Forward the Foundation

It was four Thanksgivings ago that Bruce Boudreau got the call from Capitals General Manager George McPhee asking him to coach the Washington Capitals.  Since that day, he has had a mostly successful run, but with some glaring omissions.  We all thought Boudreau was on the hot seat last week with this latest losing slide, but Bruce seems to have averted his latest Selden crisis by re-connecting with his franchise player and the foundation of his success, Alexander Ovechkin.  Now is as good a time as any to reflect on Boudreau’s tenure and relationship with Ovie so we can turn our attention back to how this team can be successful when the Spring rolls around. 

Reflecting on Boudreau for a moment, one has to consider his roots when looking at his system and coaching style.  Boudreau was a naive, happy-go-lucky offensive phenom growing up.  He was never much into nutrition, defense, or making educated decisions, and he never really thought about how his actions would be perceived by others.  This is why, right before the NHL draft, he went from a sure-fire first-round pick after a dizzying junior season (68 goals, 165 points in 69 games) to a 3rd round pick after a night of partying got him a bad rap.  He immediately rubbed his draft team the wrong way by signing in the competing major pro league, the WHA, for a year (though he never would have been in “Slap Shot” if he hadn’t).  Even when he made it to the big time, he never took care of his body or his own zone, thinking he could skate by on offensive talent alone.  Is this starting to sound familiar? It probably has a lot to do with why he and Ovie hit it off so well. 

Read on!

Bruce Boudreau was in the right place at the right time when it was time for Glen Hanlon to go on Thanksgiving 2007.  Bruce was coming off two hugely successful seasons in Hershey in which he coached several of the Capitals then skating with the big club.  Hanlon was a class-act, but the mostly emotionless former goaltender didn’t have the right system to harness the offensive potential of the Caps.  George McPhee had gone out and brought in the necessary pieces to make the team competitive, and nothing happened.  So, Boudreau came in to turn a moribund team stuck at 6-14-1 into a winner.  Nobody really thought he’d do it so fast, though. 

Coming in starry-eyed at coaching great players in Alexander Ovechkin, Michael Nylander, Alexander Semin, Viktor Kozlov, and Tom Poti, Boudreau was a little unsure of himself starting out, but by the end of the first practice he was starting to put his stamp on the team.  By the end of the first game four years ago today, the entire team had bought in.  The Capitals beat their perennial bully, the Philadelphia Flyers.  In Philadelphia.  In overtime.  Not coincidentally, one of the great 1-2 combos in hockey was formed that night and was all the difference in the game.  A natural center, rookie Nicklas Backstrom had spent his first 20 or so career NHL games playing the wing, but as soon as Boudreau got to DC, he didn’t just make Backstrom a center, he made the superbly talented playmaker Alex Ovechkin’s center.  Backstrom set up two goals and then potted the overtime game-winner off a feed from Ovechkin, the man who announced Backstrom as the Capitals’ pick at the 2006 NHL draft.

When Ovie’s old linemate and the team captain, Chris Clark, went down with injury a few days later, the Capitals truly started to become Ovechkin’s team.  When the 2004 first overall draft pick signed his monster 13-year contract extension on January 10, 2008, there was no question about who was in charge.  Boudreau’s offense-first system was just what the team and Ovechkin needed, and came at the right time as the team had been playing a defense-first system for the previous few seasons. George McPhee even brought in a fourth Russian, Sergei Fedorov at the trade deadline, and a fifth, goalie Semyon Varlamov, was on the roster by the next season. 

By letting the horses out of the barn, Boudreau ran the table, going 37-17-7 the rest of the way.  He locked up the 2007-08 Southeast Division title and the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year.   His strategy to load up Ovechkin’s line with Backstrom and Kozlov worked wonders, and Ovie brutalized the NHL that season with a 4-trophy performance.  Ovechkin won the Art Ross trophy as the leading point producer (112), set a record for left-wingers with a league leading 65 goals (Rocket Richard Trophy), and he was named the most valuable player by the press (the Hart Memorial Trophy) and by his peers (the Lester B. Pearson Award).  Boudreau knew where his bread was buttered, and he made no qualms about using his thoroughbred every which way he could.  Ovechkin played the most powerplay minutes (465:11) and second-most total minutes of any forward in the NHL (1894:14), and he led the league in shots on goal (446), powerplay goals (22), and finished 5th in powerplay points (37) and plus/minus (+28), and 9th in hits (220).  Sure, Ovie had some defensive deficiencies, but Boudreau was willing to overlook them because of everything else his star player was doing.

The Caps lost in the first round of the 2008 playoffs, but frankly, they were lucky just to be there.  Boudreau faced his first crisis regarding offense (being down 3-1 in the playoffs by sticking with what was comfortable for Ovie) by moving the star rookie playmaker off Ovechkin’s line and pairing him instead with Fedorov. The adjustment paid off, and the Caps won the next two games and only lost the series when the Flyers (1) ran the goalie for a goal and (2) got an overtime powerplay goal in Game 7.  It was as successful a rookie season as anyone could have reasonably expected for Boudreau. 

It was more or less the same in the next regular season, too, as Ovechkin was paid $9 million and was used like it.  The high point for the Capitals came in the 2009 playoffs, when they were a game away from playing in the Conference Final before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions.  It was as close as Boudreau has gotten to a Stanley Cup, and Alexander Ovechkin was simply dominant in the playoffs.  He was the driver for the team’s success, shattering the team record for points with 21 in 14 games, including a whopping 11 goals.  In the end, the Caps lost because their #2 center and Russian MVP (Fedorov) was 18 years older than the Penguins’ version (Malkin) and the Caps only had 2 healthy defenders.  The “all offense, all the time” plan worked very well, and it was as successful a sophomore season as anyone could have expected. 

George McPhee and Bruce Boudreau continued to make adjustments to the team to make them successful over the next few seasons, but Boudreau’s next real crisis came in the 2009-10 playoffs, and he failed miserably.  The Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy with the best regular season in franchise history, they had a 14-game winning streak in which all of their strengths were on display and their bad habits were overlooked for too long, Alexander Ovechkin was named team captain in January after Chris Clark was traded, and Ovie’s new linemate, Mike Knuble, was a smashing success as Ovie got 50 goals and 109 points in 72 games.  Ovie, though, was ejected several times and was suspended twice during the regular season for questionable hits.  Boudreau had let the horses out of the barn, letting Ovechkin do whatever he wanted, because it worked.  At that point, when it wasn’t working at times, Boudreau had to somehow try and close Pandora’s box.  Ovie, a perennial hit leader in the NHL, was going over the line and it was hurting the team.  Boudreau is Ovie’s coach, so he planned strategy with him and helped him make adjustments, but this would be the first time Boudreau really had to get across to Ovechkin that he had a major flaw, that there was something that needed changing in his game, and it took him far too long to do it.  Eventually, though, Ovie got the message and he hasn’t been ejected since, but the new-look Ovechkin was a mess the next season.  Neither Boudreau nor Ovechkin were willing to change their approach in the playoffs, either, when the Montreal Canadiens had Ovie and Boudreau’s top-ranked powerplay pegged, and the Caps lost the series because of a lack of offense in the final 3 games.  A series of bad personnel decisions by McPhee and Boudreau also contributed to the playoff flop, but the talent was there to take the series in Game 7.

In 2010-11, the rest of the league caught on to Montreal’s tactics and shut down Ovechkin and the Caps powerplay.  The team hit rock bottom that season with an 8-game losing streak that was caught on tape as HBO broadcast the Caps sturggles to the world.  The frustration reached a head during Boudreau’s locker room tirade in which he uttered more on-air F-bombs than “The Boondock Saints” and “The Big Lebowski” combined.  Boudreau’s real crisis here was his offense-first system wasn’t working.  The Capitals still had the top-end talent to be an all-out offensive team, but with rookie #2 and #3 centers and an injured #1, never mind two 22-year old goalies, the depth of personnel wasn’t in place to execute it. 

It was Boudreau’s job to win games with the players available to him.  Yes, he needs to win in the playoffs, but he’s got to get there first.  So, Boudreau finally made the adjustment and got most of the team on board with the change, beating his latest Selden crisis while at the same time setting himself up for the next one.  The Caps started shutting teams down instead of blowing them out, posting exceptional penalty killing and goals against average numbers.  Most of the roster thrived on that style of play and the Caps earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs again.  Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, and Nick Backstrom, however, posted low point totals and they looked out of place in their new defensive roles.  The team was able to close out the Rangers in the first round in just 5 games with a newfound focus on defense, but by the time they faced the Tampa Bay Lightning, injuries struck, the system wasn’t maximizing the team’s best players’ potential, and those star players looked disinterested, even when Boudreau kept sending them over the boards, bad shift after bad shift. 

When grinder Matt Bradley left the Caps in the offseason, he called out the team for a lack of accountability, in particular that Semin played terribly against Tampa and kept getting ice time while Jason Chimera played well was not rewarded.  Boudreau’s next crisis was created after after George McPhee went out and upgraded the roster at almost every position last summer with accountable veterans, as Bruce was tasked with bringing that accountability to the team.  Integrating so many new players wasn’t nearly as hard as trying to re-domesticate his thoroughbred after letting him run free for 4 years, and the horse was kicking back.  Ovechkin may never be a 50-goal scorer again, but as long as he gets the job done in the playoffs, it will be enough to secure him his spot in the hall of fame.  The Caps still need to make the playoffs, though, and Ovie hasn’t been producing this season. Ovechkin doesn’t like getting played only 18 minutes a night, or being treated like any other player on the team.  He certainly wasn’t happy when coach Boudreau benched him at the end of the Anaheim game, but it’s Boudreau’s job to win the games.  In that case, that meant sitting Ovie out.  Some people say Ovechkin reacted poorly and that he should grow up, but maybe he has a point.  Ovechkin isn’t some poison pill, he wants to win and score goals, and he knows he’s the most talented player on the ice every time he steps over the boards.

Yahoo Sports

It is often said that “your best players need to be your best players,” and Alex Ovechkin is the Caps’ best player.  He’s not like the other players, he’s special.  He’s the team captain, the #1 overall pick in 2004, the 2-time MVP, the future hall-of-famer, and the 9 million dollar man.  That doesn’t mean the coach doesn’t help maximize his players’ strengths to the detriment of the team, but by trying to get Ovechkin to be something he’s not, Boudreau is hurting the team.  Boudreau’s system from 2007-08 was ideal for Ovechkin because the system let him be the best player.  A defense-first system makes Joel Ward your best player, which, no offense to him, isn’t good enough.  Ovie has been getting less ice time as Boudreau sought to balance out his suddenly veteran 3rd and 4th lines, plus he was being asked to play a lot of defense, which isn’t his strength.  In 1989, the St. Louis Blues realized that they could get anyone to play defense, they couldn’t get just anyone to score 70 goals for them, so they let Brett Hull play his game.  Brett Hull, by the way, won two Stanley Cups and scored 103 playoff goals.  Alexander Ovechkin is taking up about 15% of the Caps’ payroll, his ice time should reflect that. 

The key to making the Capitals a truly dominant team again is playing to their strengths, and that means offense.  Up until 2010, teams used to be frightened of getting blown out by the Caps, and the Caps could make them hurt.  It may seem backwards now with the team’s , but Alex Ovechkin is at his best when he’s played more.  He is at his best when he’s got 23 minutes a night and 4-5 minutes on the powerplay.  Maybe the Caps have more forwards now, and they have multiple defensemen who can play on the powerplay, but you’re not going to win a Stanley Cup with your offense focused on Roman Hamrlik or John Carlson. 

Bruce Boudreau has always made his bed as an offensive-minded player and coach.  He made the Capitals a fun team to watch, and they had a clear identity.  That identity is what players fall back on, the old, “when in doubt, do this.”  For the Phoenix Coyotes and Nashville Predators, when in doubt, defend the goal.  For the 1980s Edmonton Oilers that won 5 Stanley Cups, it was “attack.” The Caps’ identity has, for a long time, been to attack.  General George Patton also took this approach, “Attack, attack, and attack some more.”  It keeps your opponents on their heels, forces them into mistakes, and keeps you on your toes.  The Caps’ defense and goaltending is good enough to win a championship if two-time Norris Trophy finalist Mike Green is in the lineup, and the forwards are good enough to score goals by the bushel.  Even Mike Green has to know he didn’t get the nominations by playing defense, he’s not that good at it.  Boudreau has to get the team’s identity back, and it’s not about playing stellar defense or being “tough” to play against, it’s about scaring the daylights out of opposing defenders and goalies. 

As my boss says, you can’t attach a plough to a racehorse.  Yes, try to get Ovie to adapt his game to the way teams are defending him, but let him be your best player.  You have the personnel in place to run and gun again and scare the daylights out of opposing goalies.  Take the reins off, Bruce.