When Ducks fly: Bruce Boudreau's coaching acumen all the rage in Anaheim

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

ANAHEIM — Ask about Bruce Boudreau, and eventually Anaheim Ducks defenseman Ben Lovejoy doesn’t talk about coaching. He doesn’t talk about winning. He doesn’t even talk about hockey, not directly.

He talks about what happened a month ago when he and his wife, Avery, had their first child.

In the real world, most fathers have no problem taking time off work. In pro sports, where the competition for wins and contracts is so intense, it can be tricky.

The Lovejoys were at the hospital from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The baby didn’t come. Ben missed practice. They went home and did exercises until 10:30 p.m., trying to induce labor. The baby didn’t come. The Ducks had a game against the San Jose Sharks the next day.

“I’ve got to go to bed,” Ben told Avery. “Wake me up if we’re going to the hospital.”

She woke him up at 1:30 a.m. They were back at the hospital at 1:45 a.m. The nurse said they were close, and ...

The baby didn’t come.

Lila Lovejoy was born at 10:24 a.m. on Dec. 29. Ben Lovejoy played at 5 p.m. against the Sharks – ready to skate through a wall. Through it all, Boudreau and assistant coach Bob Woods had kept in touch with phone calls and text messages, asking for info, easing his mind. They put his family first, then made sure he knew he was so important that a lack of practice and sleep didn’t matter.

“Everybody with the Ducks was incredibly supportive, but Bruce went above and beyond to make me feel like I needed to be there,” Lovejoy said. “When she was born, he made me feel very good about myself, that he really wanted me in the lineup that night.”

Lovejoy beamed.

“Bruce,” he said, “was just such a special human being.”

* * * * *

The Ducks are the top team in the NHL with 83 points through 54 games – 21-3-0 in their past 24 games, 21-1-2 overall at home. They are third in offense (3.33 goals per game) and fifth in defense (2.33 goals against per game).

This is a confident group. The Ducks are 20-2-5 in one-goal games. They are 23-4-4 when scoring first, but they’re also 16-6-1 when their opponent scores first. No other NHL team is even .500.

Are they really this good – better-than-everybody-else-in-an-era-of-parity good? Maybe not. Their shooting and save percentages are 102.3 combined, tied for second-highest in the NHL, which might mean they have been a little lucky and could come back to earth at some point.

Is this all because of Bruce Boudreau? No. The Ducks have two of the best players in the game in their primes – Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are third and fifth in the NHL in scoring with 60 and 57 points, respectively. Their depth has improved so much that they have good players in the press box, not to mention the AHL. They are especially stacked in goal. General manager Bob Murray and his staff deserve a lot of credit for how this team has been built and has evolved.

But if you think this is a fluke, remember that the Ducks had the third-best record in the NHL last season, with 66 points in the lockout-shortened, 48-game schedule. Remember, too, that they play in the West, the stronger of the conferences. After going 30-12-6 last season, when teams stayed within their conferences, they are 23-5-2 against the West this season.

And remember where they were on Nov. 30, 2011, when Murray hired Boudreau to replace Randy Carlyle. They were 7-13-4, tied for the second-worst record in the NHL. They were 29th in the league in offense (2.21 goals per game). Their stars were struggling, and their youngsters needed to develop.

Boudreau had reached the end of his effectiveness with the Washington Capitals after leading them to great regular-season success; Carlyle was at the same point with the Ducks after leading them to the Stanley Cup in 2006-07. Right after Boudreau was fired, Murray called him up, and Boudreau jumped at the opportunity.

“I wanted to work,” he said.

Boudreau also said he didn’t know much about the Ducks, just that they had Getzlaf, Perry and Teemu Selanne. But he had the X’s and O’s and the personality the Ducks needed at the time – more offense-minded than Carlyle, more affable than irascible. He let them be creative offensively, as long as they covered up for each other defensively. He slowly restored their confidence.

After an adjustment period of about a month, the Ducks got hot. They played like one of the best teams in the league. The hole was too deep, so they didn’t make the playoffs and cooled off after they were eliminated. But they laid the foundation.

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“We learned as we went,” Boudreau said. “We didn’t have success right away. It took us two or three weeks to start getting to play a little bit better. We just probably played a little more offensive than Randy did, I guess. I don’t know. I just did what I did in Washington, and the formula seemed to have a little bit of success.”

Boudreau did some things differently than he did in Washington, though. Or maybe this is the better way to put it: He did what he did at the end in Washington from the beginning in Anaheim.

He ran into trouble with the Capitals after he changed midstream – making an offensive team more defensive, trying to hold the players more accountable than he had before. He clashed with captain Alex Ovechkin.

He could start fresh with the Ducks. He could establish what he wanted at both ends of the ice without anyone stuck on his old philosophy. He could hold players accountable without anyone wondering why he didn’t do it before.

“I don’t know what the atmosphere was in Washington,” Getzlaf said. “I just know that was kind of the knock on him, that he wasn’t able to control Ovechkin and some of those guys – and a lot of that was out of his hands, from what I know. I just know how things have gone here and what he expects of me and the conversations that I have with him and the conversations he has with other players.

“He’s not as soft and freewheeling as everybody thinks he is when it comes to the accountability aspect, so I think that’s something he’s built from Washington. When he left there, I think he learned a lot about those kinds of things.”

* * * * *

Ask about Bruce Boudreau, and at first the Ducks all say the same thing: “He’s a player’s coach.”

But what does that mean?

Yes, he’s an everyman, a guy with the nickname Gabby. He’s the one we saw in HBO’s “24/7,” with the dab of sauce on his face and the Haagen-Dazs in the mall and the profanity all over the place. He played in the minors and the NHL before he coached in the minors and the NHL, and all that is part of who he is.

But being a “player’s coach” doesn’t mean he throws the puck out there and lets the boys do whatever they want. He knows what the players want and gives the players what they want: defined roles, clear expectations, communication. He puts them in positions to succeed as individuals, playing to their strengths and building up their psyches. He cares about the players as people on and off the ice, not just as pawns on the chessboard, and he shows it as he did when Lovejoy and his wife were having their baby.

“He understands the player’s mind,” Getzlaf said. “He understands how to treat people with respect, and he gets that in return.”

Boudreau has helped players like Lovejoy and Andrew Cogliano play at higher levels than they did with other teams, and he has helped players like Nick Bonino and Cam Fowler blossom. Night after night, he has scratched someone who belongs in the lineup, but he has the players buying into the rotation. If he says nothing, you can trust it’s just a numbers game. If you’re out because of your performance, you can trust he will tell you.

“Some coaches you can’t talk to,” said winger Dustin Penner, who has played with Getzlaf and Perry and scored 12 goals this season, his highest total since 2010-11, but has also been a healthy scratch. “He’s fair and honest. He’s easy to talk to, but you also have to respect him because he demands it.”

Boudreau has never gone far in the playoffs. He never escaped the second round in D.C., despite winning a Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year in 2007-08, a Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s best regular-season record in 2009-10 and four straight division titles from 2007-08 to 2010-11. The second-seeded Ducks were upset in the first round of the playoffs by the seventh-seeded Detroit Red Wings last spring, even though they led the series 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2.

The conference final is Boudreau’s white whale, and it might be even harder to make it now that the NHL has realigned and changed the playoff format. If the playoffs started today, the Ducks would have to beat the Minnesota Wild and then either the Sharks or the Los Angeles Kings.

But Boudreau made the Turner Cup final in the IHL, won the Kelly Cup in the ECHL and won the Calder Cup in the AHL. He turned around the Capitals and helped make hockey popular in Washington, and he has turned around the Ducks and helped make them contenders again. He was the fastest coach to 200 wins in NHL history – impressive even in an era of 4-on-4 overtime and shootouts – and he is already three wins from 300. He is 297-133-59 in the NHL.

“He’s a coach who expresses exactly how he’s feeling, exactly what he wants you to do,” Lovejoy said. “There’s no gray area with Bruce. You know when you’re playing well. You know when you’re not playing well.

“When we’ve been ultra-successful, he’s been able to push the right buttons to keep us motivated and working hard both individually and as a team. When we’re in need of confidence, he absolutely has the pulse of the room and knows exactly what needs to be said. He’s been so great for everybody in the room, especially me.”

Lovejoy, the proud dad, the proud Duck, beamed again.

“I’m grateful he’s found confidence in me,” he said. “It’s been so much fun.”