Trouble was in the air at least a couple weeks before the axe came down on Bruce Boudreau and Paul Maurice.
With the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes losing more than they were winning, both men knew they were on thin ice before getting fired hours apart on a Black Monday in the NHL coaching ranks.
“Both Gabby&Mo are excellent coaches and great people,” tweeted veteran Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson, no stranger to the hot seat himself. “My thoughts go out to them.”
It was the first time two NHL coaches had been fired on the same day during the season since Feb. 24, 2004, when St. Louis dumped Joel Quenneville and Phoenix canned Bob Francis.
Boudreau and Maurice were operating under different expectations—the Caps are chasing a Stanley Cup, Carolina is hoping to make the playoffs—but shared some of the same headaches this season.
The captains of both Southeast Division teams are struggling mightily. As of Monday, Eric Staal of the Hurricanes was a league-worst minus-17 and on pace for his lowest point total since his rookie year. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, once the NHL’s undisputed goal-scoring king, was tied for 38th in that category.
The most telling sign of trouble for both men came when they started making bold moves that didn’t achieve the desired result. Boudreau feuded with Ovechkin during a game and scratched veterans Joel Ward and Alex Semin over the last week, but Washington still lost six of eight; and Maurice benched defenceman Tomas Kaberle on Sunday for a game Carolina lost 4-3 in Ottawa.
Boudreau had essentially been under fire for a calendar year, dating back to a long winless slide that was captured during HBO’s “24/7” series last December and punctuated with a sweep by Tampa Bay in the second round of the playoffs.
Eventually, his time ran out.
“I think Bruce came in here and emptied the tank,” Capitals GM George McPhee told reporters in Arlington, Va. “He gave it everything he could and did a really good job, but the tank was empty. When that happens, you get a new coach where the tank is full and see if it makes a difference.”
Maurice was in his second stint with the budget-conscious Hurricanes and had been expected to help a team with modest talent overachieve. With the playoffs slipping further from view, Carolina GM Jim Rutherford decided to see if Kirk Muller can get more out of the players than Maurice.
“We feel confident that he is the right man to lead our team now and in the future,” said Rutherford.
Both Muller and Dale Hunter, who replaced Boudreau in Washington, follow the recent trend of organizations turning to new voices rather than experienced ones. They’ll each be a head coach in the NHL for the first time—Muller having arrived from the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals and Hunter from the OHL’s London Knights.
If history is any indication, a turnaround should accompany their arrival. It almost always does. Just witness the 7-1-2 record St. Louis has managed since replacing Davis Payne with veteran Ken Hitchcock in the NHL’s only other coaching change so far this season.
A similar thing happened when Boudreau was hired in November 2007 and helped take the Capitals from last place to the Southeast Division title. He won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year that spring.
Over time, he seemed to fall out of step with his most important players, especially in the last 12 months while trying to turn their focus to defence. McPhee decided he could no longer turn a blind eye to the growing rift.
“The reason for the change was we weren’t winning obviously,” he said. “This wasn’t a slump. You can ride out slumps. This was simply a case of the players no longer responding to Bruce.
“When you see that, as much as you don’t want to make a change, you have to make a change.”
Maurice didn’t have nearly as much star power to work with, but he’s used to producing more with less. His second stint with Carolina started in December 2008 and resulted in a surprise run to the Eastern Conference final.
However, the Hurricanes missed the post-season the last two years and currently sit 14th in the Eastern Conference after an 8-13-4 start.
There are currently four NHL teams with fewer points than Carolina and the coaches in those cities are all in danger of meeting the same fate as Maurice and Boudreau if things don’t change soon.
In light of Monday’s events, it’s unlikely Scott Arniel (Columbus), Randy Carlyle (Anaheim), Brent Sutter (Calgary) or Jack Capuano (N.Y. Islanders) needed to be reminded of that.