November 28, 2011
Washington Capitals GM George McPhee had seen slumps before. Losing eight games in front of HBO cameras last season was a slump, albeit one that had Coach Bruce Boudreau's job in doubt. But losing five of seven games in the last two weeks wasn't a slump.
"You can ride out a slump. This was a case where the players were no longer responding to Bruce," said McPhee, addressing the media for the first time since firing Boudreau at 6:15 a.m. and hiring London Knights Coach — and Capitals legend — Dale Hunter to replace him. "When you see that, as much as you don't want to make a change you have to make a change."
McPhee was protective of Boudreau. It wasn't a failure, he said, echoing the sentiments of owner Ted Leonsis on his blog:
I am very grateful. Bruce was instrumental in the team's success over the last four seasons. He won four division championships, a Presidents' Trophy, an Eastern Conference banner, two playoff series and coached us to our best records in team history during the regular season. He also won a coach of the year award and holds the record for winning 200 games faster than any coach in NHL history. He is a good man. Thank you for four great years. I appreciate all you did for us as a franchise. I am grateful to you and your entire family.
Said McPhee: "I think Bruce came in here and emptied the tank. He gave it everything he could and did a really good job. When that happens, you get a new coach, where the tank is full, and you see what happens."
Like we said earlier, Boudreau had exhausted every option. He flipped lines. He changed coaching styles. Towards the end, he went from being a jovial players' coach to a disciplinarian, benching Alex Ovechkin(notes) and Alex Semin, scratching Semin and Joel Ward(notes) to make a statement. He was a babysitter that had emptied the toy chest, and the kid still wouldn't stop crying.
In the last two games, McPhee said, were an indication that he had lost the team.
"I don't think accountability was the real issue here. The issue was we weren't playing very well," he said.
Then if the players laid down against the Buffalo Sabres, did they have influence in this decision?
"I don't take that kind of input from players. That would be unfair. We have never done that and never will do that," said McPhee.
Not even from Ovechkin, the face of the franchise who hasn't performed for Boudreau this season?
"I don't think this has anything to do with Alex Ovechkin," he said. "We have a lot of players who aren't playing the way they're capable of playing."
Did McPhee speak to Ovechkin after the firing?
"No, I talked to the team."
Would Coach Dale Hunter have the chance, with the backing of management, to change captains if he saw fit?
"That's not going to happen," said McPhee.
What will happen with Hunter behind the bench? McPhee made it clear that Hunter personified, as a player, the level of hustle this Capitals team lacks.
"Whether we were winning or losing, he played the same way every night — hard," said McPhee.
He said Hunter's style is up-tempo and attacking. He's known as a coach who will play his top forwards with frequency -- he's not a four-line guy. McPhee had sought to hire his new coach for some time, but Hunter was content to run his fiefdom in London and wait for the right opportunity.
"This is the only team he's ever wanted to coach. He's had opportunities with other teams. This is the one that he wanted to coach. We've had conversations for 12 years, and was always hoping Dale could coach this team," said McPhee.
Hunter's name and number hang above the ice at Verizon Center. He's a Capitals legend, coming back to rescue this aimless Stanley Cup contender — a former player popular enough that he enters the gig with instant leeway from the fans.
"Sure, that's a nice piece of this," said McPhee of the nostalgia. "To have his history here is a nice touch, but being the right guy for the team is [most important]."
"Timing's everything. The time is right now."
Time will tell.