Since Bruce Boudreau took over behind the Washington Capitals bench in November of 2007, the franchise has undergone a transformation that few could have predicted. Boudreau inherited a team that had raw talent and potential, and turned them into one of the most dominant regular season teams in the league, simply by letting the Capitals play to their strengths.
However, as exciting and gratifying the regular season performances by Boudreau's Capitals have been, their postseason showings have been even more disappointing. During Boudreau's four seasons with the team, the Caps have captured four consecutive Southeast Division championships and twice have been the best regular season team in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, that hasn't translated to success in the playoffs, as Washington's postseason record is 17-20 over that span, and they've only won two playoff series during that time.
Last year, after the Capitals were embarrassed by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the first round, after blowing a 3-1 series lead, many called for Boudreau to be fired. Instead, General Manager George McPhee stood by his head coach and players, and they entered the 2010-11 season eager to redeem themselves.
Fast forward a year, and the Capitals are in virtually the same predicament. They suffered a bitterly disappointing loss at the hands of a team that they were supposed to be better than, and many of their star players had lackluster postseasons. In a way, getting swept the way the Caps did this year was worse than losing to Montreal in 2010, because they were beaten so thoroughly from start to finish.
When great teams underachieve in the playoffs, the typical knee-jerk reaction is to fire the coach, rightly or wrongly. In the case of the Capitals, it's a difficult decision because the players are so fond of Boudreau, and they've seemingly grown up as a team together. However, there comes a time in the development of many great teams where a drastic change must be made, and the Capitals are nearing that point.
Boudreau, the 2007-08 Jack Adams winner as the league's coach of the year, is obviously a great bench boss, but sometimes that just isn't enough. Sometimes, when a coach and team have been together for too long, a coach's messages begin to fall on deaf ears, which at times seemed to be the case in Washington this year.
With that being said, if the Capitals are serious about winning a Stanley Cup in the near future, they need to at least consider a coaching change. It's not a lack of knowledge or ability on the part of Boudreau, but rather it's the team's inability to adapt their style of play to counter the game plans of other teams and coaches.
So without further ado, here are the top five reasons that the Capitals should consider replacing Boudreau behind the bench for next season.
While Caps sniper Alexander Semin was good in the first round against New York, he was virtually invisible against Tampa Bay in the second round, which is becoming a trend for the young Russian.
A large part of the reason why the expectations for Boudreau and the Capitals are sky-high is that the Capitals, at least on paper, have the talent to win at the very least a playoff round or two each year. Their roster is stocked with young, sublimely talented players, but Boudreau has yet to get them all to play their best hockey when it matters most.
Washington boasts a two-time Hart Trophy winner in Alexander Ovechkin, a former 100-point man in Nicklas Backstrom, a 40-goal scorer in Alexander Semin and a two-time Norris Trophy nominee in Mike Green, yet they've struggled to score when they need goals the most. In this year's semifinal series against Tampa Bay, the Capitals failed to score more than three goals in any of the four games.
The most troubling aspect about the playoff shortcomings is that the Capitals' best players haven't been the Capitals' best players at the most important time of the year. Semin and Green combined for zero goals in the playoffs a year ago, and Backstrom tallied just two assists in nine postseason contests this year.
A coach needs to be able to get the best out of his top players when the chips are down, and Boudreau hasn't been able to do that consistently. It doesn't seem to be a lack of effort or knowledge on the part of Boudreau, but he still can't coax his star players into performing at their best when their team needs them the most.
Fan favorite Brooks Laich may be wearing a different jersey next season, making it even more difficult for the Caps to make a run at the Cup in 2012.
While Washington's nucleus is still relatively young, as good players get older they become more expensive for teams to retain, which is becoming evident in the case of the Capitals.
Yes, Backstrom and Ovechkin are locked up for the better part of the next decade, but what about their supporting cast?
Semin's contract is up at the end of the 2011-12 season, and judging by the salary he's commanded on his last two one-year deals, it will be nearly impossible for the Capitals to keep him.
Karl Alzner, who made up one half of the Caps' top defensive pairing last season is a restricted free agent as of July 1, and he will surely command at least $2 million a year.
Brooks Laich, one of the team's most popular players and spiritual leaders, is due for a big pay day this offseason, and unless Washington makes some cost-cutting moves, he may be gone by the time the 2011-12 season starts.
From there, it gets even more complicated, as John Carlson and Green will both be in need of new deals at the end of this season. Both are young, coveted offensive defensemen, and General Manager George McPhee will have to get creative in order to retain them.
Though Washington will almost undoubtedly be a competitive team for the next five to 10 years, how much longer will they be primed for a run at the Stanley Cup?
That's the question the Capitals' brass will have to ask themselves, because if they continue to stick with the current personnel, their window of opportunity may close before they realize it.
After another disappointing playoff exit for Ovechkin and the Capitals, a change may be needed in order to send a message to the players.
The Capitals seem to enjoy playing for Boudreau as much as he loves coaching them, but at what point does the team's management make a change in order to send a message to the players?
Washington's postseason performances over the last four seasons have been disappointing, and when teams don't meet expectations, changes are usually made.
McPhee has stuck by Boudreau through the good times and the bad, but when will the postseason losses pile high enough for a change to be made?
In Pittsburgh, just months removed from the Penguins' heartbreaking loss to Detroit in the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, General Manager Ray Shero relieved then-Head Coach Michel Therrien of his duties, because the team was under performing. The move paid off, as the team went on to win the Stanley Cup that spring under rookie Head Coach Dan Bylsma.
Coaching changes can serve as a wake-up call to players, which may be the best medicine for the Capitals at this point. Losing in the first round or getting swept in the semifinals is not good enough for a team as talented as the Capitals, and it may be time for a drastic change to be made in order to convey that message.
Guy Boucher's Lightning played a trap-style system against the Capitals, and Washington was unable to find a way to adapt their style of play.
The Capitals' last two playoff series losses were similar in the sense that their systems were neutralized by their opponents' defensive schemes.
In 2009, Montreal managed to shut down the Caps' best players by forcing them to shoot from the perimeter, nullifying the team's vaunted offense.
This year, the Tampa Bay Lightning played a trap-style system, clogging up the neutral zone and taking time and space away from the talented Capitals. The Bolts executed the plan perfectly, and the Capitals were out of the series before they even realized it.
It's inevitable that teams will tailor their defensive game plans around their opponents strengths, but Washington hasn't been able to adapt and change the way they attack in order to get more scoring opportunities. It's easy to say that Washington has been out-coached in each of the last two postseasons, but the problem likely runs deeper than that.
While the Capitals have a host of gifted offensive weapons, they haven't shown they're willing or able to change their style of play in order to survive in the playoffs. Boudreau knows the game, and surely recognizes the problem, but can he fix it?
Ultimately, the best thing for a relatively young and emotional team like the Capitals may be a coach that stresses defense first, because it's unlikely that the Capitals will ever have trouble generating offense in the regular season.
Bruce Boudreau has experienced unprecedented success behind the Caps' bench, but the team needs postseason results now.
The Capitals are a team that is built to win now, and the organization as a whole needs to recognize that. If Boudreau and the team's current roster haven't gotten it done as a top seed in the Eastern Conference, what makes the management believe that will change next season?
Things are only going to get tougher from here for the Capitals, especially in the regular season, as Tampa Bay has emerged as a legitimate contender in the Southeast Division. On top of that, the Thrashers' relocation to Winnipeg likely means that that franchise will be stronger down the road as well.
Washington had a golden opportunity this year, as it may be the only time the Capitals won't have to worry about having to get through Pittsburgh to get to the Finals, and they came up very short. Going forward, the Capitals will need to be much better than they were in this postseason, and what suggests the Caps will undergo a miraculous transformation with the same personnel in place next season?
The team doesn't have the cap room to add any marquee free agents, and quite frankly they really don't need them. The Capitals have as much talent as any team in the league, but that won't be the case forever. If they want to win a Stanley Cup, they need to put themselves in the best possible situation to do so, which likely entails a change.
If largely the same collection of players fail to deliver their best in four consecutive postseasons, a change must be made. Unfortunately, that change will likely have to take place behind the bench, no matter how painful it may be.