Is Boudreau’s Job in Jeopardy?

It’s not so much the six losses themselves that have a lot of folks in Washington concerned about the Capitals’ current skid, it’s the way in which they’re losing. The most recent loss, a 7-0 beat down at the hands of the Rangers, is cause for concern.

So is the fact that the same offense that lit the league on fire last season has now been shutout four times in 13 games and scored eight goals during the losing streak.

What role does Bruce Boudreau play in all of this, and how capable is he of digging them out? Is he the right coach for this team right now?

This isn’t panic talking. While the Capitals are still the second seed in the Eastern Conference, they trail both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in points. Montreal has two games in hand on the Capitals and is one point back. The New York Rangers, who are in sixth place, trail by two points and Boston trails by three points but has four games in hand.

Within the division, Tampa Bay and Atlanta are three and four points behind respectively but have each played two less games than the Capitals. So if the losing streak hits, say, eight games, the lead over the Southeast is liable to vanish completely.

Furthermore, the Capitals are currently seventh in the conference in goal differential.

So while it’s not panic time in D.C., these numbers illustrate just how close things are getting to “will they even make the playoffs?” territory.

While Boudreau’s bunch has fared extremely well over the last two regular seasons, a lot of issues that have cost the team in the playoffs persist and are now boiling to the surface.

They have consistently struggled to put forth a full 60 minute effort, with the loss to Toronto last week in which they blew a three goal lead in the third period being the most recent example. The top six forwards don’t forecheck or cycle particularly well which haunts them against a “hot goalie” or a team that commits to blocking shots. A lot of these issues were exposed during the Montreal series, so perhaps the book is now out on how to stop the Capitals.

Boudreau also has repeatedly failed to adjust his match-ups or style of play when the team isn’t having success, such as the power play which is on the fritz now and did absolutely nothing in the playoffs.

Boudreau’s system looks great when the highly-talented top six forwards are 100% on. In order for things to work, the top forwards need to be playing well because everything has to happen at warp speed and be in-sync.

When just one player’s timing is off it can disrupt everything, especially the breakout and the team’s ability to move through neutral ice. The top two lines have never been particularly great at forechecking and out-working teams in the offensive end. They rely heavily on scoring on the rush and in transition, or barring that, scoring on the power play.

Right now, the top six forwards aren’t scoring and the Capitals seem to have no answer for it partly because the don’t put into play the habits that usually get teams out of scoring slumps, like driving to net and forechecking relentlessly and creating traffic in front. This means the Capitals are in trouble when they run into a “hot goalie,” and is part of the reason why we’ve witnessed the Capitals lose a lot of games despite regularly outshooting their opponents.

Ever noticed how the standard recap of a Capitals loss reads “despite outshooting and out-chancing the (insert team), the Capitals fell short thanks in large part to the effort of (insert goaltender).”?

And yet the coaches, players or both seem completely unwilling to adjust or adapt.

Let’s use Alexander Ovechkin’s struggles as an example. Despite his high assist totals, this team needs Ovechkin to score goals and he’s not doing that this year. He has just two tallies in 14 games and has dropped to 20th in the league in goals. The Canadiens figured out how to counteract his go-to move on the rush where he either cuts to the middle from above the left circle or uses the defenseman as a screen.

So if it’s still not working, why does he continue to shy away from carrying the puck below the circles or from pulling up and waiting for his teammates rather than stubbornly shooting into the defenseman’s shins? Is the coaching staff not encouraging him to make that adjustment or is he just not listening?

The Ovechkin conundrum also hits on another point of concern potentially unrelated to Boudreau – is the leadership and makeup of the locker room strong enough to carry the team through the playoffs? There’s no way for any of us outsiders to know, but after watching the the team simply give up in the later periods against Florida and New York this week, it’s a fair question to ask.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the aggressiveness of Boudreau’s system often leaves the two defensemen on the ice exposed to rushes the other way, which means they have to be disciplined with their gap control. Lately, the positioning of the defense, particularly on the rush, has been laughable.

It’s fair to ask whether or not this system is a formula for playoff success and, more immediately, whether the players have stopped buying into it.

In Boudreau’s case, however, it’s premature to make a coaching change for several reasons.

For one, his teams have been pretty darned good overall. To dismiss him after a six game losing streak when the team is still first in the division is borderline nuts on the surface.  Also, he’s playing with a short-handed roster right now. Jeff Schultz and Mike Green, the team’s top defensive pair, have been sick and/or injured. The flu has also been going around the locker room since late last week, which could explain why some of the stars like Nicklas Backstrom haven’t been playing well.

Most importantly, the Capitals organization down through the AHL has utilized Boudreau’s system for years. Most of the players on the current roster were playing this system since their days in Hershey. So if trading Chris Clark last year shook the foundation of the locker room enough to precipitate a three-game losing streak, imagine the adjustment period for an entirely new scheme!

Still, the fact that they’re 4-9 in the last 13 games indicates that this is a situation to keep an eye on. If this continues into January and the team is barely in contention for the eighth seed, then it’ll be time to have a serious discussion

Replacing Boudreau mid-season should be the last resort for owner Ted Leonsis and GM George McPhee. It should only be used if it’s 100% clear that he’s lost the team and the only way to save the season is to bring someone new on board. We’re not quite there yet.


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One Response to “Is Boudreau’s Job in Jeopardy?”

  1. Rachel
    December 14, 2010 at 11:53 am #

    Very balanced and well thought out article!