Not the Same Old, Same Old

The Caps have just finished a stretch of six games in nine nights that coincided with the first six games of interim head coach Bruce Boudreau’s NHL coaching career.

I don’t have any insight into the organization’s thinking here as far as its plans behind the bench going forward. But since this is when we’re all sort of collectively catching our breath now after this recent grueling stretch of games and the coaching change that immediately preceded these last six games, it could be useful to take a look at how the team has been different during that span. (Besides, what else is there to do until Friday?)

Six games is admittedly a very small sample size, although it does constitute nearly a quarter of the games Washington has played to date this season. The Caps are 3-2-1 since Boudreau took over, a pace that would produce about 96 points and a likely playoff berth if maintained over the course of an 82-game schedule.

Washington practiced just hours after Boudreau was elevated to the post on Nov. 22, then played three games before it practiced again. The team practiced together again the following Tuesday, and there was an optional practice last Thursday. The Caps practiced on Sunday – but several players were given the day off – and were given Monday off.

Starting today (Tuesday) and for the next three days, Boudreau is expected to fully install his own system and to schedule individual meetings with players. After this three-day practice stretch, the Caps get back in action against the Devils in New Jersey on Friday, a game that starts a rugged stretch in which the Caps will play seven games in 11 nights.

Boudreau actually began the process of integrating his system at last Tuesday’s practice, and the Caps began playing that system during Wednesday’s game against the Panthers at Verizon Center. After a very difficult stretch in the first period during which the excellent netminding of Olie Kolzig kept the Caps close, Washington settled in and played a sound defensive game for most of the rest of the evening.

In the two games since, the Caps have been solid with the puck. They’ve made smart decisions, limited turnovers, created scoring chances and generally have done the things coaches like to see from their hockey teams. Some bad breaks led to a 4-3 loss in Carolina on Friday, but the Caps finally beat the Panthers – doing so for the first time in four games – in Florida on Saturday.

This season has been an ongoing exercise in the uselessness of shots on goal as a statistic. That said, teams still need to get shots on goal to score. The Caps are currently in a stretch during which they have mustered 30 or more shots on goal for nine consecutive games, doing so for the first time in more than 13 years. The current streak extends back into the final three games of former coach Glen Hanlon’s reign.

The last time the Caps changed head coaches (when Hanlon took over for Bruce Cassidy in Dec. of 2003), the Caps were also mired in the midst of shots on goal streak. That one was a stretch of 30 (!) straight games in which they recorded fewer than 30 shots on goal.

You tell me which streak is better.

Since Boudreau took over, scoring chances are up and scoring chances against are down. Special teams have been very good. The power play has connected on six of 24 chances (25%) and the penalty killing corps has killed off 25 of 27 (92.6%) since Boudreau stepped behind the bench.

The standings don’t lie, and the standings say that the Caps are the worst team in the National Hockey League. When they travel to New Jersey on Friday for a date with the Devils, they’ll still be the worst team in the National Hockey League. But they’ll probably be a better team than they are today.

Boudreau’s system works. The players need to buy into it individually and they need to practice it collectively. But from the players I spoke with, there is no sense that Boudreau is the NHL equivalent of a substitute teacher floating his way through a temporary gig. The players respect him, and they believe in the system. My sense is that they will buy into it, and they will be able to employ it collectively which is one of the keys to its effectiveness.

Defenseman Mike Green is one of eight current Caps who have played for Boudreau at AHL Hershey. Green says that having prior familiarity with Boudreau and his system has been useful.

“It is [helpful],” says Green, “because I understand it and I know that it works. But it has taken me some time to [get used to it again]. Over the last couple of games as a team, I think we’ve started to get it. And now it’s really structured. If you watched [Tuesday]’s practice, you saw there really aren’t any options for the other team in the neutral zone. It’s comfortable now. The first couple of games it was awkward, but for me it was easier than for most guys.

“It is really easy. It seems a lot more difficult than it really is. But once you get it as a group, you have the faith that your guy is there, and all you have to worry about is your job. It’s really simple.”

Having these few days between games is a blessing for Boudreau and the Caps. It’s a chance for a couple of guys to get healthier, and a chance for the team to assimilate a new system that should give it a better chance of winning more games night in and night out.

“I think in the neutral zone they’re getting it pretty good,” says Boudreau. “They’re understanding it pretty well. That and the forecheck are what we’ve worked on; we’ll work on other stuff tomorrow and Thursday. They seem to be accepting it, and I think that’s the key.”

Everyone knows someone who can’t seem to move past the music he or she listened to in high school. (I know a guy whose friends refer to him as “Four-Way,” because he continues to insist that CSN&Y’s “4 Way Street” is the best album ever made.) To those people, it’s as if no new music has even been created in the last 10, 20 or 30 years. They’re content to trot out that tired old soundtrack of their youth, conveniently forgetting that at some point in their lives, they had never heard of Aerosmith.

It’s similar with NHL coaches. There are Caps fans that are clamoring for Pat Quinn or Pat Burns or Bob Hartley to be named the Caps’ next coach. I know, because I’ve gotten emails and blog comments from them. They believe only a “proven NHL coach” can get this team to where it needs to be, skating the Stanley Cup around the rink some fine June night in the not-too-distant future.

To me, Boudreau is a proven coach. Just not at the NHL level. (Yet.) And the same could be said about Quinn, Burns and Hartley at some point, too. Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman didn’t come out of the womb as NHL coaches, either. All of those guys got their first NHL jobs because a general manager had enough vision and faith not to recycle some coach who had already worn out his welcome in one or more other NHL cities.

How’s that Mike Keenan thing going over up in Calgary this season?

About the same as if someone suddenly flipped on an Emerson, Lake and Palmer record at one of my daughter’s school dances.

No one asked me, but I think Boudreau should be “the guy” here in Washington. I’m also getting the sense that the players feel that way, too. Even though the Caps have an outdoor workout slated for later tonight, Boudreau skated the boys hard today. Some (the one who haven’t played for him in Hershey, naturally) said they hadn’t been skated like that in years. Didn’t matter, they were still positive about the direction of the team and the man at the rudder even after having endured that arduous session at the ’Plex this morning.

Of course, they didn’t have a chance to chat with Boudreau after practice. I mentioned to Bruce that Tuesday’s skate was one of the more grueling outings the team has endured in a while.

“Get out of here,” he said. “That was an easy practice. When they get a hard one, they’ll know it.”

I think the Caps have a good one, and I hope they know it.

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13 Comments on “Not the Same Old, Same Old”

  1. Shannon Lush Says:

    Excellent analysis as always, Mike, I agree wholeheartedly. I’m far from the thick of the action with the Caps here in Newfoundland, Canada (the burdens of being geographically removed from my favorite team! :-), and I rely upon your blogs to help give me a sense of the current topics and sentiment amongst fans.

    From his very appointment, and with the research I did to better understand the man and his accomplishments, I thought to myself that Bouderau need not be simply a stop-gap solution to the bench boss position. Why not allow him to develop his own style and give him time to settle into the role, and the players time to adjust to this new coach and new style? It was heartening to read that Bruce is not simply phoning it in, he is implementing his style and pushing the players and getting to know them as well. So, let the Caps take the rest of the year to see how they can do under this new coach, and perhaps re-assess his potential and performance in the off season.

    Again, thanks for the insight, your blog and podcasts are quite well thought out and welcoming. An early Merry Christmas from Atlantic Canada to you and all fans,

    Shannon Lush

  2. trevor Says:

    Nice take on things Mike. I really think Boudreau can come through. I can already tell a huge difference in the play, especially in the Hershey guys (except for Shultz).


    I love ELP! And I’m only 16!

    Never too young to enjoy “pretentious” music i suppose.

  3. Anthony Says:

    You know Mike, your pretty good at this whole writing thing.

    Good analysis, I thought of that the other day, that the caps record so far with Broudeau was a winning one. If this keeps up, things won’t be so bad.

    When is the trade deadline? What do you think needs to happen for the caps to be in a position to try and make a playoff run from that date? Instead of just trading people away?

    To me, thats the next goal, after “Get out of last place”.

  4. K Says:

    I really like Broudeau up here. I think he’ll make a big difference and I have to agree with you Vogs about bringing in someone who wore their welcome out in another town. Why bother when we have someone great here. I’m feeling much better about the season now. I’m actually looking forward to seeing how the guys look this weekend…

  5. Tom in FL Says:

    Hopefully this will be like when the Orioles brought in Earl Weaver. I mean, who in the world was he? Didn’t take long to find out when Boog Powell started stealing bases. Like Yogi Berra said, 90% of it is half-mental, or something like that, it doesn’t really matter what Yogi Berra said, but if the players believe, that’s half the battle. The Devils have been a top team for years and it was mostly due to Scott Stevens (Poile should’ve kept him), Brodeur and the SYSTEM.

  6. K Says:

    Nice piece on Green! I really like that guy. I’m super impressed with him this year…

  7. pgreene Says:

    i read someplace that bruce’s most common comments at that first “real” practice were “do it right” and “again!” i got goosebumps.

  8. Betsy Says:

    The Caps already have their “real” coach. Boudreau: Oh what a lucky man he was.


  9. Luc Bertrand Says:

    Personally, a 6-game span in such a short time, in addition with little time to integrate a new system, is too early to draw conclusions for a 82-game season, regardless of the results. It is well known that a change of coach usually brings success at short term. For a longer period, this is a different story.

    I didn’t expect the Caps were to undergo such a difficult first third of the season, neither that Glen Hanlon could be held responsible for it. Hockey is a living sport and strategy (or the so-called “system”) has to be periodically revised to face the music against new raising stars or in order to impose the style of play of one’s team. Since I had no chance to regularly follow the Caps, I assume Glen could no longer find the way to win, then he lost the confidence of players. I remember there have been quite long losing streaks, not only this season, but also in the last three. In 2003-2004, it was too late for coming back, and George McPhee tried to get the most in trading the prized players he knew he was going to loose as free agents. In the last two years, Glen had a very young team and the watchword was patience. However, given the arrival of new talents like Niklas Backstrom and free agents Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov and Tom Poti, there was no excuse for such a bad start. Even the losses of Alex Semin and Chris Clark to injuries could not explain everything.

    Bruce Boudreau seems to have taken the right approach with the team. The last time I remember a new coach went back to the basics was when Gary Green replaced Dan Belisle in November 1981. The Caps had a 13-game loosing drought despite having an improved team compared to 1980-81 when they missed the playoffs in the last weekend of the season. Green almost repeated the 1980-81 output (70 points, the team record at that time) while managing to get an offensive production of 319 goals, a performance that was surpassed only three times (1984-85, 1991-92, 1992-93), the latest time when the schedule had been increased to 84 games. In all of these years, the Caps ranked no farther than fourth on power play goals and second in their division while each time making the playoffs.

    For sure, with a young team like the Capitals, especially with so many players already knowing his system, Boudreau should be successful. At least, the quality of show will improve as the players acquire the reflexes and timing to complete their teammates play. As long as Bruce will deserve players respect, this discipline must pay off in the long run. In the meantime, injured players should not be pressed to play to fully recover. It is not logical to spoil the team’s hopes while it is still in a building or consolidation process.

  10. Jonathan Says:

    Something the media hasnt pointed out yet (because its still early, I imagine) is that the players that the majority of the players’ attributes match well with Boudreau’s style. Specifically, the size of our team, skating, physicality, defensive minded forwards, ect.. I know there is a learning curve, but Im hopeful, given the talent we have right now.

  11. D'ohboy Says:


    I’m as hopeful as any other Caps fan that Boudreau can turn the season around. I know that the playoffs are a near impossibility at this point. I would settle for competitive, entertaining hockey and the feeling that progress is being made. I would be happy as a season ticket holder if I felt as though each time I walked into the Verizon Center, the home team had at least an even chance to win the game.

    That being said, I’m not ready to look at this last stretch of games and surmise that the Caps are getting better. In fact, after reading your post, I’m actually less optimistic. Given that ou say that Boudreau didn’t start implementing his system until prior to the shootout loss to the Panthers, that means that the team is 1-1-1 under the new system, averaging 2 goals/game during that stretch.

    We’re discussing ridiculously small sample sizes, but the fact remains that the Caps couldn’t score with Hanlon and, barring the games against Philly and Carolina, haven’t scored under Boudreau either. I like some of the things I’ve seen Boudreau implement so far. Forcing teams to pick between an Ovechkin one-timer or a Mike Green one-timer on the power play has worked very well. The forecheck definitely seems to create more turnovers, especially at the opponent’s blueline (where they do the most damage). The caps are generating tons of shots and dominating the positional play.

    However they’re still not scoring, and barring the first two games (sans the system), the results haven’t been stellar record-wise, either. I’ll be the first to cheer myself hoarse if the Caps turn it around on the upcoming homestand. But I won’t be holding my breath until then.

  12. Sapper Says:

    “The standings don’t lie, and the standings say that the Caps are the worst team in the National Hockey League.”

    Mike, come in off the ledge!

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