Profiles in Excellence: Candidates for Greatness

This time a year ago I discussed the chances of Paul Maurice, Randy Carlyle, Barry Trotz, Claude Julien, and Bruce Boudreau had of cracking the ranks of the fifty greatest hockey coaches of all time. As it turned out, Carlyle, Trotz, and Julien succeeded in their quest. They now, according to my rating system, have entered the ranks of the fifty greatest hockey coaches of all time.

Today we have four candidates for greatness: Paul Maurice, Bruce Boudreau, Todd McLellan, and Dan Bylsma.

Paul Maurice during 2010/11 had a chance to reach for greatness but instead coached at his usual mediocre level: posting a winning season but failing to make the playoffs. Maurice added one success point to his escutcheon and now has 15 career success points but one month into the 2011/12 Season his Carolina Hurricanes are performing pathetically: sharing the Southeast Division basement with the Winnipeg Jets. The only team with a worse defense than theirs is the Ottawa Senators.

Paul Maurice’s entire coaching career (with the exception of the 2001/02 and the 2008/09 NHL seasons) has been one of sustained mediocrity; and somehow it doesn’t seem right that Maurice should rank among the game’s greatest coaches. But if the Hurricanes present status is a harbinger of how their season will end next spring then rest assuredly this time next year I will once more be writing about Paul Maurice being on the cusp
of greatness—but not possessing the stuff of coaching greatness.

Washington Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau doesn’t have that problem. Boudreau’s failure to lead the Caps to the 2011 Stanley Cup was the sole reason why he failed to crack the top fifty ranks. And yet that failure speaks of a lurking problem for Bruce Boudreau and the Washington Capitals.

The Caps last season were a team of destiny; a consensus pick by many to reach the Stanley Cup finals yet they were smashed by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round—undermined by a lack of cohesion.

The questions that begs to be answered is why is it that after four seasons Bruce Boudreau cannot get the Caps to shake off their Cinderella complex: in other words a team that looks wonderful, resplendent,
and golden during the regular season but when the clock strikes midnight during the playoff time reverts back to pumpkin status?

In previous seasons, one could suggest tactical weaknesses on defense and goal-tending. Last season those excuses don’t hold water. One must postulate a failure of the will and the reason why that failure exists must be laid at the doorstep of Bruce Boudreau.

Bruce Boudreau will enter the top fifty ranks this season: guaranteed. It would take World War III; a combined outbreak of the cholera, and the rabies, and the plague; an assassin shooting from the Grassy Knoll; and a tsunami to prevent him from doing so.

But what Bruce Boudreau does during the regular season is irrelevant. The Caps presently lead the Southeast Division but like the past four seasons it becomes meaningless. Boudreau and the Caps may or may
not realize this but they are at a metaphorical crossroads. Despite their superlative regular season record they are approaching a symbolic divide that will test their mettle. The real test begins in April and how Boudreau and the Caps pass that test will speak volumes as to whether Boudreau is truly a championship coach and whether the Caps can ever be a Stanley Cup winning team?

In many ways Boudreau is becoming the Billy Reay of the 21st Century: a brilliant coach with a genius in getting solid individual efforts from his players but incapable of winning the big one but at least the late Billy Reay reached the Stanley Cup finals thrice in his lifetime. Boudreau has yet to do this.

In three seasons of NHL coaching Todd McLellan has already earned 12 success points. He, too, like Boudreau is a shoo-in for the top fifty ranks but he and the San Jose Sharks are facing a tough grind. Like they did last season the Sharks have started slowly out of the gate and are in third place in the Pacific Division. Todd McLellan is facing the same problem that devils Detroit’s Mike Babcock—coaching an aging team while integrating young players into the mix. Half of the Sharks are over thirty years old and
the team’s defensive skills have eroded significantly. Although they have the 7th best defense in the NHL their performance on the penalty-kill is atrocious (28th in the NHL). Their overall offense is weak too.

McLellan faced the same problems last season but benefited from the fact that the Pacific divisional race was a veritable merry-go-round with all five teams owning the lead until the Sharks rallied at the end of the 2010/11 season to retain the divisional title. This season it is different because they are facing a rejuvenated Dallas Stars team that has jelled behind rookie NHL coach Glen Gulutzman and a feisty Phoenix Coyote team.

The Stars and the Coyotes (as well as the Los Angeles Kings) are filled with vibrant, young talent rapidly playing up to their full potential while Todd McLellan and the Sharks are in a rebuilding mode.

Still, last season, McLellan got the Sharks to rally and make it all the way to the conference finals. This season represents a new challenge for McLellan and the Sharks: the Sharks have never reached the Stanley Cup Finals, let alone won the Cup.

This is the season the Sharks either sink their teeth into the Stanley Cup or else they will gradually fade as Pacific Division contenders (like Anaheim is presently doing) while the Stars or the Coyotes or the Kings will take over as Pacific division champions.

Like Bruce Boudreau, it’s time for Todd McLellan to take it to the next level.

Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma doesn’t have that problem. He and the Pittsburgh Penguins have already been to the Promised Land. Now they want to return.

Amazingly despite the continued loss of Sidney Crosby and the slow return of Evgeni Malkin to the starting line-up the Penguins have roared out of the blocks with some of the most amazing hockey of this season; playing with a crispness, confidence, and excellence usually displayed by championship teams, the Penguins are vying with the Blackhawks for the President’s trophy stakes; with the exception of their overall defense they are at or near the top in all the key team statistical areas: offense, power-play offense, power-play effectiveness, penalty-killing, and short-handed offense.

When they played the white-hot Colorado Avalanche on November 15, they were losing 3-2 at the end of two periods only to erupt with four goals in the third period to win decisively, 6-3. That type of strength and unflappability can only result in winning the Stanley Cup.

If the Penguins are not conference finalists in 2012 I will be shocked.

If they are not Stanley Cup finalists I will be disappointed.

If they don’t win the Stanley Cup I will be amazed.

Like Todd McLellan, a Stanley Cup appearance and/or win will vault Bylsma into the ranks of the top-fifty. (Bylsma, like McLellan, has 12 success points).

But even if both men fail (and my instincts tell me that one of two will not fail) then they will definitely reach the top fifty next season (if the NHL doesn’t suffer another lock-out).

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