boudreau has the most wins in his first 300 games. Obviously he can coach!! Thank goodness the guys in charge such as Leonsis, McPhee, etc. know their stuff because if you think BB should go you, don’t know hockey. Please save the knee jerk reactions for ilk like Redskins owner D. Snyder to make.

  3. Paul says:

    BB stays. Simply because any available alternatives are not any better. It is not as if the NHL has a stellar cast of genius coaches just waiting for a phone call. Then again, you could try some untested youngster…oh we did that…remember Bruce Cassidy? Fine, cry for BB to go…but think about the alternatives. We had BB waiting in the wings prior to Hanlon going….who is waiting in the wings now? Any suggestions? Any coach with a better winning record? perhaps two Jack Adams awards?

    I suggest an expanded coaching staff, that could then develop a possible replacement. This is no time to throw out the coach, then pray that a better one comes along. Let BB’s replacement prove himself first. I suggest a tough SOB type….maybe Dale Hunter?

  4. MadCap says:

    @Paul — I’ve supported BB through much of this (I’m on the other side now) but to suggest that there are no available alternatives is sort of silly. Was Bylsma on your radar a couple of years ago prior to him being promoted to the Pens head coaching position ? It’s easy to say now that “We had BB waiting in the wings” a few years back as though everyone knew he was going to be the right guy for the job — my recollection is that many thought he was a necessary stop-gap/placeholder because Hanlon had to go and until we could find a legitimate NHL head coach.

    It’s not as though there isn’t precedent in sports for a guy like BB to achieve great things with a team (but not a title) and hand the job to someone else who is able to help push the team over the top (I’m not an NBA guy, but I believe the Bulls were very good with Doug Collins in charge but didn’t win title until Collins was shown the door and Phil Jackson came on board).

  5. Paul says:

    Ok, the Pens made out with Bylsma, the Lightning made out with Boucher….and the Caps? Up until this year’s meltdown BB was considered a turn-around phenom. I just do not have the confidence that we will go back into the talent pool and get anything like Bylsma, Boucher, or pre-2 weeks ago Boudreau…more likely we get Cassidy again. I would feel more comfortable if someone made some suggestions and not assume someone good is out there. Seems like a pretty risky strategy to fire Bruce and pray we get a Phil Jackson.

  6. Some readers are taking revisionist liberties with Gabby’s standing previous to this spring. In point of fact, the Capitals last spring took their time evaluating the season’s achievements, as they’ve pledged to do this spring, and it was some days before the owner came out with his endorsement for the status quo.

    Interesting this morning to note that the Ottawa Senators apparently have in their eyesights an OHL coach, with no NHL experience, as candidate for their vacancy.


    Perhaps it’s the case that with respect to coaching candidates a GM must be able to find quality just as he must in the entry draft, beyond a top name or three, and that annually there is depth of quality available for bench leadership to the GM who does due diligence.

  7. MarkF says:

    Yes, any coach will be better than Gabby because he has lost. the. room.

  8. Geo says:

    I’m torn because on the one hand, I love Gabby for restoring a winning tradition to a franchise that seemed dead in the water when McPhee promoted him.

    I don’t think he gets enough credit for it (if it was just a matter of having a few star players, Hanlon would still be coach imho), and I don’t think he deserves the venom that online fans throw at him, any more than Bryan Murray did in the 1980s (well, we didn’t have online stuff to vent through then) when he went 7 straight playoffs without getting past the 2nd round.

    otoh, I’ve finally come around to the idea that whatever the reason, come playoff-time, BB and his staff don’t know what buttons to press, how to game-plan for frustrating trap-systems, or how to motivate underperforming players. I have to believe that because the alternative is that our players just aren’t playoff performers.

    I don’t think “fear of the unknown” or McPhee’s past track record of coach hires (Cassidy, Hanlon) is a good reason not to make a coaching change. Heck, even Cassidy got the Capitals into the playoffs.

    This all seems a moot point because barring some Eureka moment when Leonsis and gmgm are talking strategy for next year, I suspect no coaching changes (perhaps one assistant change if they feel the moribund power play needs a new look) for next year.

  9. Da Ax says:

    To me, there’s many variables that caused this:

    1- With the possible exception of Ovie, I really don’t think that the Russian/Eastern Bloc players really get what it is to win the Stanley Cup. In Canada and American, kids who play hockey DREAM of that moment. It’s a driving force…no so much with the Russian guys…

    2- The goalies are young and they got no help from the defense against TB. They could get away with some of the stuff they pulled on NY but TB was faster and had much more puck handling talent on the ice at just about any one time. Alot of guys were caught “watching” the game instead of playing it.

    3-I think Gabby did loose the room. It’s one thing to coach, but it’s another to lead. He (Gabby) has said it before: He’s never seen a bunch of guys take a lose so hard. It’s his job to get them past that…and it’s no mean feat.

    4- We did run into a hotter than hot goalie. We might have beat them 4 times this year, but that guy had our number for the most part.

    5- While the run for the cup is a grind, it’s also about match ups. I, for one, did NOT want to see the Caps play the Rangers, never mind that we beat them in 5 games. I can’t put my finger on it, but it didn’t sit well with me.

    6- TB has Yzerman as a GM…that guy knows what it takes to win and will surround himself with winners.

    For those who are calling for Gabby’s head, if feel torn…I discount most of these “fans” who call for it, because they are only paying attention because the Caps are the only team in town winning. It takes a someone with a great constitution to stand by a coach in the midst of something like this. For those who want BB gone, answer me this: Who would you bring in? Who will put you over the top? I don’t see anyone but I could be wrong.

    I’d get rid of Semin, Green and Schultz. I think the turning point in the whole thing was Federov leaving. Oh, and make someone else captain, Ovie, while a great talent, is not a leader yet. He might be the face of the franchise, but he’s not a leader of men yet. That will be decided in the future….

  10. TG says:

    Is it possible that the situation can be solved with a different assistant? Remember, the assistant’s are BB’s guys. They’ve worked together before and share the same philosophy.

    Could someone else with a different perspective, different view, different voice fill the void that everyone seems to think they have? Marc Crawford? Bob Hartley? Dave Lewis?

  11. HBH WC says:

    @ MarkF; How do you know BB lost the room? Were you in the room? People make assumptions without any factual basis and then ask for a person’s job without any legitimate reasoning except to say he lost the room.
    @ DA AX; I do think giving the “C” to Brooks Laich (should he stay) or Arnott or Knuble may be a good idea. When things look dire, Ovie tries to do it himself. Does he feel he needs to be that way because he’s the captain. Maybe removing the “C” would lift a little weight off of his shoulders.

  12. Tre Kronor says:

    @ BB Stays: I love it when someone says another reader “doesn’t know hockey.” That usually means the writer doesn’t know diddly himshelf. If the only true indicator of truly great hockey coaching were regular season victories, the likes of coaches like Ron Wilson would be coveted. Ron has won a lot of games but has no Cup to show for it and there are other examples. Do we want the Ron Wilsons of the world or are we searching for championship greatness? But, Ron did lead his Caps to the Cup finals – which is much more than can be said for BB – and I’d take one Cup run over annual epic failures like we’ve seen for 4 years – especially when the Babcocks, Bylsmas, Bouchers, Martins, Laviolettes, and Quennvilles cruise right by the Caps who leave the fans stranded like roadkill. Speaking of Bylsma, what makes anyone think that BB compares after his masterful job this year (he did lead Tampa 3-1 with a decimated lineup and who heard him whine about injuries like GMGM and BB – BB whines at pressers like a little kid too.). The true measure of coaching capability is in the playoffs – and I don’t think there can be any serious debate about that can there? BB falls down year in and year out – he is outcoached, outfoxed, and he clearly does not get his players to committ. His leadership is rightly in question and if Ted wants this team to improve on the “path toward winning” when it counts, he’ll start with a fresh coaching staff. BB has to go and then personnel changes can be addressed with a new talent evaluator.

  13. xke4me says:

    @DA AX. I agree with your trade list, and would add Varley because, with three hot young goalies, he is an asset that could be used to great advantage. I’d also like to see Laich, Hannon and Arnott re-signed, but doubt it will happen. There are some pretty interesting RFA’s and FA’s out there.

  14. Da Ax says:

    @ HBH WC: The guy with the C has to be a leader…someone who the team looks to, on the ice, to give them direction. The coach can coach, but things are so dynamic in hockey that someone on-ice has to orchestrate a bit. Arnott could be that guy. I’m real interested to see some of his comments. If he bolts for someplace else, we know that there are other problems in the locker room.

    @XKE4ME: It’s a great thing to have good young talent with tons of potential…it’s the ability to nourish and grow that potential. I’d agree with the Varly trade…I’d be hurt a bit but just due to sentimentality. He gets WAY down on himself and needs to get over that to become a great goalie. It would also help to get SCHULTZ from being a statue in front of our own goal…

  15. Clifford says:

    When a team makes the same brainless errors like bad line changes,surrendering the puck in your own end and then compounding the problem by making poor exit passes, taking dumb penalties (like right after you’ve scored a momentum changing goal or just before the period ends, or when you’re in the attacking zone) and they do those things over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again it’s poor coaching. Like I’ve said previously, Jolly Bruce reminds me of Denny Green back when he was coaching those high scoring Minnesota Vikings teams which featured Randy Moss, Chris Carter, Jake Reed and Robert Smith. They scored a lot of points and moved the ball with disdainful ease but they were piss poor on fundamentals and could never score enough–especially when they made it to the playoffs–to compensate for their defensive shortcomings. Until this year, anyway, I’d have said the exact same things about the Caps: Highly proficient on offense–but sloppy on fundamentals and defense. Except this past season the Capitals forgot how to put the puck in the net before the year was even 20 games old. That forced Double B to implement a defense first approach to things which ultimately didn’t work because his players just aren’t wired that way. So whenever things got tight(as they figured to in the pressure cooker of the playoffs), then everybody reverted to their true nature and started running around trying to do things by themselves. That’s a reflection of poor coaching too.Bruce got away with it when his teams scored 300 goals or more, but this past season was another story.

    In closing, I’d recommend getting rid of that good for nothing (looks-like-Glenn Anderson-or-Jarri-Kurri-one game-and-then-Elmer-Fudd-for-the-next ten) Alex Semin. I’d convert Mike Green to a forward because he still takes poor angles to the puck carrier is is never going to make anyone forget Borje Salming as a blue liner. Considering his youth I’d be inclined to give Niklas Backstrom one more chance to play center with a different cast of characters–especially with a young power forward with size (Eric Fehr or else someone Alex Semin would bring them in a trade). And I’d name Braden Holtby the starting goalie–something their brain dead coach refused to do after Holtby went 12-2 with a .934 save percentage, two shutouts and a Player-of-the-Week award. All that earned him was a return trip to Hershey for his efforts. But you sure as hell don’t need three goalies. I’d trade one of them for a damned good defenseman or two and then keep Varlamov even though he–like Michael Neuvirth–has a bad habit of letting in fluky goals at the worst imaginable times.I think that as he matures, though, he’ll overcome that.

    Oh, I’d do all of the foregoing and S-Can Bruce Boudreau after thanking him for the exciting brand of hockey he brought to the Beltway during his mostly successful tenure as coach of this Washington Capitals team…

  16. Spank That Donkey says:

    I think you very correct in your assessment with the exception that I would keep Neuvy, and Holtby. Valarmov seems the most fragile of the three. He should bring a solid defenseman, which I think is McPhee’s weakness vs. David Poile’s style.

    I’d rather see seven solid defensemen, and one puck mover, than the opposite. I think Uncle Fester is unable to make that mental transition, so if McPhee is going to keep him, he will need to have solid defensemen, who just do their thing, while Fester coddles his forwards.

    Seriously, isn’t that the situation? You have to either change the team make up to suit Fester’s style, or the alternative…

  17. Spank That Donkey says:

    Just read Daly’s article in the Wash Times. The thing that struck me in the end is that Leonsis and McPhee are respectful of what uncle fester did for the Capitals over the past four years… Let’s see how many years did Olie Kolzig perform in the nets for the Caps?

    It was easy when it was fun, and he had an actual defense in front of him, then the whole team was blown up (Jagr experiment), but he stayed on. He was target practice… for the entire league, but still he kept us respectable.

    The irony is that big shot uncle fester comes in, and didn’t have spit for respect for the true Veteran on the team. IMO he wanted Kolzig, and any other Cap Veteran gone, so he wouldn’t have distractions in ‘his’ locker room.

    There is only one way to break the curse….

  18. MadCap says:

    @SpankThatDonkey — Kolzig was done in ’08 and everyone (except maybe Kolzig) knew it. The main reason that Caps made the run to the playoffs was the Huet deadline deal. Would you have been happier if BB had played Kolzig out of respect for his time here and missed the playoffs ? Kolzig was not prepared to bow out gracefully, so it ended ugly. I think that falls on Kolzig, not BB.

  19. Pingback: Looking beyond a playoff W-L record | Mike Holden's blog

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