Here in Southern California, Boudreau has found an opportunity to take what he learned from his first stint as an NHL coach and apply it. He was able to return to trusting his own instincts, which the 57-year-old acknowledged he questioned toward the end of his tenure with the Capitals.
“You’ve got to be true to yourself,” Boudreau said this month. “I found that I was getting away from that this year. People were saying, ‘Do this’ and ‘Do that.’ I wasn’t doing what I believed was the right thing.”
Boudreau had guided the Capitals to the Presidents’ Trophy and a pair of top seeds in the Eastern Conference and managed an in-season switch from a high-flying offense to a trap system since his arrival on Thanksgiving day, 2007. But those accomplishments ultimately were overshadowed by disappointment in the postseason, where the team failed to advance past the second round during his tenure.
In training camp it was apparent that Boudreau, who had developed a strong reputation as a plucky players’ coach, was trying to evolve into more of a disciplinarian to hold the Capitals’ stars accountable. But through 22 games and a 12-9-1 start to the 2011-12 season, it was clear that the players were no longer responding to his direction.
Capitals General Manager George McPhee fired Boudreau on Nov. 28 and hours later replaced him with former Capitals captain Dale Hunter, who is 13-9-1 in Washington heading into Friday’s game at Carolina.
From his office in Anaheim, Boudreau reiterated how grateful he was for the opportunity he received from the Capitals but expressed some regret that toward the end of his time in Washington, his decisions were based on the advice of others.
“A head coach needs to be doing what he believes is right,” Boudreau said. “I don’t know why I got away from it, because everything I had done was right — or it worked.”
Boudreau said he would leave the rink second-guessing his day-to-day decisions, from alignments to deciding the best roles for players. He declined to elaborate further on what caused him to question his convictions.
When Ducks General Manager Bob Murray hired him to replace Randy Carlyle, Boudreau went straight back to his instincts.
Boudreau once said he needed to pinch himself when he arrived in Washington and saw Alex Ovechkin and the cadre of other all-stars on the bench. He wasn’t awestruck in Anaheim. Boudreau set to work getting to know each of the players on the roster, from budding offensive-defenseman Cam Fowler, to the big three of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan, and the elder statesmen of the group, such as future Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne.
“From the moment he got here he started asking us questions,” Selanne said. “ ‘How’s the family? What’s going on at home?’ I don’t think a lot of coaches do that; that’s something new for me, but I think it’s a very important part. He doesn’t ask just to ask. I sense he really wants to know, and that’s a great thing as we try to turn things around. He’s so positive and such a good teacher. It’s kind of wrong we haven’t given him more back yet.”
The transition in Anaheim has not yielded instant results, and the team may not make the postseason. The Ducks sit in 13th place in the Western Conference, 13 points out of a playoff spot, and are 9-9-3 under Boudreau. There are signs that they may be getting back on track, though, as they’ve gone 6-0-1 in their past seven contests and are showing that they’re grasping Boudreau’s style of play.
“It took some time to get used to the systems, but I think we’re starting to see some of the benefits from it,” said Ryan, who has 10 goals and 16 points in 21 games under Boudreau. “I’ve had more conversations with him in however many games it’s been than I’ve had [with other coaches] in years, and that’s really rubbed off on me because you gain confidence when you can air things out with the coach.”
Boudreau described the Ducks’ dressing room as one with many family men and reserved personalities, akin to that of Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom. “I don’t think they’d go out and do the rock-band video for the start of the game,” Boudreau said, referring to the 2008 “Rock the Red” music video featuring Ovechkin as lead singer and Mike Green on the drums. “They’re a more conservative group.”
Rebooting a team in the middle of the season is not an easy feat, Boudreau knows, and Anaheim is in a different place from where the Capitals were when they climbed back into the playoff race in 2007-08. But he is prepared to lead the Ducks as far as they’re willing to go.
“The fact that [General Manager] Bob [Murray] thought enough of me to hire me right away — I want to win for him. I want to show him his faith in me was justified,” Boudreau said. “Of all the guys who have gotten fired this year, the only one who’s been hired out of all those good coaches is me. I want to justify that faith in me more than ever.”