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.