By Allan Muir
With 17 games to go and his team five points out of an Eastern Conference playoff berth, Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman had seen enough. He made the decision early this morning to fire coach Guy Boucher, hoping that a different voice would somehow motivate his Lightning into a miraculous stretch run.
You can't blame him. Something had to be done, especially after dispiriting losses to Toronto and Ottawa this week, and cashiering the coach is the easiest option.
But here's hoping he took a good long look in the mirror before he pushed him overboard, because it was Yzerman's own failings that led Boucher out onto the plank.
Remember when Boucher was regarded as a genius after guiding the Lightning to a 23-point improvement back in 2010-11? He had Dwayne Roloson, doing his best Johnny Bower impression, between the pipes.
But there isn't a coach in the world who looks good when his goaltending stinks. Considering the pair of Johnny Rottens he was dealt this season by Yzerman, it's amazing Boucher was able to stay in the mix as long as he did.
It was Yzerman who gambled last summer that Anders Lindback, an inexperienced back-up with Nashville who had all of 38 NHL games to his credit, was ready to step into a No. 1 job with the Bolts.
Lindback is just 24, and in time, he may mature into the elite netminder Yzerman believes he can be. Plenty of scouts say he has the size and tools to be a good one. But he hasn't been up to the task this year, battling the learning curve and technical problems with his game. His positioning needs refinement and he tends to give up juicy rebounds. Little mistakes seemed to snowball with him, and you could see his confidence sagging as games began to get away from him.
Again, this is all part of the process for a young keeper. But it left Boucher with no true No. 1 stopper, and forced him to play a game of "Guess the Hot Hand" with Lindback and aging veteran Mathieu Garon as his choices.
Is anyone surprised how that worked out? The Bolts rank 24th in goals-against (3.03) and 25th in five-on-five goals-against. That's not good enough, especially measured up against the fact that they rank 21st in shots allowed. That's a gap that accurately reflects too many games given away on soft goals.
The Lightning also had injury problems this year, forcing the team to rely heavily on minor leaguers to fill roles they weren't quite ready to assume. Most seasons, that's something that gets taken into account when considering a coach's effectiveness. But this year, with Otawa's Paul MacLean guiding the Binghamton Senators (with a few NHLers sprinkled in) to a playoff spot in the East, Boucher's results were easier to criticize. It's probably no coincidence that his demise came after shortly being beaten by MacLean's undermanned but overachieving Sens on Saturday afternoon.
None of this is to suggest Boucher was blameless. The Lightning has been a frustratingly inconsistent group for the past two seasons, and when you're rolling out high-end talent like Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis and a roster that's just shy of the cap, management expects results.
Losing games isn't a big deal. Losing winnable games is, and the Lightning had made a routine this season of doing just that. Over the past couple of weeks, you could feel a sense of resignation falling over the club as each small failure inevitably cascaded into the next. This was a team that had stopped believing in itself. And that's on Boucher.
Can a new coach find the right words or push a different button? It could happen. We've certainly seen it before.
But unless that new coach--Lindy Ruff and Norfolk (AHL) bench boss Jon Cooper are considered the favorites--can stop pucks as well as reset this group's confidence, the Lightning seem destined to finish out of the mix. Again. And that's on Yzerman.