Monday, May 13, 2013

Should the Ducks Fire Boudreau?

Just to be clear: I'm not asking this just because they lost game 7.

Because that loss was part of a larger pattern of Boudreau's style as a coach. Though he did win championships at the ECHL and AHL level, Boudreau's teams in the NHL have been marked with the same stamp: excellence in the regular season followed by underachievement in the playoffs.

In Boudreau's first season in Washington, he pushed his team into a Division championship, but they lost in the first round in 7 games to the Flyers. Sound familiar? OK, so perhaps just a coincidence. The next year, the Capitals challenged for the Presidents Trophy, won their division again and barely beat the low-seeded Rangers (again in 7) but lost (again in 7) to Pittsburgh in the second round.

Then what? Well, the next year they did win the Presidents Trophy. But they were unceremoniously dispatched by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round in a mere 7 games. The next year? Another division championship, another early exit. They were swept in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

After several years of playoff failure, when the regular season started to go wrong, the Capitals fired Boudreau. He was hired (literally) the same day by the Anaheim Ducks to replace Stanley Cup winning coach Randy Carlyle.

But what happened this lockout shortened season? The Ducks ran away with the Pacific Division and in the early part of the season, were challenging Chicago for the Presidents Trophy. Then they lost in 7 games to the #7 seed.

Is all of this a coincidence?

I don't think so. With about one quarter of the lockout shortened season left, the Ducks started to lose focus and they stopped winning. It started around the time Corey Perry was suspended, followed by an injury to Ryan Getzlaf, so it was easy to attribute to these causes. So while their Pacific Division championship was never much in doubt, it took them far longer to clinch it than it should have and by then they had fallen out of the hunt for the President's Trophy.

Boudreau preached a "calm down" and "don't get too high or too law" philosophy to his players. He rested players from the lineup before the division or the #2 seed was clinched. He did not make major changes to the lineup during the losing streak and the Ducks brought in a fourth-line faceoff man at the deadline and not much else.

This philosophy is great for regular season success. If you have a team that is good on paper, over time, they do tend to win games and do better if you're patient and let their talents bloom. There's also a strong argument to be made (made stronger, in fact, by Boudreau's losses as a higher seed) that getting into the playoffs is all that really matters and that once you're there, if you have the more rested team, you're bound to win.

The problem is, teams that coast into the playoffs don't fare very well. They have trouble getting into the playoff mindset and by the time they do, they are usually at a disadvantage in the series. The teams in the bottom few seeds have been pushing for a while either just to get in or jockeying for positioning. This can cost you. You can have injuries, but if you survive those, your team is set for success in the playoffs.

The Ducks were giving up goals in the first minutes of games, blowing leads, losing to teams that they should have mopped the floor with, and their scoring lines were not scoring towards the end of the season. Starting goalie Jonas Hiller had some bad games. Still, Boudreau went with Hiller and did not change goalies even after a 5-4 loss in game 2, to Viktor Fasth who played better than Hiller in the regular season.

So, on this evidence you have to wonder if Boudreau shouldn't be on his way out, or, if he has one more chance next year. A team that has won a Stanley Cup should want playoff success and a coach repeating his failure there shouldn't be given much slack, right?

Here's the thing, though. Ducks fans have gotten used to deep playoff runs in the last 10 years. Two visits to the finals, one Cup, three trips to the conference finals. But in order to have this kind of success, you first have to make the playoffs. The Ducks have not reliably done this over long periods of time. They had one 4 season streak form 2006-2009.

This is a team that needs some regular season success to build a playoff tradition that is solid enough to worry about transitioning from the regular season to the playoffs. Sure, sometimes the stars will align like they did in 2007 and you'll get two Norris trophy winning defensemen, a whole gang of high scoring rookies, and a goalie back at the top of his game. But if you don't, you need to build the base of your team into that kind of team to begin with.

Keep Boudreau if he can keep doing it in the regular season.

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