Let’s play a game. I’ll quote from an article, and you tell me if the author is talking about the 2011 Caps or the 2013 Penguins.
For the second straight postseason, [Coach] let the reins slip on his team. In both series, he fumbled and bumbled and finally grabbed them again, only it was too late to guide the wagon train away from the cliff’s edge.
That in consecutive playoff eliminations, the [team] haven’t just lost, they’ve come unhinged.
That’s Greg Wyshynski, the Puck Daddy himself, writing last week about Dan Byslma’s recent struggles, but he might as well have been talking about Bruce Boudreau after the Caps’ 2011 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a second round sweep.
Bylsma’s contract would have been up after the 2014 season, so action by GM Ray Shero seemed necessary before the season began. Shero extended Byslma, a move that the Pensblog said makes “unlimited sense.” As they put it before the signing, “If the Pens don’t extend Bylsma, firing him will be all anyone talks about next season.”
Now that Ray Shero has re-upped Bylsma and voiced unwavering support for his embattled coach, we might expect smooth sailing for the Penguins from here on out. But to do that, we’d have to ignore all the eerie similarities between Bylsma and Boudreau– and the not-too-distant memory of what happened to Bruce just a few months after his own GM endorsed him.
Let’s start here: Bylsma and Boudreau have very similar records. Both took over floundering teams mid-season. Both had star-making moments on HBO. Both have had limited playoff success in recent years. Sure, there’s the tiny issue of the Stanley Cup (Byslma’s got one, Boudreau does not), but aside from that… well, check this out.
With the Caps, in 329 games, Boudreau won 201. That’s 61.1%.
With the Pens, in 318 games, Bylsma won 201. That’s 63.2%.
Wait wait, let’s do a table!
|Playoff Wins (last 3 yrs)||5||5|
Note: Boudreau’s stats are from his time in Washington.
Twenty-two games after Bruce Boudreau’s Caps got swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning, George McPhee fired him and hired Dale Hunter. The Capitals’ record at the time was 12-9-1, a 54% win percentage (the Calgary Flames wish they had a problem like having to fire a plus-.500 coach), though the Caps had been getting blown out dramatically in games before the firing. That suggests to me that the manner of losing bears some operative meaning to the coaches’ livelihoods– that it’s more than just winning and losing.
Take another look at the language in Wyshynski’s article: “the Penguins haven’t just lost, they’ve come unhinged.” On the same site, Ryan Lambert wrote that the Penguins have been “bounced from the playoffs in embarrassing fashion in each of the last three seasons.”
I’m tempted to make some crack about how it doesn’t matter how a team loses, but I’d just be inviting someone to quote The West Wing misquoting James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter. I’ll do it for you:
Geoffrey: Why, you chivalric fool! As if the way one fell down mattered.
Richard: When the fall is all there is, it matters.
Right. Now, let’s take a look at some of my own language describing Caps losses leading up to Boudreau’s dismissal.
- “There is no part of the Caps game that is clicking right now. Not defense, breakouts, zone entry, cycling, man advantage, or two-man advantage. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are systemic issues in the organization’s skate-sharpening or water bottle protocols.” Jets 4, Caps 1; Nov 17, 2011
- “Teamlessness. It’s not a word, but it’s the best way to describe this team.” Leafs 7, Caps 1; Nov 19, 2011
And mostly, this one:
- “In “the lean years,” fans could shake off a month of losses like this; no big deal. But now that the team has demonstrated that it can be awesome– and awesome consistently– the November glut is a spit in the face.” Sabres 5, Caps 1; Nov 26, 2011
Bruce Boudreau was fired two days later.
The ways in which the Caps lost– in a sweep loss to the Bolts, in a series lead surrendered to Montreal, and in a portentous number of shutouts and one-goal peformances in November 2011– were in sharp contrast to the lofty expectations set for that team based on its star power and Presidents’ Trophy. That’s what damned the coach– despite still being pretty darn awesome by most objective standards. It’s as if expectation of a Stanley Cup triumphed over aspiration, which would be a more appropriate approach to the 1-in-16 proposition that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The same is true for the Penguins, who won the Cup in 2009, battled for the Eastern Conference regular season title every year, made the playoffs despite profound injuries to its two main stars and the continued presence of Matthew Aloysius Cooke on their roster. The team has had some of the league’s rottenest luck these last three years and have excelled anyway. The Penguins are a fantastic team right now, and they should remain so for at least another season.
I should point out that the 2011 Boudreau Caps were kind of awesome too. All it took was one unsustainably rough patch (goalies under Boudreau gave up one goal for every ten even-strength shots they faced– four worse than what they did under Hunter) to get their coach fired. All those full-throated endorsements for Boudreau by players and management after the sweep were rendered meaningless after one bad stretch.
“There’s no difference between a playoff coach and regular-season coach,” George McPhee told the press in May of 2011. “Either you’re a good coach or you’re not. [Boudreau]‘s a good coach.”
Captain Alex Ovechkin dittoed that statement with this ovechkinism: “Everybody supports everybody.”
Jump forward to June of 2013 and we get a very similar tone from Pittsburgh. Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle were quoted by Ray Shero as being “100 percent supportive” of the decision to extend Bylsma. Shero himself succinctly said, “I believe in Dan Bylsma.” And Yahoo’s Harrison Mooney characterized it perfectly: “The stampede to fire Bylsma, which would have been wild enough to kill Simba’s father, has been cancelled.”
But maybe “postponed” would be a better word than “cancelled.” After all, the firing rate for coaches is damn near 100%; few stick around to resign with dignity (what up, Lindy Ruff). Coaches are hockey ballast: they’re the first thing you dump when you need a quick lift. But we should not misconstrue coach-firing frenzies for rational behavior. Managers don’t fire coaches to win games, they do it to deflect blame. After all, Dan Bylsma isn’t the one who made his team older and slower at the trade deadline, and Boudreau wasn’t given the leeway to stick to his guns when those guns eventually misfired.
All general managers want to win, but seldom do we see one have a moment of clarity, realize his team’s defeat is his own doing, and then throw himself off a cliff so that starving lion cubs can feast on his corpse.
So here we are. Dan Byslma has job security– according to Ray Shero. So too did Bruce Boudreau– according to George McPhee. It took nine losses to change the latter’s mind. How long will Ray hold out?