It’s a shame it had to come to this, but it was an inevitable parting of ways between the Washington Capitals and Bruce Boudreau. Some will argue that it’s a premature move, that all Boudreau needed was time. Others will argue (me, for one) that it was a move that should have been made sooner, like after last season’s colossal playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. More fans had recently spilled over to the latter argument, with the prevailing opinion around Caps Nation being that Bruce had to go. The majority was right, this firing was a no-brainer.
With hindsight, Bruce’s Caps career will be defined by his ability to unleash the Young Guns on a hockey world that didn’t quite expect it. His run-n-gun style was a breath of fresh air for the suffocating defense-first hockey that befell (and still befalls) 75 percent of NHL games. He also put an awful lot of butts in the seats at the Phone Booth and helped make hockey in this town relevant. But in the end, he simply couldn’t make it work in the playoffs, and that’s the kiss of death in the NHL.
This firing may have occurred in November, but he lost the team last May. Bruce’s system was built upon individual performances – he rode the backs of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and, to a lesser extent, Alexander Semin – to produce an offensive juggernaut that won a lot of regular season games, many on talent alone. However, once the stakes rose in the playoffs, opponents schemed to exploit the Caps lack of team cohesion and over-reliance on individual play. Playoff opponents played smart, sacrificed their bodies and waited for the Caps to self-destruct. And destruct the Caps did.
Boudreau could never pound home the team concept to the freelancing Young Guns, who thought they were entitled to greatness without having to evolve their games or buy in to a team concept. So while Bruce gets credit for being the fastest coach to 200 wins, he also deserves blame for never maximizing what he had or getting his players and teams to adjust to adversity.
I was also disappointed at this year’s “accountability” push, a last-gasp effort to instill much-needed discipline that had evaded the team for years. As a parent, if you’re going to be tough on your kids, you need to do it from Day One. You can’t start being tough on your kids when they’re teenagers, because it comes off contrived, and they don’t take you seriously. Bruce was guilty of this with his coaching style – you can’t turn on the accountability switch in Year 4 of the regime, especially when the first three years were jokes.
Additionally, his accountability decisions were wishy-washy. Respected veterans like Mike Knuble, Jeff Halpern, Tomas Vokoun and Joel Ward were all were demoted or scratched for dubious reasons, leaving some of them publicly perplexed. Yet, it took two months of hockey before Bruce stapled a poor performing Alexander Semin to the press box for a game. Clearly, there still was a double-standard in effect, and it didn’t help Bruce capture hearts and minds on the team.
None of this takes away from Bruce’s coaching skills. I thought his regular season coaching job last year was his most impressive, when he moved the Caps from a run-n-gun style to defense-first, and still won the conference. It just didn’t carry over into the playoffs. Ultimately, he is still a good coach, and he’ll learn from his mistakes and become a better playoff coach somewhere else.
And, of course, this isn’t on Bruce entirely. To say so ignores the four pink elephants in the room. A lot of this is on the Young Guns, who collectively need to grow up, on and off the ice. I can think of no one better to give these guys a swift kick in the butt than Dale Hunter. If there’s a profanity uttered when Hunter benches Ovechkin you better believe it will come from the coach’s lips, and not Ovechkin’s. The Young Guns and their entitled ways just sacrificed the one coach that made them what they are and a guy who didn’t make life too tough for them. Now they get Dale Hunter, a former player who isn’t going to kowtow to them or anyone else. As a result, bad habits will soon be gone; if not, expect to see some prolific names shipped out before the trade deadline. Dale Hunter means business, and, to him, there is unfinished business about bringing a Stanley Cup to Washington.
More on Boudreau firing/Hunter hiring:
Poll: Was it the right move?
Tracee Hamilton: Boudreau had to go
D.C. SportsBog: Top 10 Boudreau moments
Box Seats: Caps say “Goodnight Bruce”
Q&A: Boswell on firing
Photos: Boudreau fired