Tuned out by his players, coach Bruce Boudreau was fired by the Washington Capitals on Monday after winning 200 games faster than any coach in modern NHL history but stumbling regularly in the playoffs despite a talent-laden lineup featuring two-time league MVP Alex Ovechkin.
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Boudreau was replaced by former Capitals captain Dale Hunter, who was greeted by loud cheers from more than 100 fans when he skated onto the ice at Monday’s practice. Hunter, never before a coach in the NHL, will make his debut behind the bench Tuesday night when Washington hosts the St. Louis Blues to begin a three-game homestand.
”This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce. When you see that, as much as you don’t want to make a change, you have to make a change,” general manager George McPhee said.
”Bruce came in here and emptied the tank. He gave it everything he could and did a really good job, but the tank was empty,” McPhee added. ”When that happens, you get a new coach, where the tank is full and see if it makes a difference.”
Hired four years ago on Thanksgiving Day, Boudreau went 201-88-40 in the regular season but 17-20 in the playoffs – exiting in the first or second round each time. This season he tried a new approach, emphasizing accountability and the willingness to bench his star players – team captain Ovechkin included – as punishment for subpar performances.
The Capitals started 7-0 – a franchise record for consecutive wins to begin a season – but have since slumped badly. They have dropped six of their past eight games, including a 5-1 loss Saturday night to a Buffalo Sabres team missing nine regular players.
Ovechkin has only one goal in the last eight games.
”I don’t think this has anything to do with Alex Ovechkin,” said McPhee, noting that the team’s highest-paid player will remain its captain. ”I think it’s got everything to do with this team not playing well.”
The 51-year-old Hunter played for the Capitals from 1987-99, the last five seasons as captain, and is one of four players to have his jersey number retired by the franchise. A banner with Hunter wearing his red No. 32 hangs on a wall behind one end of the ice where the Capitals practice. He stood in a nearby corner of the rink for one part of Monday’s session.
”Obviously Dale was an intelligent player. He had talent and he was tough,” McPhee said. ”And he was downright mean sometimes.”
Hunter played 19 NHL seasons and is the only player in league history with 1,000 points and 3,000 penalty minutes. His career total of 3,563 penalty minutes ranks second all-time.
Hunter has coached the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League for 11 seasons, compiling a 451-189-23-24 record. He became the fastest coach in OHL history to reach 300 and 400 career wins. Like Boudreau, who was promoted from Washington’s minor league affiliate in the AHL to replace Glen Hanlon, Hunter is getting his first NHL coaching job in Washington.
”Coaching’s coaching, and he’s been coaching at a good level and at a high level,” McPhee said. ”The same questions were asked of Bruce when he came here, and he had an outstanding record.”
Boudreau turned around a moribund franchise when he was hired in 2007, leading the Capitals to the first of four consecutive Southeast Division titles and winning the league’s coach of the year award in 2008. Nicknamed ”Gabby” for his gift of gab, he bought an offensive philosophy that meshed well with Ovechkin and the team’s other ”young guns” such as Alexander Semin and Mike Green, but he was never able to get Washington deep into the playoffs.
Boudreau had the team adopt a more defensive mindset during a losing streak last season, but it failed to pay dividends in the spring. The Capitals were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the postseason.
Boudreau’s assistant coaches – Dean Evason, Bob Woods and Blaine Forsythe – will remain in their posts under Hunter.
McPhee said he began talking to Hunter a week ago about the possibility of returning to the Capitals. On Monday morning at 6:15 a.m., McPhee met with Boudreau and delivered the news. Now the team hopes its play will improve.
”Sometimes it’s like having the same teacher for five years. How would you have liked to do that in high school? It’s hard sometimes,” McPhee said. ”So you make the change and hope that a new voice and a new way of doing things and a new focus gets the best out of these players.”