Boucher has Senators charging and could be a sleeper for coach of the year

Guy Boucher has the Senators sacrificing the body like never before and the commitment to defense has Ottawa in a position to get to a place they haven’t been since the season’s opening days.

On Tuesday night in Ottawa, the Senators have a chance to accomplish three things. First, a victory would push the Senators to 86 points on the season, putting them ahead of their point total from 2015-16 with 15 games still to be played. That would put Ottawa on pace to finish the campaign with 101 points and would mark their first 100-plus point season in a decade. In addition, winning Tuesday’s tilt against the Lightning could push the Senators into a tie for first place in the Atlantic Division, a spot the club hasn’t been since the opening days of the campaign.

Considering there was a time when it appeared the Senators’ playoff chances were bleak and fighting for a wild-card spot seemed a more realistic fate for Ottawa than battling it out for home ice advantage through the first two rounds, the turnaround inside of this season has been astounding. Now a post-season spot is all but a certainty for the Senators. So, with little more than a dozen games remaining in their season and Ottawa in the conversation for the top seed in the Atlantic, it might be time to give some consideration to Guy Boucher’s candidacy for coach of the year.

When we touched on the top six candidates for the Jack Adams Award last week, we addressed the fact that there was no clear cut frontrunner. There may be tiers, of course, with Minnesota Wild bench boss Bruce Boudreau and Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella the two candidates with the greatest chance at taking home some end-of-year hardware, but Boucher, who has his Senators on a six-game win streak right now, is increasingly looking like he deserves to be in Las Vegas for the awards this season.

The primary reason Boucher deserves to be in the conversation is point improvement and point improvement alone. Ottawa took a 14-point step backwards in 2015-16 under coach Dave Cameron in what was a frustrating season all around. Cameron simply didn’t get the job done,  missing the playoffs by 11 points and finishing with the fifth-fewest regulation wins of any team in the league. It wasn’t as if the team was in shambles, either, so for Cameron’s Senators to take that big a step backwards was troubling and reason enough for his removal, and it set up for Boucher to move Ottawa in the right direction this season.

That said, few would have expected Boucher to step in and improve the team as much as he has, regardless of the roster he was given. There are some incredibly talented pieces in Ottawa, to be sure. Erik Karlsson is, for obvious reasons, considered one of the greatest offensive defensemen of this generation and Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman would likely be much bigger stars than they are if they played in Montreal or Toronto. But even with a talented roster, turning things around this swiftly isn’t easy.

In the years under Paul MacLean, who won the Jack Adams in 2012-13, the Senators were a fierce attacking team that had a run-and-gun style. The Senators scored 652 goals under MacLean, allowed 666 against and individual players such as Karlsson, Stone and Hoffman had breakout seasons. When MacLean was fired and replaced with Cameron in December 2014, Ottawa continued its offensive style and only three teams scored more goals than the Senators’ 394 during Cameron’s 137-game tenure. 

Things have been much different under Boucher, however. There’s no greater indication of that than the increase the Senators have seen in shot blocking.

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During the 2014-15 season, the Senators blocked 1,045 shots. The following year, the first full campaign under Cameron, Ottawa’s defenders stepped in front of 1,196 shots. But this season, Boucher has his team on pace to block nearly 1,400 shots. The difference for individual players has been vast, too. Cody Ceci, for instance, has already surpassed his blocked shots total from 2015-16. Kyle Turris is on pace to double his total from the past campaign. And atop all shot blockers in Ottawa sits Karlsson, who has blocked 181 shots and ranks 10th in the league in that category.

And, really, Boucher’s ability to get his team to commit to blocking shots has been the biggest change. It’s helped on the penalty kill, where Ottawa has improved from 75.8 percent to nearly 81.9 percent this season. And while many of the possession ratios have improved only slightly over the past season, what has improved at a greater rate than others, however, is the Senators’ percentage of shots on goal. Ottawa is generating nearly 50 percent of the shots on goal each game at 5-on-5, which signals a 3.5 percent improvement from 2015-16.

The defensive structure hasn’t been as beneficial to the offensive players as many of the top players have taken a slight step back in their actual production, but it has benefitted the goaltending in Ottawa. 

After posting mediocre numbers under Cameron, Craig Anderson has a .930 save percentage and his goals against average has dipped by more than half a goal. At 5-on-5, his save percentage has jumped from .926 to .941, which is tops in the league among 1,000-plus minute goaltenders, and his four shutouts have matched his past season’s total in literally half the games played. A contributing factor has been that Anderson’s seeing less shots from in tight and, generally speaking, more shots are coming from low-danger areas this season than he saw during the previous campaign.

This could have been seen coming. During his prior NHL coaching stint in Tampa Bay, Boucher’s coaching style became somewhat infamous during a ridiculous game of a keep-away the Philadelphia Flyers played against the Lightning. It was a direct response to Boucher’s defensive 1-3-1 formation. And while he’s seemingly learned some new tricks, Boucher is still a coach who harps on defensive responsibility and sacrifice in order to get the job done. While it might not be the most exciting style game in and game out, few would deny that he’s managed to get the job done this season in Ottawa.

Where the Senators finish in the Atlantic is yet to be determined and a home-and-home set with the Canadiens this weekend could go a long way in deciding who finishes atop the division. And what happens once the post-season rolls around is anyone’s guess. But if Boucher can guide Ottawa to home ice advantage throughout the first two rounds of the playoffs — a spot few would have imagined the Senators would be in prior to the season — he’ll be all the more deserving of a long look for coach of the year.

(All advanced statistics via Corsica)

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