The playoffs have sapped the NHL’s master turnaround artist of his regular season superpowers. Will the Wild wipe all the bad memories away?
Brady Boudreau couldn’t let it go. He stood with his father, Bruce, taking in January’s All-Star Game festivities in Los Angeles, watching as the NHL unveiled its top 100 players of all-time. Included on that list was legendary Montreal Canadiens goaltender Georges Vezina, a three-time Stanley Cup winner, but Brady insisted the voting panel made the wrong call. It should’ve been Chicago Black Hawks stopper Charlie Gardiner.
“This is 1915 or 1920, and I have no clue what he’s talking about,” Bruce said. “But he researches all this stuff.”
Brady, 18 and the youngest of four Boudreau children, has Asperger’s Syndrome. One common characteristic of the condition is an intense interest in a narrow subject, and it turns out he’s obsessed with hockey. He can rhyme off stats from a century ago on a dime. He was born just in time for the turn of the millennium but knows more about the NHL’s early days than its current ones. Brady is already a senior in college finishing up a sports management degree. Bruce would love to see him become the next John Chayka or Kyle Dubas.
Brady’s ability to fixate on one topic and accumulate immense knowledge may be the product of Asperger’s, but his father has his own obsession. Bruce is a diehard comic book fan, more specifically a Marvel nut. He estimates he began collecting the series in 1968. That included everything from Daredevil to X-Men, but Spider-Man was Boudreau’s guy. His fanhood extends to comic book movies these days, and when Sam Raimi began making Spider-Man flicks in the 2000s, Boudreau could tell anyone exactly which issue every scene referred to.
“When Spider-Man 3 came out with the Sandman, I’m going, ‘That’s from The Amazing Spider-Man No. 18, when he closes his costume away,’ ” Boudreau said.
The story falls apart if Boudreau is wrong, but he’s not. Google “Amazing Spider-Man 18 1963” and you’ll pull up a cover featuring Flint Marko, a.k.a the Sandman. Dig up a synopsis and you’ll learn Spidey indeed quits the superhero business and turfs his costume.
Boudreau, like his son, has a steel-trap memory when it comes to hockey, too. It’s just that his extends to his coaching career. He remembers the lowlights just as clearly as the highlights – maybe clearer. He has won games at a faster rate than any coach in history with 250 or more games to his name, compiling a .657 points percentage, right there with Scotty Bowman. But Boudreau is known as the bench boss who piles up regular season accolades and can’t win The Big One. He’s 1-7 in Game 7s between his tenures with the Washington Capitals and Anaheim Ducks, and he can tell you exactly what happened on every page of every one of those sad stories just like they were issues of Spider-Man.
He doesn’t shrug off that pesky choker rep. He lugs it around begrudgingly.
“It drives me nuts, because I really don’t play the game,” he said with a laugh. “People tend to forget I’ve lost three times in the seventh game to the Stanley Cup champions. Who’s to say a goal here, a goal there…in hockey, it happens every game, where you miss by an inch or you score by an inch. If we had scored in Game 6 or 7 against Chicago in 2015, same thing against L.A in 2014, same thing against Pittsburgh in 2009, who’s to say we wouldn’t have won three Stanley Cups?”
Boudreau points out his Capitals claimed a 2-0 series lead on the 2009 Penguins and lost Games 3 and 4 in overtime before really just playing one bad game the whole series, which happened to be Game 7. Boudreau reminds us his goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, was a rookie at the time, whereas the Penguins had Marc-Andre Fleury, who’d been to the final a year prior. When Boudreau’s Ducks fell to the Kings in 2014, he started an inexperienced John Gibson opposite 2012 Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick in the deciding game. Hey, that was Boudreau’s decision and no one else’s, but he has a point.
“Maybe they weren’t ready to win at that time,” he said, “and maybe they’re ready to win now.”
Boudreau’s heavily favored Ducks fell to Nashville in Game 7 of last year’s Pacific Division semifinal, and he knew his time behind the Ducks bench was over. GM Bob Murray axed him within two days. It might’ve seemed cold-hearted, but Boudreau didn’t mind.
“I actually told Bob, ‘I appreciate you letting me know right away and not hanging on, so I can get another job,’ ” he said.
Boudreau, 62, stayed on the market about as long as a luxury beachfront condo. The Wild and Ottawa Senators intrigued him most, and the Wild won out. He said he was sucked in by the Minnesota fan culture, referencing the ‘State of Hockey’ moniker, and GM Chuck Fletcher made a warm, friendly impression. Boudreau was sold.
But why was it a match from the Wild’s perspective? Why take a chance on a coach seemingly allergic to Stanley Cup final berths? Because Boudreau is a master turnaround artist, the king of making bad teams good and good teams, like Minnesota, great. This time he has no Alex Ovechkin, no Nicklas Backstrom, no Ryan Getzlaf, no Corey Perry, yet Boudreau has done it again with the Wild. By the start of March, their 41-14-6 record led the Western Conference. The Wild won’t win the Central thanks to a March swoon, but Boudreau still has eight division regular season titles in 10 tries.
Boudreau breeds regular season dominance as if he’s distilled the perfect formula to do so. Ask him how and he struggles to explain why. The secret lies in the people he leads and, more specifically, unlocking the potential of those who have not yet realized it. Alexander Semin was an explosive scorer under Boudreau in D.C., but a headache without him. Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg formed arguably the NHL’s best checking line in Anaheim with Boudreau guiding them. And in Minnesota, we’ve witnessed a series of births and rebirths. Mikael Granlund finally reached his immense offensive ceiling, obliterating career-highs and perching among the league’s top scorers after years of underachieving. He did so alongside captain Mikko Koivu, also enjoying his best season in years, and with insulation on the depth chart in the form of Eric Staal, signed after a down year destroyed his stock and left many wondering if he was done as a frontline NHLer.
Boudreau was instrumental in bringing Staal to Minnesota and inciting a bounce-back performance.
“I’ve been given an opportunity to play in a role I’m most comfortable in,” Staal said. “I had great candid conversations with Bruce over the summer, and he told me he’s going to give me every opportunity to play the way he knew and I felt like I could play.”
They call Boudreau ‘Gabby’ for a reason. He’s a talker. He may be too modest to pinpoint how he transforms teams, but it’s clear his ability to study and communicate with his players elevates them. Koivu said Boudreau has earned the players’ respect by connecting with each of them and holding every guy accountable. Koivu referred to him as fair.
“People want to think that there’s a secret way I do business, and there’s not,” Boudreau said. “I don’t really know what I do, except that I do it with my voice and personality, and it seems to have worked.”
The first thing he does when he joins a new team is spend countless hours getting to know his staff. He’s big on individual meetings. He wants to find out “what makes everyone tick,” from his assistant coaches to his players, because he believes knowing a person helps him maximize their effectiveness. He understood Staal just needed someone to trust him, to believe he was still a No. 1 center capable of playing high-leverage minutes. If there’s one word players repeatedly use to describe Boudreau, it’s motivator.
“He gets players excited about the game, whatever game it is,” Granlund said. “As a player, you don’t need to think about that much. You need to get yourself ready, but he does a lot of that for you. It helps a lot.”
Granlund, who has jumped from half a point a per game to nearly a point per game, makes for a perfect case study of the Boudreau touch. Boudreau saw a player with tremendous natural ability. The key was simply letting Granlund play to his instincts and loosening the slack on the leash.
“The only thing I’ve really told him in the whole year in respect to playing is not to be so cute when we have a lead,” Boudreau said. “So sometimes, if we’re up 3-2 with eight minutes to go, he’ll still try to make a play at the blueline when I want him to get it behind the ‘D.’ Other than that…all I’ve done is try to give him confidence and let him do what he wants within the confines of the way we play.”
Spoken more like a lenient parent than a taskmaster coach, and that’s how Boudreau gets his teams to win so prolifically. He tries to understand his resources rather than bend and twist them into something they aren’t. Who can argue with the results?
In the regular season, that is. The playoffs are another story. Boudreau’s 41-39 career mark amounts to a .513 points percentage. Forget the all-time list – that number places him 14th among active coaches alone.
The lack of playoff runs into June looks especially strange considering Boudreau won at every level he coached before he reached the NHL, including a Calder Cup with the AHL’s Hershey Bears and a Kelly Cup with the ECHL’s Mississippi Sea Wolves. So what happens to his seemingly elite teams at the NHL level?
The theory he tabled earlier was his goalies’ lack of experience. His primary starters over his eight playoff years: Cristobal Huet, Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Jonas Hiller and Frederik Andersen. The average career playoff experience for Boudreau’s goaltenders at the start of each first round: eight games. The average career experience of the starting goalie who eliminated Boudreau’s teams over those years: 29 games. And, like he said, his teams have been eliminated three times by eventual Cup champions. The ’09 Penguins had played to Game 6 of the final the year prior. The 2014 Kings and 2015 Blackhawks boasted cores that had already won Stanley Cups together. Looks like Boudreau isn’t making lame excuses, though his teams did lose by a combined score of 17-7 in those three games, none of which were even competitive. And his early exits offer few other common threads. For example, Boudreau’s teams have ranked as shot-attempt juggernauts entering about half his playoff years and have been mediocre in others, with little effect on how far his teams go.
So will the Wild finally bring him fortune this spring? In Vezina Trophy hopeful Devan Dubnyk, Boudreau has a goalie with 16 games of playoff experience. Hey, that’s double the average for his previous teams. Still, under the NHL’s divisional playoff format, there’s an excellent chance Minnesota meets Chicago in Round 2. Boudreau can’t touch coach Joel Quenneville in playoff mileage and savvy, nor can the Wild come close to what the Blackhawks have accomplished in the post-season.
So Boudreau will have to hope the experience problem doesn’t sink him again. He’ll rely on Ryan Suter’s ability to play 30 minutes a night on the blueline and on the Wild’s supreme center depth, from Staal to Koivu to freshly acquired Martin Hanzal to Erik Haula. Boudreau will try to ride a crest of peaking players: Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker and Jared Spurgeon. And, geez, Boudreau will have to cross his fingers and toes. His teams have been so close that the slightest change in luck could bring him a Stanley Cup.
Boudreau’s summer arrival in Minnesota was rocky. He and wife Crystal placed their faith in an obscure moving company to haul their gear. One of its trucks crashed, destroying a bunch of their possessions, including some of the only comic books Boudreau hadn’t sold away. Some of their belongings were stolen. It was a miserable experience, but the Boudreaus let it go and believed Minnesota would bring happiness. It has. Now it’s time for Boudreau to let all those playoff defeats go – and look forward. Having such a vivid memory can be a curse but also a blessing. If he finally lifts the Cup, the moment will burn itself into his brain permanently.