By Stu Hackel
As this week dawned, Bruce Boudreau was coaching the Capitals, Paul Maurice was bench-bossing the Hurricanes and Randy Carlyle was directing the Ducks. It’s only Thursday and, today, Bruce Boudreau is directing the Ducks, Kirk Muller is bench-bossing the Hurricanes and Dale Hunter is coaching the Caps. What will tomorrow bring?
Firing coaches has gone viral in the NHL. Why? “It’s about the time,” says Scotty Bowman, the legendary Hall of Famer who won nine Stanley Cups as a coach. “The first quarter of the season is gone. You’re coming up to the one-third mark now. The end of this month you’re halfway. These teams, if they don’t make a move now, it’s going to be a long season and they’re not going to catch up.”
When Bowman looks at the standings, he sees that the league’s recent parity bunches teams together and if one falls too far behind the main group, it will be in danger. “If you’re not in the pack, it shows up real bad now,” he says, looking at teams like the Ducks who, even with their win over Montreal on Wednesday night in Carlyle’s final game, are still 10 points out of a playoff spot with six teams to climb over. “If you’re in the mix, maybe there’s some teams who aren’t doing as well as they thought they would, but they’re in the mix. If you get behind six teams, it’s hard to catch up. The teams ahead of you all play each other. Those three-point games, especially, can kill you.”
With all the changes during the last few days, it seemed like a good time to check in with the greatest coach in NHL history, maybe the greatest coach ever in pro sports, and get his views on the rapidly spinning carousel of his former profession.
Still thinking like a coach, the 78-year-old Bowman knows that sometimes team performances have less to do with the guy behind the bench and more to do with the guy who assembles the roster. Some firings, he believes, are about GMs saving their own necks. “The managers have access to the owners,” he says. “See, there’s no path for the coaches; most owners don’t even know their coaches. If your team is doing lousy, it’s easy for me as a manager to make excuses and say it’s the coach. That’s why some coaches get fired.”
Bowman admits not knowing if that was the scenario in any of the four coach firings so far this season (this week’s trio, plus Davis Payne being replaced in St. Louis), but he does know that they all had their problems.
“I don’t know how good that team is,” he says of the Capitals, wondering if they might have been long overrated. “They’re always in a weak division. They’re always with teams that have no money or don’t spend to the salary cap. They get in the playoffs and their competition is tougher.
“I think what happened with Boudreau, he replaced Glen Hanlon, and they weren’t playing for him,” he continues. ”They bought in Boudreau, some guy from the minors, and they started to win by playing all-out offense. They didn’t play any defense. Then they started to lose in the playoffs and he tried to change,” alluding to Boudreau trying to get his players to become more defensively responsible after having some regular season success playing another way. “I don’t think you can change. It’s too bad for Boudreau, but he bounced back right away.”
Boudreau bounced to Anaheim, certainly a big surprise, considering that he was let go just two days earlier by Washington. Bowman wonders if the coach he replaces didn’t run into problems after changing his approach as well.
“Carlyle, I don’t understand. He was a big line matcher. He always had a defensive line. The year they won the Cup (2007), it was Sami Pahlsson, Travis Moen and Robbie Niedermayer. He changed on the fly (to get them out against their opponent’s best forwards) and they played a very disciplined game.” But those three players are all gone now, the Ducks defense corps is not what it was, and Carlyle seemed to have taken a different approach by playing his best forwards in situations where he previously used checkers.
“I’ve been watching them the last month and a half,” Bowman said. “The goalie wasn’t what he was, but their defense corps is horrible. And Perry, Getzlaf, and Ryan, they weren’t good in their own end. I know he didn’t have a checking line anymore because all those guys are gone. You know when you get star players, you can’t ever get them thinking that you want them to fail. You got to make them believe you’re always in their corner, you’re always trying to insulate them. I don’t know what he was doing.”
As far as Carolina goes, the Hurricanes are in that Southeast Division of lower payroll teams and it’s reflected by their roster as far as Bowman is concerned. “They’ve got Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner. Tuomo Ruutu’s OK. But they don’t have any other forwards. Their defense corps, he keeps getting recycled guys. How can you keep winning with recycled players? You click for a while, eh? They have a goalie (Cam Ward) who’s very good. He’s going to need some relief, though. They get a lot of shots against them.”
Will that doom Muller, Maurice’s replacement? “I don’t know much about him,” Bowman says, ”A lot of people swear by him. They say he’s going to be offensive-minded. Kirk Muller worked with Jacques Martin (in Montreal), and he’s a defensive guy. It’ll be interesting to see what he can do.”
What about the Blues, who have certainly had success after replacing Payne with Ken Hitchcock? “I just find they’re working,” Bowman says. ”They’re on top of the other team. They’re always chasing the puckcarrier. He’s got a guy whose always chasing the puck. They’re playing an uptempo game.” He likens it to the way the Red Wings have played successfully under Mike Babcock, who always has a forechecker going full tilt at the puckcarrier.
One of the great pleasures of a hockey conversation with Scotty Bowman is his ability to take the long view. He frequently refers to historic episodes and figures from the NHL’s past. It could be his mentor, Toe Blake, his days coaching the Blues, his Canadiens teams of the ’70s or anything that followed. He can trace the history of the rules and trends in the game’s sophistication and pinpoint how the current game evolved from the past.
So today, he notes, new coaching hires have an easier time fixing problems that used to confound his contemporaries of years ago.
“If a team was too offensive-minded and they brought in a guy who could tighten up the game, that was not an easy chore,” he says. “The most difficult thing to do was to stop pucks from going in your own net. You’d take over a team and you look at the goals-against and you’d say, ‘My God, we’ve got to cut out 30 or 40 goals here, about half-a-goal a game.’
“But I think now the way the game is, a coach can come in and play a real different type of style. He can play the trap, or have some other changes, don’t play guys against certain lines. I think a guy can come in now and it seems easier to stop teams from scoring.”
And that leads to a discussion on defensive tactics. Even though Bowman was a pioneer in helping develop major defensive systems like the neutral zone trap and the left-wing lock, he’s not a fan of an important strategy in the contemporary game: the way teams group in front of the goal to block shooting lanes. That, Bowman says, inhibits many teams, especially ones that lack high-speed forwards, from launching counter-attacks and fostering entertaining end-to-end hockey. He believes this is a consequence of the 2005 rule changes that included both shrinking the neutral zone and cracking down on obstruction, forcing teams into “defending their house.”
“It’s hard to score now. It’s about five goals a game in the West, about five-and-a-half in the East. That’s not very many goals, eh? All the artificial ways they’ve made to score goals — face-offs coming in the defensive zone after a penalty is called, all the penalties they call. But it hasn’t affected the scoring.
“And the big thing is the goalies. They’re really good. Kids come into junior and college and they’ve had some really good coaching. When they get to the NHL now, they’re not learning on their own. They’ve got a certain format they’ve got to follow. Look at the save percentages now — 93 percent.”
Bowman is puzzled by the length of the deals that coaches get these days. “They give them three-year contracts. It’s expensive. I’m surprised, for the last four or five years, coaches automatically started to get three years. That’s been a big change. When I was around, even 10 years ago, you got one-year deals, maybe two years. You didn’t get longer than that. The owner said, ‘No, we’re not going to pay a coach not to coach.’”
Carlyle’s deal had been extended during the offseason and the Ducks are on the hook for his salary for the rest of this season and another two afterward. That didn’t stop his being replaced, however. Coaches come and go, sometimes at speeds that rival the game itself. Fortunately, Scotty Bowman is paying attention and helping to provide some valuable perspective on this time of the season.