WASHINGTON DC, DC - APRIL 23: Alex Ovechkin #8 and head coach Bruce Boudreau of the Washington Capitals look on against the Montreal Canadiens in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on April 23, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
The Washington Capitals had no choice but to let Bruce Boudreau go as their head coach. Now, the pressure is squarely on the players to step up.
It's a sad day for all involved, without question. The Capitals correctly tried so hard to make it work with Boudreau, the charismatic, quirky AHL product that, more than anyone on the roster, was the face of both the Capitals' rise to the top of the NHL and their constant playoff failures. But after a third straight playoff defeat, a summer of spending and a stretch of 10 mostly non-competitive losses in 15 games, it was time for a change.
Nobody wanted it to come to this. In an ideal world, the team's star, Alex Ovechkin, would galvanize the troops, carry the team on his back like he did two years ago, save Boudreau's job and rewrite all the narratives about his career. In an ideal world, the team's most talented player, Alexander Semin, would stop taking penalties and finally play up to his potential. Neither of those things have happened, though, and someone has to be the fall guy. The old adage is always true. You can't fire the players, but you can fire the head coach.
There's a popular sentiment that firing Boudreau is excusing the failures of the players. That sentiment is looking at this situation the wrong way. The reality is that firing Boudreau increases the pressure on the players. Every team eventually comes apart in stages if they cannot get it done. Stage one -- firing the coach -- is complete. If new coach Dale Hunter cannot provide a spark to turn things around, the players are next. If they can't shape up, they could be on the chopping block too. Yes, even Ovechkin and his massive contract.
None of this changes the fact that Boudreau is a damn good coach. You have to be to become the quickest coach ever to get to 200 wins. He will resurface somewhere, experience a lot of success and quickly forget his unceremonious end in Washington D.C.
But it couldn't happen here. The players had tuned him out, and there was too much at stake. The Capitals loaded up this summer to make a Stanley Cup run this year. The time for the slow rebuild had ended. Next summer, Semin and Mike Green are among the team's many free agents. Goalie Tomas Vokoun can't play on one-year, $1.5 million contracts forever. There wasn't time to slowly figure it out and hope the team's recent slump was just a slump.
Last year, there was time. Young players that were sure to improve as the season continued manned many key spots on the roster. This year? There's no time. The Capitals didn't go and get Vokoun, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik and others to patiently let things play out. They got them to win now and win consistently. That wasn't happening, so Boudreau had to go.
Now, Hunter steps in looking to try to get more out of a group of players who didn't respond to Boudreau's newfound heavy-handed accountability. Maybe he gets it done, and maybe he doesn't. With no NHL head coaching experience on his resume, it's hard to evaluate whether he'll be successful.
But the Capitals simply have to try something new. They had to see if a new voice in charge would get more out of their players than the old voice. It worked in 2007 when Boudreau took over for Glen Hanlon. The Capitals are hoping it will work again.
If not, the players are on notice, and they know that. That's what firing Boudreau means for the future of the organization. Whether this is step one of a massive tear-down or just the move needed to provide the spark is now all up to them.