Alex Ovechkin has dropped from MVP seasons to an ordinary one for Washington. In Carolina, Eric Staal is stuck in a seasonlong slump.
Two of the NHL’s best players get the rest of the season to try and turn around their numbers and revert to form.
Their coaches weren’t so lucky.
The clearance season in the NHL hit full blast on Monday when the Capitals fired Bruce Boudreau and the Hurricanes dismissed Paul Maurice, both victims of the underachieving seasons out of their superstars and years without a trip to the Stanley Cup finals. With little hope under the current regimes to end that streak this season, management in both places decided to strike and make a move, potentially salvaging a season before it slipped away.
Dale Hunter, in his first NHL coaching job, takes a turn trying to spark Ovechkin, slumping forward Alex Semin and the rest of the Capitals. And former all-star Kirk Muller took over in Carolina, charged with fixing a team that has made one playoff appearance since 2006
Around the league, the firings were met with little more than a shrug and a wish both men land on their feet elsewhere.
Boudreau did in a hurry.
A third coach was added to this week’s upheaval late Wednesday night when the Anaheim Ducks fired Randy Carlyle after a win, that snapped a seven-game losing streak, and hired Boudreau to replace him.
Jobs open fast in the NHL, where the average tenure is less than a Winter Olympics cycle.
Boudreau and Maurice weren’t the only ex-Eastern Conference coaches scanning the bottom of the standings for the next potential opening.
Consider these rent, don’t buy warnings since the start of last season:
—Hired in February 2009, Ottawa fired Cory Clouston in April.
—Florida fired Pete DeBoer on April 10, a day after he completed his third season behind the bench.
—The Atlanta Thrashers fired Craig Ramsay after only one season when the franchise started anew in Winnipeg.
—In New Jersey, Jacques Lemaire retired and gave way to DeBoer. Lemaire has reiterated often his desire to stay retired.
See a pattern?
It’s not any better in the Western Conference where Dallas fired Marc Crawford with a year left on his contract and the Minnesota Wild canned Todd Richards after the team missed the playoffs in each of his two seasons.
The Blues were the first team to make a move this season when they fired Davis Payne in the final year of his contract after a lacklustre 6-7 start and replaced him with Ken Hitchcock.
St. Louis’ move was an instant success—the Blues moved to 8-1-2 under Hitchcock following a 2-1 win Tuesday night that spoiled Hunter’s debut.
Muller’s debut behind Carolina’s bench also ended in defeat Tuesday night when the Panthers beat the Hurricanes 3-1.
Carolina is stuck in 14th place in the East entering Wednesday’s action, yet it is only six points out of the eighth and final playoff spot. Team owner Peter Karmanos Jr. made the decision now so the Hurricanes could still have time to finish with a successful season.
“I think it goes a long way toward getting the players’ confidence,” he said. “And the thing that we seem to be lacking most lately is confidence. So he’s certainly a guy that can provide leadership and experience and the notion of having been there and make sure all the players have confidence in themselves.”
He could be talking, of course, about Staal, a former 100-point scorer with five seasons of 30-plus goals. He has just five goals and 12 points in 26 games this year.
Maybe a fresh voice and new style could lead Staal to break out and lead the Hurricanes back into the post-season. Staal realized Maurice could still be around with anything near his normal production.
“Things are different if I’m 20 goals into the season and we’re five games above.500. I’m sure it’s a totally different situation,” Staal said. “But we’re not, I’m not, and it’s definitely something you think about and feel bad for. But there’s not much you can do. That’s where we’re at now and it’s a clean slate for most of the guys here, a new face.”
Those words could be said of Ovechkin in Washington. Ovechkin, who has topped 100 points four times in six seasons, has eight goals and 18 points in 23 games.
Boudreau said Wednesday he doesn’t believe two-time league MVP Ovechkin “was ever a problem.” He says when Ovechkin’s statistics went down, people were putting “two and two together and they usually end up with five” to conclude there was a problem between player and coach.
Maybe not. But there were certainly problems with the Capitals after a franchise-best 7-0 start.
Boudreau turned around a moribund franchise when he was hired in 2007, leading the Capitals to four consecutive division titles and one Presidents’ Trophy, along with winning the league’s coach of the year award in 2008. He won 200 games faster than any coach in modern NHL history.
But he never won them with the Capitals in June.
And for most franchises, that’s all that matters.
Buffalo is the exception, where Lindy Ruff has been behind the bench longer than any coach in pro sports. Since Ruff was hired on July 21, 1997, there have been 167 coaching changes in the NHL.
Ruff has 539 wins, which ranks second on the NHL list for most victories by a coach with a single franchise. Al Arbour, formerly of the Islanders, leads the list with 740.
While two Southwest Division coaches got pink slipped on Monday, Ruff was focused on the next game.
“I feel fortunate to have my job as long as I’ve had,” he said. “When you see two fellow coaches lose their jobs, you don’t feel good about it. I think it sums up how tight this league is and the pressure to win. It’s tough. Both teams have struggled. When you look at it, sometimes that’s the route they go.”
The changes in St. Louis, Washington, Carolina and Anaheim likely won’t be the last this season.
Carlyle led the Ducks to their only Stanley Cup championship in 2007 and agreed to a three-year contract extension in August. With 18 points, the Ducks are ahead of only Columbus in the West and Anaheim’s patience quickly ran out.
“A lot of talking. A lot of meetings. Really no answers,” Ducks forward Teemu Selanne said. “It seems to me that nothing works. It’s just unbelievable.”
Only a year after he was hired, Jack Capuano could be in trouble with the Islanders, who are off to a 7-11-4 start and are last in the East.
Hitchcock was rumoured early in the season as a potential replacement for Scott Arniel in Columbus. Arniel was spared once but might not last the season if the Blue Jackets show no improvement.
Karmonos hoped acting early will make a difference in playing in April and beyond.
“I’m sure we can salvage the season,” he said “It’s November.”
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary and John Wawrow contributed to this story.