Capitals

Dissecting the downfall of each Capitals head coach in the Ovechkin era

Capitals
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The Capitals are searching for the 19th head coach in team history after the dismissal of Todd Reirden. Most coaches do not get the benefit of having perhaps the best goal-scorer of all-time on the roster, yet, success has never been guaranteed in Washington. As the search continues or the next head coach, perhaps looking into how each coach fared during the era of Alex Ovechkin and what ultimately went wrong with each could provide a guide for how the team can be successful with their new coach.

Glen Hanlon (78-122-9-30 record with the Caps from 2003 to 2007)

We often see teams transition away from head coaches when a team ascends from out of its rebuild and that was the situation with Hanlon. Hanlon manned the team through the lowest points of the rebuild and then was fired on Thanksgiving Day in 2007.

The team was never going take the next step with Hanlon at the helm and that was evidenced by its 6-14-1 start to the 2007-08 season. After a while, it’s no longer good enough to be a really hard-working team. You have to have results as well and Hanlon was not able to produce those.

Bruce Boudreau (201-88-40 record from 2007 to 2011)

Boudreau instantly brought a culture change to Washington as the Caps went 37-17-7 in his first season to erase their horrible start and reach the postseason. That earned him the Jack Adams Award in 2008 as the coach of the year. The team was largely great throughout his tenure, reaching the postseason in all four of his seasons at the helm and winning the Presidents' Trophy in 2010 with the top record in the NHL.

 

Boudreau's ultimate downfall is the same issue that has plagued him his entire NHL career: postseason success. Boudreau is one of the best in the league at dominating the regular season and getting his teams into the playoffs, but playoff success has remained elusive. Only once in his NHL career has he ever led a team past the second round of the playoffs despite having some really great teams in Washington, Anaheim and Minnesota.

If you want to boil it down even further, the turning point for Boudreau in Washington was the stunning 2010 upset to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the postseason. The Caps made a miraculous run to the playoffs in 2008, lost in seven games to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round in 2009 and the trajectory seemed to be going up. That was no longer the case after 2010. Early in the 2011-12 season, he ended up getting replaced midseason just as he had done to Hanlon.

Dale Hunter (30-23-7 record from 2011 to 2012)

The Caps largely tread water after Boudreau's dismissal and made the playoffs as the No. 7 seed in the East. That meant a tough matchup against the defending Cup champion Boston Bruins.

I'll be honest, I'm a Hunter defender. I do not look at his lone season as negatively as most do. The team's upset of Boston in seven games was really the first time the Caps overachieved in the playoffs since 1998. That's got to count for something.

Having said that, it was pretty clear Hunter was not going to be a long-term solution behind the bench and he resigned after the season after less than six months. Some people view Hunter's departure as forced, but that is revisionist history to justify a narrative of the "uncoachable Caps" and I don't buy it. Ultimately I do not think his heart was in the NHL and he wanted to return to London. He is the owner of the OHL team, the London Knights, and he runs the team with his brother, Mark, whom he also owns several thousand acres of farmland with.

"I'm going home," Hunter said after resigning. "I've got a good thing going there with the family, so I'll stay home."

Hunter's departure was a blessing in disguise because he would not have lasted long in the NHL. While he had been able to coach the Caps to an upset of Boston and to within one win of a second upset over the top-seeded New York Rangers in the second round, Hunter badly undercut the strengths of his own team. If you want to play a more defensive style, that's great, but the way he managed Ovechkin was baffling. In 14 playoff games, Ovechkin played fewer than 17 minutes in five of them. In Game 2, he played an inexcusable 13:36.

Hunter relegated Ovechkin to a depth player when he was 26 and entering his prime. The Ranger didn't have to worry about stopping Ovechkin because Hunter was seemingly going to do that for them.

 

Adam Oates (65-48-17 record from 2012 to 2014)

What didn’t go wrong during Oates' tenure?

Coaches have a short shelf-life in professional sports and the NHL is no different. Most coaches don't get fired because they are bad coaches, they get fired because they have been in one place too long and the players have tuned them out, they turned out to be a bad fit, they can't get the team over the hump in the playoffs, etc. In Oates' case, however, he was just a bad coach. He is the worst coach I can remember behind the bench in Washington and it's not close.

There was no specific downfall, just about every coaching decision he made was baffling and wrong and he simply refused to acknowledge it or adjust. This was because of the confidence he had in his coaching philosophies that bordered on arrogance.

I mean, take your pick as to what was his worst decision: forcing an aggressive Braden Holtby to play deeper in net and on the goal line in complete opposition to conventional wisdom on the position, relegating Tom Wilson to a fourth-line thug that hampered the start of his career, forcing one of the greatest goal-scorers of all time to switch from the left to the right side because he was a right-shot, refused to utilize players the team traded for to bolster the roster choosing instead to let them rot on the fourth line (Dustin Penner, Martin Erat), kept playing players like Alex Urbom and Connor Carrick over Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt, mismanaging the goalies and even keeping three on the roster for several weeks, etc., etc., etc.

Again, take your pick.

The tactics taken by all great innovators are often questioned at the time, but the difference between an innovator and Oates is that innovators eventually are successful. In Oates' second year as coach, the Caps missed the playoffs snapping a streak of six consecutive appearances and, mercifully, the Oates experiment came to an end.

Barry Trotz (205-89-34 record from 2014 to 2018)

In his four seasons, Trotz led the team to two Presidents' Trophies and the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. I know fans blame the team for Trotz's ultimate departure and rightly so -- no doubt general manager Bian MacLellan would handle that situation differently in hindsight -- but the downfall of Trotz was two straight years of underperforming in the playoffs prior to winning the Cu. Washington finished with the best record in the NHL in 2016 and 2017 and the results were the same in both years: a second-round exit at the hands of the rival Pittsburgh Penguins. The team's continual inability to get over the hump is what ultimately led to management grooming Reirden to one day take over for Trotz. If they had not laid the groundwork for Reirden prior to 2018, the team may have felt compelled to give into Trotz's demands for a five-year term on his new contract.

 

Todd Reirden (48-26-8 record from 2018 to 2020)

Reirden was well-respected around the NHL for his work as a defensive coach and nearly became the head coach of the Calgary Flames in 2016 before the team ultimately elected to hire Glen Gulutzan instead. There are a number of reasons Reirden ultimately lasted just two years and not all of them were necessarily his fault.

First, he was put in an impossible position of taking over for a Stanley Cup-winning coach. There was no way for him to live up to expectations and nowhere to go but down. Second, he took over for a team in which he was an assistant coach meaning he had to change the relationships he had developed with the players, something that is a strength of his as an assistant. That was a difficult transition that I don't think he was able to pull off.

But none of that would matter if he had success on the ice and those results only became concerning in the second half of the 2019-20 season. From Dec. 23 to March 12, the team managed only a 15-14-3 record,, 3.28 goals per game, 3.44 goals against per game, a 17.0-percent power play and 78.7-percent penalty kill. That's pretty terrible. That was followed up by a first-round exit against Trotz. That was embarrassing not because it happened against Trotz, but because at no time did it look like the Caps had an effective gameplan for how to beat the New York Islanders and that is a huge black mark against the coaching.

Conclusion

You can see why MacLellan was harping so much on wanting a head coach with NHL head coaching experience. Trotz was the only one of these coaches with prior NHL head coaching experience so it should perhaps come as no surprise that he was able to have the most success. I know there is frustration at times with the league's continual recycling of old coaches as opposed to teams thinking outside the box a picking other worthy candidates, but Washington does not have time to experiment right now with the championship window rapidly closing. Sure, they could discover the next big coach or they could find an Oates.