UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Bruce Boudreau, in a black pinstriped suit and a silver tie that was ever so slightly askew, ambled through the hallway at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Saturday morning in neighborly fashion. He made small talk and cracked jokes as he checked in with players who would be in the lineup that night against the New York Islanders. His mood lately is a reflection of his Anaheim Ducks, who are rolling.
Anaheim owns the best record in the NHL and is the hottest team in the league, having won eight straight. That success has come in spite of a grueling schedule, with 23 of 38 games on the road. But as upbeat as Boudreau is, he’s also a little antsy. Before the Ducks can head back home to Southern California, they must make one more stop. And it’s a stop the 58-year-old coach isn’t quite sure how to prepare himself for.
“I’m a little nervous,” Boudreau said of returning to Verizon Center on Monday night to face the Washington Capitals for the first time since they fired him on Nov. 28, 2011. “It’s a little scary because I love going to that building and everything about it, and now you’re on the other side.”
It has been 756 days since the Capitals fired Boudreau, hockey’s gabby everyman turned NHL head coach who ushered Washington back to the playoffs with a high-flying offense built around unleashing the talents of then-young stars Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green.
But even though he took over the helm in Anaheim just two days after he was dismissed, Boudreau still watches every Capitals game thanks to the modern marvel that is DVR.
He can’t help but want to see Ovechkin reclaim his place as the league’s most dynamic scorer, he said. He wants to see how Backstrom continues to mature as a world-class center, how Green finds his way after all the injuries, whether Brooks Laich can fully regain his health, how up-and-comers such as Marcus Johansson, John Carlson and Karl Alzner establish themselves in the league.
“You just want to monitor their growth,” Boudreau said. “You always watch to see how players you worked with, coached and grew up in the business with are doing.”
For as much as they meant to him, the Capitals players who remain from Boudreau’s tenure realize how great an impact he had on them as well.
“You look in here, every guy in this room had a career year and got the resulting contracts out of playing for Bruce Boudreau,” Laich said. “And what he did for hockey in Washington was tremendous. He put it front and center, exciting, offense, developed the players into the stars they are today. I think the town really owes him a lot.”
Boudreau believes he’s a better coach now than he was three years ago, and certainly better than when he broke into the league on Thanksgiving in 2007. The Boudreau who coaches the Ducks has more than six years of familiarity with NHL personnel and styles under his belt, and he has embraced challenges from Anaheim General Manager Bob Murray to make the regular season more intentional preparation for the playoffs.
He has also learned that even an affable players’ coach needs to establish expectations and set a tone of responsibility from the start of his tenure.
“Bruce made it pretty clear when he got here that when he was in Washington, he didn’t have control over certain things. He didn’t want that to be the case here,” Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said. “I think he learned that he wanted more accountability, and that’s been important with our group. It comes with a certain level of respect. I think the respect level has to be there between us in order to have the success that you want when you’re putting together a winning organization.”
Rather than inheriting a young team looking for its first taste of success like he did in Washington, Boudreau stepped into a franchise teeming with veteran players hungry to re-establish themselves as the NHL’s elite. Five Ducks on this year’s roster — Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Teemu Selanne, Dustin Penner and Francois Beauchemin — won the Stanley Cup in 2007.
Getzlaf and Perry, who are ranked third and seventh in the league in points (43 and 40, respectively), are the bellwethers on and off the ice. They keep the group on target and provide a steadying presence in moments of struggle — like on Saturday, when Getzlaf recorded a hat trick as Anaheim came from behind to beat the Islanders, 5-3. And they’ve established a reciprocal environment with Boudreau in which both sides can address overarching concerns about the team.
“They patrol the room pretty good,” Boudreau said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that take that leadership role, but me and Ryan and Corey talk all the time. I run things through them and see what they think and they give pretty good advice because they’ve been there.”
It’s a different relationship with the Ducks leaders than what Boudreau had in Washington. Ovechkin was just 22 when Boudreau took over as coach.
“It was tough to have that same thing because he was the happy-go-lucky kid back then and was given the captaincy maybe before he was ready,” Boudreau said. “Ovi was the leader on the ice, but in the dressing room he was more of a happy-go-lucky guy than anything else.”
Boudreau’s not the only one who appreciates the environment in Anaheim. Getzlaf and Perry both respect Boudreau’s drive to help make the Ducks Stanley Cup contenders once again and credit him with rekindling a winning attitude. As they prepare for one more game before the NHL’s three-day Christmas break, they want to make sure his return trip to Washington is something to remember.
“We were just talking about it. He’s been here for three years but hasn’t been back. It’s an exciting time for him,” Perry said. “It’s important for us to go out and to prove to everybody that we’re going to play for him and that we want a win for him there.”