It was not a good day for NHL coaches on Monday.
Not one but two bench bosses were released within hours of one another. Carolina fired former Leafs’ coach Paul Maurice for the second time, replacing him with former Montreal assistant coach Kirk Muller.
But that was overshadowed by the headline-grabbing firing of Washington Capitals’ coach Bruce Boudreau bringing an end to this chapter of the ongoing soap opera in Washington. The media-friendly Boudreau is being replaced by Dale Hunter, a former Capital and smashingly successful OHL coach.
The Boudreau-Ovechkin saga had been churning for some time and it wasn’t a shock to most hockey insiders that the plug was finally pulled by GM George McPhee.
The disenchantment had been brewing for weeks highlighted by Ovechkin’s sulking superstar act after being benched in the third period of a close game a couple of weeks back. The healthy scratch of teammate and fellow Russian Alexander Semin simply hastened a deteriorating situation. Boudreau’s tough love act wasn’t working. Something had to give and as usual it’s the coach, not the multi-millionaire, under-performing superstar, that gets the axe.
The Capitals’ brass followed the script perfectly.
Hunter comes in with a reputation for being a hard-nosed, demanding coach who works his players hard.
Problem is, his players, until today, were juniors. Kids making $80 bucks a week giving every ounce of effort in the hopes of a huge payoff by making it into the NHL draft.
With Ovechkin & Company not so much. It’s a completely different situation, requiring a completely different method of dealing with under-performing stars and superstars.
Ovechkin has been in a major funk since the Russians were no shows at the 2010 Winter Olympics. In fact, it goes back even further. He’s been in a steady decline since his 65-goal season in 2007-08. He appears to have lost a lot of his mojo and is more often playing with a scowl instead of the once omni-present gap-toothed smile. He seems somehow burdened. Maybe the captaincy and the mega-contract have wiped away the smile.
Ovie could not have played his entire career throwing his body around recklessly as he did during his first couple of years. Boudreau had tried to instill some defensive responsibility, making him a better two-way player. But he seems to find that stuff boring. He sees himself as a scorer and when a scorer isn’t scoring, they’re generally not happy campers. With a personality that soaks up adoration like Ovie, it’s sulking time.
Pundits and insiders say opponents have figured him out and he simply hasn’t adjusted his game. His outside-inside move & shoot has become predictable. There has to be a way for someone as talented as him to come up with some more creativity and use teammates better.
And what about the delicate questions hanging in the air: Is there a different way to treat Russian players? To get more consistency out of their obvious talents?
Boudreau isn’t the first coach to lose his job because a mercurial superstar didn’t perform up to snuff. The question is will Dale Hunter fare any better. Caps management hope like hell that he will because if the team misses or does a first round playoff exit, they’ll have to look deep within themselves because for better or worse they’re stuck, stuck! with Ovechkin for a decade. That’s almost painful to realize but the Ovie-doubters are increasing by the week.
There’s something amiss here with Ovechkin, Semin and even other Russian stars like Ilya Kovalchuk that prevents them from being consistent performers. The Ovechkin situation and the ludicrous Kovalchuk contracts should serve as cautionary tales to GMs when thinking about signing Russian players to long-term deals.
From where we sit, Ovechkin’s noticeable slide from superstar to ordinary hockey “star”, is well under way. He once vied for best player in the world with Crosby. He could have elevated his status in the void Crosby left. He didn’t or more likely, couldn’t. The comparison of who’s best isn’t even a relevant one anymore, made all the more obvious considering Crosby’s spectacular start to his comeback.
Dale Hunter certainly deserves a fair turn as NHL coach and solving the Ovi enigma but it likely won’t be long until he finds himself flummoxed with the same frustrating question that cost his predecessor his job: Why can’t I get Alex Ovechkin going?
He may be beyond what any coach can do for him. He might not even know himself. Maybe it’s time for a sports psychologist to step in because whatever it is, he’s not the same player. At the relatively young age of 26, his best playing years appear to be behind him.