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.”
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.”