A career minor league coach before taking over the Capitals on Thanksgiving 2007, Boudreau rose in prominence and prestige over the past four seasons, an affable over-achiever who coached the team to the best record in the league’s Eastern Conference twice in four seasons. But after the team’s third straight playoff disappointment last May and recent slide over the past month that included eight losses in its past 11 games, it became apparent the man once known as a “players’ coach” was no longer connecting with many of his players, most notably Alex Ovechkin.
“Sometimes [a coach’s message] just wears out,” McPhee said. Coaches “do everything they can to get a team going and they coach well for a while but — and I’ve said this before — it’s like having the same teacher for five years. How would you like to do that in high school? It would be hard.”
Following another early playoff exit by the Capitals this past spring, many, including former players, criticized the team for being too accommodating to its stars. But Boudreau’s attempts to bring accountability to the team served only to single out players such as Ovechkin and Alexander Semin and further the locker room divide.
Reached by phone Monday afternoon, Boudreau said, “I’ve had better days.” He then asked to be given a day or two before commenting on his dismissal.
Though Ovechkin claimed as recently as Monday “I have good relationship with him,” the most public indication of a rift between the star and Boudreau came Nov. 1 during a game against Anaheim. With the Capitals trailing 4-3 with 62 seconds left, Boudreau benched Ovechkin, considered the game’s most talented player as recently as a year ago, while the team made a last-ditch effort to tie the score.
The move worked in the short term — Nicklas Backstrom tied the score in regulation and won the game in overtime (with an assist from Ovechkin) — and the next day, both Boudreau and Ovechkin played down its significance, and what appeared to be Ovechkin’s profane reaction at the time. But the episode offered a glimpse at an unhappy player struggling to recapture his form and a coach failing to reach him effectively.
With the coach and the star player at odds, the rest of the team was in effect forced to choose sides. And with that divide increasingly manifesting itself on the ice, culminating with unsightly losses to the New York Rangers this past Friday and the undermanned Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, McPhee was confronted with a quandary not uncommon in today’s high-priced sports culture: sticking with his coach or trying to find another way to get the most out of a two-time MVP in which the franchise has millions of dollars invested.