Bruce Boudreau’s Toughest Challenge

There’s no denying that Bruce Boudreau is an excellent NHL head coach. It doesn’t matter how good his players have been, Boudreau’s record speaks for itself. Nevertheless, true greatness is judged by what you do when it counts. It is judged by how you perform in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Perhaps 2015 is the year that Boudreau scratches the “black mark” of playoff failure from his name.

The upcoming Western Conference Finals series against the Chicago Blackhawks might just be the toughest and most pivotal challenge of Boudreau’s eight-year head coaching career.

Boudreau entered the NHL in 2007-08 as the head coach of a young, raw Washington Capitals squad led by the superstar Alexander Ovechkin. He was an instantaneous success leading the Capitals to the postseason for the first time since 2002-03.

A loaded, run and gun and exciting to watch Capitals led by Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green stormed to a Game 7 in the second round of the postseason one season later against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins. They were edged out in one of the most exciting postseason series in recent memory.

When Washington was finally swept aside 6-2 by a team that would go on to win the Stanley Cup that June, it felt like the Capitals were on the precipice of breaking out as a potential dynasty.

Boudreau and his passionate coaching style were at the core of the identity of that team - he was most of all considered to be a great player’s coach.

That wasn’t to be the story though. Washington would win the President’s Trophy with the best regular season record in 2009-10 and the Eastern conference in 2010-11, but each time they performed poorly in the playoffs. They were shocked in the first round in 2010, before getting swept by division rivals Tampa Bay in 2011.

During that time Boudreau’s strategic qualities and flexibility was questioned. There were calls for him to adopt a less “gun-ho” attacking approach and to insist on his superstars committing at both ends of the ice. Above all, it was often insinuated and sometimes outright stated that Boudreau’s approach didn’t work in the postseason.

Just 22 games into the 2011-12 season Boudreau was fired and replaced by Dale Hunter.

It appears that Washington’s problems ran deeper than Boudreau. The Capitals have won just two playoff series in four seasons since his departure. They couldn’t get it done this season despite taking a 3-1 second round series lead against the New York Rangers.
Some of Washington’s players have even regressed in their postseason performances without Boudreau, the most notable of which is Alex Ovechkin. “The Great 8” has 25 goals and 50 points in 37 playoff games under Boudreau (and scored at more than one point per game in all four runs), but has managed just 11 goals and 20 points in 35 postseason contests since.

Boudreau didn’t have to wait long for his next job; the Anaheim Ducks almost immediately hired him as Randy Carlyle’s replacement. The situation with the Ducks wasn’t so dissimilar to the one Boudreau inherited in Anaheim. A team with lots of talent led by superstars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, but one that was set to miss the playoffs and was struggling to hit its potential.

He wasn’t able to prevent the Ducks from missing the 2012 playoffs, but since then Anaheim have won three straight Pacific division titles posting impressive offensive numbers and developing into one of the league’s star-studded line-ups.

After losing in the first round in 2012-13, the Ducks were engaged in a Penguins-Capitals 2009 like series with California rivals LA, eventually losing 4-3 in what was arguably the Kings’ toughest series en route to a second Stanley Cup triumph in three years.

It was always the case that 2014-15 would be a defining season for these Ducks and Boudreau. They once again stormed to a Pacific division title taking the top seed in the Western conference.

In the first two rounds of the 2015 playoffs they've taken their opportunities losing just one game while beating Winnipeg and Calgary, both teams with little postseason experience.

The challenge in front of them in the Conference Finals is a different matter. The Chicago Blackhawks already have two Stanley Cups in the last five years and it feels like a core led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook might just be primed for a title number three.

Boudreau has probably done enough for Ducks fans and management to forgive him a series defeat to Chicago – at least in terms of staying employed. However, this is a real opportunity for the Ducks and their head coach to break through. There are some playoff-tested players leading this group and they are benefitting from some bargains salary cap wise. Windows of opportunity don’t stay open for too long in the salary cap era.

For Boudreau, his 363-167-69 regular season record speaks for itself. He’s won seven division titles in eight seasons and has never failed to make the playoffs outside of the year split between Washington and Anaheim.

His one blemish is a 5-6 record in postseason series (3-6 before 2015). Boudreau’s window of opportunity to erase that blemish from his record comes against the NHL’s modern dynasty.

If Boudreau’s team loses this series, they risk becoming a footnote to a period dominated by Chicago and LA. Win it and they could be building their own legacy.

For all of his success and for everything he has accomplished. Bruce Boudreau is about to take on his toughest challenge yet as he aims to engrave his name in the history of the sport.