November 29, 2011
Let's say Alex Ovechkin(notes) skates off the ice against the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night to the appreciative roar of the assembled masses; having posted a hat-trick or a game-winning goal in Washington Capitals Coach Dale Hunter's debut, looking very much like the vintage No. 8 than the sullen, diminished Version 2011.
On one hand, he'll have gained a small measure of satisfaction that it was, perhaps, his attitude towards coach Bruce Boudreau that caused his offensive swoon. On the other, it would validate that Ovechkin's game was always there, but the motivation wasn't; hence, his lack of effort helped cost one of the most successful (regular season) coaches of the last several years his gig.
Because of this paradox, Ovechkin has been categorized as "slumping and angry, the team was slumping and divided." He's been called "an underachieving superstar who was given the run of the place but is now in a second consecutive season of lacklustre play that spread to the rest of the team" by the Globe & Mail. Like we said yesterday, he's got blood on his hands here.
But what if it's for the best?
What if when some players dog it, quit, roll over while their coach is sacrificed, they end up doing what's best for the team? Does their revolt remain unprofessional and deplorable, or do the ends justify the means?
Three coaches have been fired this far this season. One, Davis Payne, appeared to lose his job because of a general manager's desire to keep his, in light of an ownership change; installing old chum Ken Hitchcock to spectacular results.
Both deposed coaches had recent nadirs: For Maurice it was a absolutely terrible showing for his team in a 4-0 loss at Montreal two weeks ago; for Boudreau, it was consecutive defeats to the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres in which the team basically stopped playing for him, as GM George McPhee noted.
Which is to say that the players got Boudreau fired. The same can't necessarily be said about the Hurricanes, but as Chip Alexander of the News & Observer told us on Marek vs. Wyshynski, their confidence was shot. Did a player like Eric Staal(notes), in the worst season of his career, dog it to get Maurice canned? Alexander said:
"I don't believe so. I really think Eric Staal had gotten along well with Paul Maurice and I know he respect Paul Maurice. … Maurice always had the reputation as being a players' coach. I don't think he's lost all the confidence in the room, but certainly some of it."
So the inmates might not have been running the asylum in Raleigh, but enough of them were banging on the window bars to force a change. Which brings us to two essential questions:
1. Is it ever excusable when the players tune out a coach with the intent of getting him fired?
The Tampa Bay Lightning "quit on" Barry Melrose after 16 games into 2008; Rick Tocchet took over the circus and posted a lower winning percentage than Melrose. Still, was this an admirable mutiny and a triumph over managerial cronyism?
In 2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins decided that Michel Therrien's stern ways weren't to their liking any longer, having quietly simmered about them in the summer following their Stanley Cup Final appearance and then going through the motions to hasten a coaching change to Dan Bylsma. Again, this change resulted in a Stanley Cup and a coach that appears to be a lifer in Pittsburgh.
In 2010, the New Jersey Devils decided rather early that assistant-turned-head coach John MacLean didn't have the goods, and then had a 4-game stretch in December in which they were outscored 20-4. In came Jacques Lemaire, who nearly rallied them to a playoff spot. Again, a players' revolt and a change for the better.
The other question ….
2. Can you recall a player who turned his season around after getting the coach he desired and the coach he didn't want fired?
Well there was this one Russian guy who everyone called a "coach killer" that had 10 points in his first two months of the season and then 14 in February under a different coach … Ilya something or other …
Will the same hold for Ovechkin in Washington? Sam Gagner, who played for Hunter in London, told the Edmonton Journal:
"He'll be great with Ovechkin," said Edmonton Oilers centre Sam Gagner(notes), who played for Hunter in London on a line with Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane(notes). "He knows how to treat his so-called best players. You look at Corey Perry(notes) and others."
"The transition from junior to the NHL is not always seamless, but he played for such a long time and understands what the pro lifestyle's like. When you played for the London Knights, you were groomed to be a professional. He mentored us to be pros. The transition should be easier for the way he coaches. He played hard and he coaches the way he thinks he'll be successful."
Ovechkin never lacks for motivation. The notion that he was the catalyst for a coach's demise may not rank highly on his personal list, but the challenge has been presented by the hockey world: Show us that you're better off without Bruce Boudreau, or become just another petulant coach killer.