After Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee made a coaching change in November of the 2007-08 season, the team's assistant GM, Don Fishman, did some research into the timing of firing a coach. More than performing a detailed statistical analysis, Fishman mostly rummaged around in precedent, notably the 2006-07 St. Louis Blues.
Mired in last place in mid-December, the Blues sacked Mike Kitchen and hired former Los Angeles Kings coach Andy Murray. A team that had won just seven of its first 30 games would wind up with a respectable 81 points, 15 out of the last Western Conference playoff spot but certainly trending upward.
"You look at that and you think maybe the coaching change came a tad too late there," Fishman says. "Ours came earlier" -- McPhee, whose Capitals were off to the franchise's worst start in 26 seasons -- fired Glen Hanlon shortly before Thanksgiving 2007-- "and maybe that made a difference."
The Capitals would make the playoffs on the final day of that season, spurred by a popular and garrulous coach, a minor league scoring legend who had just the right touch for a gifted but often wayward team.
Now Bruce Boudreau, who won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's coach of the year for that dramatic 2007-08 turnaround, is under the microscope. The Capitals lost their sixth straight game last Sunday. This is hardly calamitous. But the manner in which they capitulated at Madison Square Garden should have been enough to give any GM pause. The Rangers won 7-0, and after the first goal, the Capitals' effort can best described as a Gallic shrug.
As a policy, McPhee doesn't comment on the status of his coach. No votes of confidence. No Steinbrenneresque rumbling about job security, either. But through a team spokesman, the GM did pass on this statement: "We haven't played well recently, and we have to work our way out of it. We can sit and feel sorry for ourselves or we can get to work. It is time to get to work."
The situations involving Hanlon three years ago and Boudreau today are hardly analogous. In 2007, the Capitals were foundering, running as far off the pace as Kenyatta. They needed CPR, which Boudreau performed expertly enough to sneak the team into the playoffs and extend Philadelphia to a Game 7 overtime in the first round. Washington, which recently had a flu bug spreading through its dressing room, will be a playoff team in 2011 even if Kenyatta is wearing a suit and tie behind the bench.
But if the Capitals are looking at precedent, they can turn to the 2008-09 Penguins. After an ugly game in Toronto in February -- not unlike Washington's utter disgrace in New York -- GM Ray Shero fired Michel Therrien, a less popular coach than Boudreau, and summoned Dan Bylsma from Wilkes-Barre to lead a solid but sputtering team. Four months later, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.
The Capitals, our preseason Cup pick, are imperfect, but they have plenty of company in a salary cap league that drags everyone to the middle. McPhee already has made a move to shore up the defense, acquiring the physical Scott Hannan from Colorado. The No. 2 center slot remains problematic, and the goaltending has waxed and waned although Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov are at least as capable as the four goalies that Chicago and Philadelphia rode to the 2010 Cup final. (More on that in a moment.)
Washington was the best regular-season Eastern Conference team before it was shocked in the first round by Montreal last spring, a squandered Cup opportunity that goes on a coaching curriculum vitae as surely as an extended playoff run. Now, with the power play stumbling in recent games, the offense stalled and stale -- through Monday, Alex Ovechkin's 12 goals ranked 23rd in the NHL -- and the defensemen playing like matadors, alarm bells should be clanging.
If there is a white-flag performance at home against Anaheim on Wednesday night, Boudreau could be peering over the abyss.
Last year, on the eve of what would be their Stanley Cup season opener against Florida, the Blackhawks traveled to Finland with three goalies. Cristóbal Huet, a veteran, was set to be the Hawks' No. 1 with Antti Niemi or Corey Crawford, both of whom had strong training camps, as the backup. There was little to choose between the rookies, except this: Crawford would not need to clear re-entry waivers if he were demoted.
With their hands tied by procedure, Chicago demoted Crawford and nine months later Niemi hoisted the Cup.
"I thought they'd be both NHL goalies at some point," Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said of Niemi and Crawford. "We knew Corey. He'd been a No. 1 guy in the AHL for a while. I mean if you're going to script it, this is pretty much how you want to go. A higher draft choice" -- Crawford was chosen 52nd overall in 2003 -- "who's pretty highly touted and then who gets to earn his keep in the minors, learning his craft."
In 2010-11, the kaleidoscope has turned. Huet, who couldn't hang on to the starting job last season, is now on loan to a Swiss league team while Niemi is in San Jose after the Blackhawks walked away from his $2.75 million arbitration award. Chicago signed former Dallas goalie Marty Turco as the presumptive No. 1, the new Huet of sorts, and turned to Crawford as Niemi redux. The current goaltending duo costs Chicago $2.15 million this season, a formula the Detroit Red Wings have used to maximize other assets in the cap world.
The Detroit-Chicago analogy extends further. Indeed Crawford, who has barged past Turco at the moment to become the de facto No. 1, could be tripping down a career path cleared by Detroit's Jimmy Howard, who seems capable of being a top 10 goalie. Howard, a University of Maine star who was picked 12 spots behind Crawford in the same draft, also had a healthy AHL apprenticeship, playing in 186 regular season games. Crawford played 255 in Rockford, essentially an extra season, before securing a place with the Hawks.
After a slow start, Crawford won seven straight games between Nov. 20 and Dec. 8 before losing 2-1 at San Jose in overtime. Crawford, who has a respectable .914 save percentage, was also charged with the defeat on Monday in Colorado, coming in to replace a shaky Turco and stopping 17 of 19 shots.
"The traditional approach has been that you have to have an established No. 1 guy who's done it before," Bowman said. "Now, that doesn't appear to be the case. An up-and-coming goalie, one capable of handling the pressure, can take you a long way. Of course, that can change. If Cups are won over the next couple of years by teams with well-established No. 1 (goalies), teams will go back to the old model."
In a match in Detroit last Friday, the Red Wings had six power plays to the Canadiens' one in a 4-2 victory. The disparity would have been nothing to raise an eyebrow at, except:
Detroit, of course, is the westernmost suburb of Stockholm. There are six Swedish players, all prominent, on the Wings: captain Nicklas Lidstrom, Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson. In the way that Montreal once cornered the market on French Canadians, the Wings have been channeling their inner Ikea.
Of course, NHL teams cringe when they see francophone referees and linesmen working games in Montreal, presupposing there is some inherent bias in the Canadiens' favor. Now Montreal was thrust into a situation where the skate was on the other foot. While GM Pierre Gauthier properly sloughed off a question about the refereeing in the Detroit game, some Montreal officials carped about the dearth of calls and the postgame howdy-dos involving some Wings and Vinnerborg.
When asked about the match, Mike Murphy, the NHL's senior vice-president of hockey operations, replied via e-mail: "(Vinnerborg) is an excellent ref, but it was bad optics when he was greeted by a number of Detroit players. Different cultures do things differently; that was the case here. We reviewed all the calls in that game, and we were happy with the way it was officiated."