November 20, 2011
On Nov. 23, 2007, Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee made a decision with monumental consequences for his team. They were 6-14-1, losing nine of 10 games. The fans chanted "FIRE HANLON" during a 5-1 loss on home ice to the Atlanta Thrashers in reference to head coach Glen Hanlon, who had toiled behind the bench since 2003.
So McPhee fired him, and he promoted a cherubic farm-hand from the AHL named Bruce Boudreau on an interim basis.
At the time, Hanlon's firing was viewed by veteran players as a result of their own failures. Said Olaf Kolzig to the Washington Post: "It was pretty evident what we were doing wrong, and we went right back out in the second period [Wednesday] and did the exact the same thing. That has nothing to do with coaching, and has everything to do with individuals not listening and being on their own program."
The four-year anniversary of Boudreau's hiring is Wednesday.
The fans aren't chanting "FIRE BRUCE." The team isn't at the bottom of the standings, although they are now looking up at the Florida Panthers in the Southeast.
But there is a striking similarity between the Capitals' current plight and the waning days of the man Boudreau replaced: Old habits haven't been broken, the team looks like a disjointed mess on the ice and the time to seriously consider a difference voice, and approach, behind the bench has arrived -- and not just because McPhee refused to give Boudreau a vote of confidence last night.
A constant theme in Washington's losses has been a stretch of sloppy or undisciplined play, ranging anywhere from five to 10 minutes or even an entire period. Most recently, in Thursday's 4-1 loss, the Winnipeg Jets scored three goals in less than five minutes of the second period when the Capitals repeatedly turned the puck over in their defensive end. The lapse put the game out of Washington's reach.
In Nashville on Tuesday, the Capitals gave up the lead in the final four minutes of regulation, breaking down defensively and costing themselves a win against the Predators. The Capitals' failures during these swoons have ranged from abandoning the team's system and missing defensive assignments to failing to forecheck aggressively and taking unnecessary penalties.
The Capitals average 4.3 minor penalties per game through 18 games, which is middle of the pack for the NHL. But if you needed a symbol of the undisciplined, seemingly unfixable problems for this team, look no further than Alex Semin, who is second in the NHL with 14 minor penalties.
Alex Semin had taken five more minor penalties than he has points. Think about that.
I think too much attention has been paid to Alex Ovechkin's(notes) lack of production — he's on pace for roughly 30 goals and around 60 points — within the context of a supposed rift with Boudreau. I think most of these issues are Ovechkin's own. But Ed Frankovic thinks it's a huge reason for this losing streak:
To me the first order of business for General Manager George McPhee is to sit down with head coach Bruce Boudreau and team captain Alexander Ovechkin to have a "clear the air" meeting because it looks like the entire hockey team is not listening to either one of its' leaders right now. Boudreau's constant line shuffling is not getting results and when the team captain is not giving 100% every shift the rest of the guys will start to take them off at some point, too. This team looks rudderless right now and if there is any strife in the locker room or between coaches and players it needs to be worked out, pronto. A Leafs squad that had several AHLers on it made a team some have picked to go to the Stanley Cup Finals look like the 1974-75 Caps. The horrible play on this recent road trip has to be a major concern.
The systemic problems for this team are magnified by its playoff defeats. Watching the Leafs game last night, it might as well have been in the Eastern Conference semifinals: Players sulking when they're not getting out-hustled, failures in every facet of the game, the Capitals looking unable to execute as a team.
Teamlessness. It's not a word, but it's the best way to describe this team. Instead of a cohesive unit, we have a collection of individuals, each with his own unique pissy attitude. Equal to that bad mood is the bad hockey each has played. Even in hockey country— and at the biggest game of the week— the Washington Capitals are skulking grumps. Even with Coach Boudreau giving them the day off yesterday, the Capitals showed up as a bunch of poop-pants. Irritable and tense, this version of the team didn't stand a chance— and they never will until they wizen up.
So the questions start. What shall McPhee do to kick-start this team again? From Chuck Gormley of CSN Washington:
Since getting swept from the second round of last year's playoffs, Boudreau has vowed to be tougher on his players this season and he has. He's benched Alex Ovechkin, who is a team-worst minus-6 and has gone four games without a point. He has benched Alex Semin, who leads the Capitals with 14 minor penalties. He skated his players into the ground following a listless loss to the Dallas Stars. So now what? Does McPhee make a major trade? Does he try to unload Semin's one-year $6.7 million salary? Or does he go the more dramatic route and make a coaching change?
I covered the Capitals when Hanlon was fired. One of the primary reasons he had to go was because the roster was starting to be taken over by a collection of young players to whom he wasn't connecting. Boudreau coached a good number of those young players i the AHL; he had their ear. The tactics, the systems — they can all be rendered inconsequential when everyone tunes out the teacher.
We've seen Boudreau bag stake his team, given them mental health days, bench Ovechkin, bench Semin, juggle his lines like a circus clown would bowling pins, play one goalie, play the other goalie … this is all in the span of a month. Nothing appears to be working. The Capitals mainstays have heard, and seen, it all before; the veteran additions don't seem affected by it.
"I think when you talk about lack of cohesion, it means when you're losing, guys try to do things individually," Boudreau said. "And when you do things individually, things don't work. It has nothing to do with them not wanting to succeed. I think they played hard right to the end. They couldn't buy a goal at the end. That gets really frustrating after a while and then you try to do things individually and you cheat when you're down goals."
Ted Leonsis has said in the past that this is McPhee's call. McPhee said at the start of the season, with regard to Boudreau: "You don't listen to the outside voices. You trust your own opinions and your own inner voice, and that's how we make decisions."
He's intensely loyal to his coach, which would seem to indicate a trade would arrive before a firing. But then again, the Capitals added some significant bodies to the mix in the summer, and the recipe still looks off.
Boudreau's a damn good coach (at least in the regular season). If he's fired, he'll be hired somewhere in short order. I'm confident he'll find success without the Capitals.
Would the Capitals find success without Boudreau?