The Washington Capitals begin play in the 2011 NHL Playoffs on Wednesday against the New York Rangers, in a series that will set in motion a series of events that will provide a lasting impression on coach Bruce Boudreau's legacy in D.C. It's hard to say Boudreau's job is in jeopardy, since owner Ted Leonsis has repeatedly proclaimed that firing Boudreau is not an option. In this area, I believe him.
Still, we can safely say that Boudreau is being judged. Maybe not by his bosses, but certainly by other important forces, like media, pundits, bloggers and, of course, the paying customers (i.e. fans) like us. Boudreau must shoulder the load of years of disappointment, of which he has only played a small part. If the Capitals lose, the loud noises we heard back in December will only grow louder.
All of this will happen, and in fact, it has already begun to happen. As I sit here, trying to ponder the way this force could sweep the District, I can't help but think this is all outrageous. Honestly, the idea that Boudreau could be on the hot seat makes no sense to me. Yes, this is true even if the Capitals suffer another early playoff defeat.
Forget the fact that Boudreau, at 189-79-39 with a 68.9 point percentage, is the most successful active coach in the entire league. Forget the fact that it was Boudreau's hiring, and not the drafting of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green or Alexander Semin, that really kickstarted the Capitals' turnaround. No, the reason I find this stuff outrageous is that it completely downplays just how remarkable Boudreau's 2010/11 coaching job really was.
Adversity has a weird way of cementing a coaches' true philosophy. Across all sports, coaches tend to go back to what they really believe in at their core when bad things happen. Flip Saunders, in his introductory Wizards press conference two years ago, said that spending a year away from the game after being fired by the Pistons actually reinforced his opinions on the game. Mike Shanahan, of course, was even more of his maniacal, authority-at-all-costs self in his first year on the job with the Redskins.
There's a reason for this too. When all is uncomfortable, coaches feel comfortable clawing their way out of it the way they know best. Success is a time to experiment, because the stakes aren't as high and the pressure isn't as strong. Failure, though, is no time to take risks if you're a coach. It's a time for most to fall back on what has worked, because one risky step that does not work out could mean the end.
It is against this reality that Boudreau's execution of an organization-wide plan to become more defensive minded needs to be reconsidered. The success of this effort cannot be overstated. The Capitals had the lowest goals-against average in their history this season, and allowed just two goals per game following the nine-game losing streak in December that caused the shift in philosophy. They finished first in the East again despite playing completely differently than they played in earlier seasons. That's an incredible accomplishment.
But consider it against the backdrop of the pressure of the nine-game losing streak. It would have been very easy for Boudreau to fall back on his offensive-heavy system that has fueled his rise in the coaching profession. Instead, he took an incredible leap of faith in his own abilities and found a way to do what was best for the team, even if it meant ditching something that worked.
Sure, other factors helped. Midseason moves for Jason Arnott, Dennis Wideman and Marco Sturm made a huge difference, and general manager George McPhee deserves a lot of credit for that. But no man is more responsible for the Capitals' transformation than Boudreau, and for him to be on the hot seat after all of that is outrageous.
Who else could inspire, coax, demand and install this kind of culture shift? Who else could convince Alex Ovechkin, the most electrifying player in the NHL, that dumping and chasing was a viable strategy? Who else could convince the Young Guns of the importance of defending their own zone? Who else could nurture a shutdown blueline pair as young as John Carlson and Karl Alzner? Who else could do all of that in midseason and still shepherd his team to the top spot in the conference?
The NHL Playoffs are a strange animal in which a lot of unlucky things can happen. A goalie can get hot. The shots can just not go in. The team could revert back to their old ways under the pressure of the playoffs because they have only been doing it for half a season. But nothing that happens going forward should take anything away from what Bruce Boudreau accomplished this season.
To fire him after all of that would be nuts.