On Monday morning, two NHL coaches awoke to phone calls they never wanted to receive.
For Bruce Boudreau, it was Capitals general manager George McPhee. For Paul Maurice, Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford was the voice on the other end. The message was the same: Your services are no longer needed behind the bench.
With two Southeast Division head coaches losing their jobs, Nov. 28 quickly earned the media nickname of "Black Monday."
Though Boudreau and Maurice were fired for similar reasons, as their respective teams were not winning, the build-ups to the two firings were very different.
Boudreau’s Capitals started off the 2011-12 season with a bang by winning their first seven games — a franchise record for best start to a season. They were undefeated at home through early November.
Then, slowly, the team began to collapse. In their last 15 games, they are 5-9-1. They have allowed the fourth-most goals against in the league, an average of 3.22 per game. The power play, which was first in the league early in the season, is now 17th at 16.1 percent. The team’s superstars are underperforming.
Statistics aside, the team looks disinterested, uninspired and easily outworked by the opposition. After a lazy 5-1 loss to a depleted Buffalo Sabres team Saturday night, McPhee made the decision — he spoke to London Knights (OHL) coach and former Capitals forward Dale Hunter on Sunday, and Boudreau was ousted in favor of Hunter on Monday morning.
McPhee’s reasoning for the coaching change was obvious to anyone who had recently watched the Capitals play.
"The reason for the change was we weren’t winning, obviously," McPhee told reporters in a press conference. "This wasn’t a slump. You can ride out slumps. This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce."
In Hunter, McPhee selected someone with a different coaching style. After spending 12 seasons in a Capitals uniform, Hunter had his number hung from the rafters at Verizon Center. Hunter’s style of play was gritty and in your face, resulting in his ownership of one of the NHL’s more unusual records — he is the only player to score over 1,000 points and spend over 3,000 minutes in the penalty box in his career. His on-ice persona isn’t too far off from his coaching style.
"I’m a player’s coach, but the players will know when I’m mad at them," Hunter told reporters in Washington. "If you continuously make mistakes, there will be repercussions."
The Capitals lost to the St. Louis Blues in their first game with Hunter behind the bench on Tuesday and followed that with a loss Thursday to the Pittsburgh Penguins, but there were already faint traces of Hunter’s influence hitting home. Defenseman Karl Alzner said Hunter’s system differs from Boudreau’s mostly in terms of battles in the defensive zone.
However, patience is needed to see results from the new systems.
"It doesn’t come overnight, especially with the change," center Brooks Laich told reporters after Tuesday’s game. "We’ve got to get used to a little bit of a new system and a new style, but it’s going to take months to perfect."
The Carolina Hurricanes also lost their first two games Tuesday and Thursday under Kirk Muller, but the road to Maurice’s firing was much different from Boudreau’s. While the Capitals were busting out of the gate at the beginning of the season, the Hurricanes never got going at all, collecting their first win of the year in their fourth game. It didn’t get much better. They currently sit 27th in the NHL with a 8-15-4 record, and have lost 12 of their past 16 games.
This is the second time Maurice has been fired from the same position. He had started his second stint with the organization after Peter Laviolette’s firing in 2008.
Rutherford said that he decided to replace Maurice almost two weeks ago after a 4-0 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 16, a game which Rutherford had called "unacceptable." Rutherford began speaking with Muller the following week, and Maurice’s firing was announced about 90 minutes after Boudreau’s on Monday.
"We appreciate the work he has done for us," Rutherford said of Maurice in a press conference. "It’s unfortunate his leaving comes under these circumstances."
Muller comes to Raleigh after beginning the season as coach of the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. Like Hunter, it is Muller’s first NHL head coaching job, though Muller spent several recent seasons as an assistant coach with the Canadiens.
The Hurricanes’ front office is kicking around the idea of several trades to jump-start the team under Muller, but the first challenge is to break captain Eric Staal of the mysterious funk that has left him at the bottom of the league in plus/minus while remaining uninspired offensively.
Muller already has a start on that task, and spoke with Staal once he arrived in Raleigh.
"I just said to him, ‘I don’t need you to be Superman,’ " Muller told the Raleigh News & Observer. "I told him, ‘I just want you to go out here and be my hardest-working player. Just play hard, have fun, enjoy the game.’ All he has to do is go out and lead by example. Play hard, do the little things, great body language and have fun and just be the player that he is."
Having fun while playing hockey for a living: It often eludes a losing team, and it’s something both Hunter and Muller want from their teams. They hope the wins will follow.
"It’s all about the players and hopefully I can come in and get them to feel good, and get them to play at the level they’re capable of and let them have some fun," Muller told reporters. "And we’ll go from there."
Southest Division notes
While initial reports indicated that the Capitals would retain all assistant coaches after Boudreau’s firing, news came Wednesday that assistant coach Bob Woods, who worked with the defense, had also been fired. Jim Johnson, another former Capital and former teammate of Hunter’s, was hired in Woods’ place. Johnson had a short stint coaching the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals for part of the 2009-2010 season. No further coaching changes are expected from the Capitals, meaning that assistant coach Dean Evason and assistant/video coach Blaine Forsythe will remain on staff.
Late Wednesday night, the Anaheim Ducks announced that they had fired Randy Carlyle and hired Boudreau as their new coach. … Woods is expected to join Boudreau in Anaheim as an assistant.
The Hurricanes got started on roster changes Tuesday, claiming RW Andreas Nodl off waivers from the Philadelphia Flyers. Nodl had 22 points in 67 games last season with the Flyers. "This is a young player that skates really well," Rutherford said in a statement. "He has a skill level that gives us a little more depth among our top 12 forwards." To make room for Nodl on the Hurricanes roster, Brett Sutter was sent down to the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL.
The Winnipeg Jets recalled LW Carl Klingberg Wednesday due to day-to-day injuries to C Nik Antropov and RW Eric Fehr. Klingberg has 16 points in 20 games with the St. John’s IceCaps. "If he played in the game (Thursday) he’d be an energy fourth-line guy. We’d just want him to be dependable," Jets coach Claude Noel told reporters. "He’s been dependable."
The Panthers tightened their grip on first place in the Southeast Division after winning three of their last five games, but two losses to the Tampa Bay Lightning, including a 5-1 defeat that was the Panthers’ most lopsided loss of the season, had coach Kevin Dineen upset. Though the roster is banged up and their recent schedule has been tough, Dineen didn’t like the effort. "No one will feel sorry for us about our schedule," Dineen told reporters. "If you see a performance that we put on tonight, it makes other teams hungry. I thought we looked tired, acted tired and played tired." The Panthers followed up those two losses with a win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday in Muller’s debut as Hurricanes coach.
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman was signed to a five-year contract extension Wednesday, which TSN reportedly valued at $20 million. Hedman, 20, was due to become a restricted free agent following this season. "(Hedman) has shown tremendous growth as a player in just more than two seasons in the NHL while also becoming a key member of our team," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said in a statement. "We look forward to his continued development in a Lightning uniform." In his first game since signing the extension, Hedman was a minus-2.