When George McPhee fired his coach and replaced him with an inexperienced NHL commodity three years ago around American Thanksgiving, it turned the fortunes of the Washington Capitals around. With much more at stake this time, he’s obviously hoping for the same result.
On Firing Line Monday in the NHL, Boudreau was relieved of his duties with the Capitals and Paul Maurice was canned by the Carolina Hurricanes. In both cases, the organizations were fiercely loyal to their men. Boudreau was McPhee’s diamond in the rough and a damn good coach. Maurice, in his second tour of duty with the Hurricanes, goes back to their days as the Hartford Whalers. But when a team plays as badly as the Capitals and Hurricanes have performed lately, loyalty to the man behind the bench means jack-squat.
All of which should have Randy Carlyle, who helped the Anaheim Ducks win their only Stanley Cup just a little more than four years ago, very, very nervous at the moment. He should also be concerned that both Boudreau and Maurice took the fall for their star players, Alex Ovechkin and Eric Staal, having terrible seasons, especially with Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan coughing up a fur ball so far in 2011-12.
We do know that in the case of the Washington, there is an enormous amount of desperation in the air. You can bet that Capitals legend Dale Hunter didn’t come cheaply. As head coach and part owner of the obscenely profitable London Knights, Hunter was making more money – it has been speculated – than he ever made as a player, and you’d have to believe he didn’t leave that situation to take a pay cut. Just as a point of reference, Hunter maxed out as a player at $1 million a season.
What they’ll presumably get in Hunter is a guy who will make it crystal clear to them that the work ethic and approach to the game they’ve displayed is unacceptable. And for that, each and every one of the players in that dressing room should feel an enormous amount of shame.
As this corner has expressed before, it never fails to boggle the mind how players can grow complacent and underachieve when a so-called “players’ coach” treats them like adults and asks and expects them to simply put forth the maximum effort they’re able to in games and practices.
I just spent the better part of a week with the Capitals for a cover story in The Hockey News magazine, a three-game stretch on the road that probably went a long way to sealing Boudreau’s fate. The Capitals were outscored 14-3 and defeated by the Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs.
I’m not going to pretend I was privy to everything that went on during that road trip, but I was in on all the pre-game and pre-practice meetings and had unfettered access to the dressing room. And I can say with 100 percent certainty that I did not see a team that was playing to have its coach fired. I did not see a team that was at odds with its coach or a team that gave any indication it felt things would get better with someone else in charge behind the bench. I saw no hint of residual resentment over Boudreau’s benching of Alex Ovechkin, nor did I see a coach who even once pointed a finger at any one of his players individually to call him out for his poor play. And when you went through the video of those games there were plenty of candidates, right from No. 8 through the fourth-liners. If the Capitals were so keen on having Boudreau fired, how exactly do you explain them getting out of the gate with a 7-0-0 record?
At one point during the trip, Boudreau basically told his team to figure it out. I asked him after that very short meeting if that meant he was throwing his arms up with the group and he gave me a very interesting response.
“I’ve always based a lot of my coaching on parenting,” Boudreau said. “I berated them last night (during a 4-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets Nov. 17) between periods pretty emphatically. We’ve bag skated them and when we lost against Nashville (3-1 Nov. 15) I praised them. But when they keep making mistakes, it’s like a parent telling them, ‘Go clean your room, go clean your room,’ it goes in one ear and out the other. You have to figure it out yourself and when you do that, it sticks with you.”
Evidently, the veteran-laden Capitals never did figure it out on their own and a good man paid for it with his job. Early in his career with the Capitals, Boudreau leaned far too much on his star players, as any new coach would, and they ultimately betrayed him. He got tough with them and they didn’t respond. He stopped telling them to clean their room and instead of taking the initiative to do it themselves, they continued to be content to live among their own squalor.
So exactly when does this fall at the feet of the players? Or at the feet of the management and ownership team that thought offering a guy who had three outstanding years a 13-year contract worth $124 million was a good idea? (With the template established by the new NBA deal, thankfully these ridiculous deals will likely become a thing of the past in the next collective bargaining agreement.)
That time would be right now. The Capitals are about to find out what it’s like to get a kick in the pants and they deserve it. Whether it will be enough to transform the Capitals again into the serious Stanley Cup contender they were prior to the season remains to be seen.
The Capitals simply have to be better. Their superstars (with the exception of Nicklas Backstrom) have to be a lot better. The goaltender who is trying to prove he’s worth big money has to be a lot better. Their young defensemen have to wake up and start playing to their potential. And their veterans have to step up and provide an example that has been sorely lacking.
Can Dale Hunter make all that happen? Not sure, but if the Capitals want to know what it’s like when their new coach is angry, they should ask Pierre Turgeon…and perhaps check out this clip.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column.
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