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Falling stars brought coaches crashing down

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / December 4, 2011
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An eventful Cyber Monday in the NHL, leading to the cashiering of Bruce Boudreau from behind the Capitals bench and ditto for Paul Maurice with the Hurricanes.

Clubs dump coaches for myriad reasons, often simply to appease disgruntled fan bases or churn ticket sales, but there was one very obvious, telling trait in these two sackings: The teams’ highest-paid top-end performers were producing bottom-of-the-barrel results, and nothing points a coach to the unemployment line faster than underperforming assets.

Much the same happened late Wednesday night when Randy Carlyle was given the heave-ho in Anaheim, replaced by none other than Boudreau, who immediately set the record for Recycled Coach of the Year. “Gabby’’ went only some 60 hours between gigs, making him the Regis Philbin of the bench-boss brotherhood. Anaheim also had seen its top performers go dormant under Carlyle’s watch.

Boudreau, who took over the Capitals in November 2007 and instantly got their motor runnin’, was canned only about a month after the notorious scene that had him keeping star winger Alex Ovechkin nailed to the bench when Washington was desperate for a goal against the Ducks. Rare territory for Ovechkin. TV cameras caught Ovechkin using some bad-mouth alliteration, tailored to Boudreau’s girth.

As of Monday morning, Alexander the Great stood 8-9-17 in 22 games - not horrible, unless you are Ovechkin, with that $9.538 million cap figure dangling from your elbow and a résumé that included 301 goals in 475 games prior to this season. Something, or someone, had to give, and it wasn’t going to be the game’s highest-paid player.

Maurice, whose coaching days with the Hurricanes date back to their Forever .500 days in Hartford, had star center Eric Staal sporting numbers of 5-6-11 and a minus-18 in 25 games. Like Ovechkin in D.C., Staal is Carolina’s top wage-earner (fourth in the league) and franchise face at $8.25 million per. When your centerpiece is turning in third-line production, not to mention the league’s worst plus-minus ranking (No. 732 overall), the guy in charge of X’s and O’s ultimately pays the price.

“I thought I was going to be here forever,’’ Boudreau told the Washington Post some 48 hours after he was sacked. “But this was something that I thought had to be done.’’

A gracious getaway for a guy who initially awoke a team that remained in perpetual deep sleep under previous coach Glen Hanlon. Ultimately, though, Boudreau’s failure was his inability to fashion a reliable (read: winning) defensive game plan for a team that thrived on high-octane offense fueled by the dynamic Ovechkin.

Year after year, the Capitals flopped in the playoffs, a time when defensive substance almost always wins out over offensive style. In four playoff seasons, Boudreau’s squads went a disappointing 17-20, KO’d twice in Round 1 and twice in Round 2. All with Ovechkin delivering a sizzling 25-25-50 in those 37 games. Talk about opportunities squandered.

Now it will be up to Dale Hunter, among the dirtiest, most dastardly performers in NHL history, to revivify Ovechkin, while at the same time attempting to instill some moxie and defensive intelligence into a squad that has been outright numbskulled in playoffs past. Tall order.

Hunter was highly successful coaching junior players (London, OHL), but this is his first opportunity to kick pro cans. Given his edgy personality and history as the second-most penalized player in NHL history (3,565 PIMs), it’s a good bet we’ll see some fireworks in D.C. long before July 4.

Maurice, among the most gregarious bench bosses in the game, left behind a cordial message in the dressing room for successor Kirk Muller. “Kirk, good luck,’’ Maurice scrawled on a white board. “Great bunch of guys. The staff is A-1.’’

Yes, nice people in Raleigh, but unlike D.C., it’s a roster thin on talent and definition. The Hurricanes are neither run-and-gun nor defensive stalwarts. And with Staal’s game reduced to next to nothing, the franchise followed in lockstep futility this season.

Remember, this is the management crew that felt the need to fire Peter Laviolette and bring back Maurice only some 30 months after Laviolette paced the franchise to its only Stanley Cup championship in June 2006. Now, the Hurricanes haven’t been to the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, and unless the genial Muller really has a Penn and Teller-like bag of tricks, the former Forever. 500s will be DNQs again in April.

In July, they hired ex-Bruin Tomas Kaberle at crazy money (three years/$12.75 million) to jump-start their power play (sound familiar?). When Muller arrived, the Hurricanes ranked 29th, next to last, on the man-advantage.

As for Anaheim, where Carlyle directed the Ducks to a Cup in 2007, only the Flames and Islanders had scored fewer than the 54 goals the Ducks had in 24 games under Carlyle. Rather than try to button down tighter on defense, GM Bob Murray is betting that Boudreau can set free young offensive stars Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Bobby Ryan, much the way Boudreau did Ovechkin and crew four years earlier.

Overall lesson: To win, teams first have to know what they are, as defined by the GM, and then the coach has to make that style work.

The Capitals have some very slick offensive players but have yet to prove they can scale back and rely on defense when necessary, as the outrageously high-powered Oilers did in the ’80s.

The Hurricanes are more a mishmash of lesser talent, not unlike their Hartford forefathers, and have been in search of core identity ever since Rod Brind’Amour began to slip-slide away during the 2008-09 season.

If Muller has a hope of a speedy renaissance, it must be structured around the 6-foot-4-inch Staal, whose game might not really reawaken until GM Jim Rutherford can find a power forward to work his wing. Staal doesn’t play a small game, but the view from here is that he is being held back, if not dragged helplessly into the abyss, by what Michael Jordan might call the lack of a supporting cast.

Boudreau immediately pulled Ryan from third-line duty and told him to fly with Getzlaf and Perry. Should be fun to watch. At least until the playoffs.


Ryan dangled for help on ‘D’

A couple of longtime general managers confirmed that the Ducks, prior to canning Randy Carlyle, were poking around on deals for Bobby Ryan (above), whom they selected No. 2 overall, just behind Sidney Crosby, in the 2005 draft.

It’s rare that such a commodity goes up for grabs, especially so publicly. It was reminiscent of Rick Dudley, then the GM in Tampa Bay, soliciting offers for franchise centerpiece Vinny Lecavalier in 2001-02. Ultimately, ownership elected to keep the big center, who these days is being slightly overshadowed by Steven Stamkos.

The Ducks need big help on defense, ideally a No. 1 or 2 backliner, which would not have made the Bruins an ideal trade partner. For GM Peter Chiarelli to get in the mix, he would have had to package top center David Krejci, prospect Dougie Hamilton (the No. 9 pick this past June), and a first- or second-round pick to land the Jersey-born Ryan (US Olympian, 2010). Murray then would have needed to wheel Krejci for that No. 1 or 2 defenseman.

Such a move now is unlikely, though not impossible. Rather than swap a commodity as dear as Ryan, the Ducks will hope their best defense is a recharged offense, with Ryan in the thick of it. And with the Bruins extending Krejci’s contract, it would be awkward to flip him this quickly. But again, not impossible.

A move to obtain Ryan would enable coach Claude Julien to shift Tyler Seguin to center, his natural position. It also would put legitimate 40-40-80 firepower on the right wing to be directed by either Seguin or Patrice Bergeron.

That 40-40-80 might not sound hefty, but consider, 80 points was the average last season of elite forwards Ovechkin (85), Teemu Selanne (80), Henrik Zetterberg (80), and Brad Richards (77). And not one of them potted 40 goals.

Ryan has averaged 33 goals the last three seasons, and put up a career-best 71 points last season, but this year he has been quiet (7-5-12 upon Boudreau’s arrival). He has four more years on a deal that carries a $5.1 million cap hit, essentially the same dough Krejci will start making next season.


Money player in postseason

For those wondering about David Krejci’s new salary ($5.25 million average), he collected 44 points (19 goals, 25 assists) in 52 playoff games the past four seasons, in exact lockstep with San Jose’s Jumbo Joe Thornton (52 games, 9-35-44), each connecting for 0.846 points per game. Only 13 NHLers, led by Sidney Crosby (57 games, 27-50-77), were more prolific. And as for the 13 players ahead of Krejci on that list, their average cap hit this season is $6.615 million, which is 26 percent higher than Krejci’s new wage and a 76 percent premium over his current cap hit of $3.75 million. Thornton’s cap hit is $7 million, placing Jumbo, per usual, that little extra bit ahead of the curve.

Credibility is hurting

Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, last seen going topsy-turvy at the Garden when the Sabres were here Nov. 12, said early last week that maybe he did not suffer a concussion when he collided with Bruins winger Milan Lucic. How about that? When Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was screaming that Lucic committed crimes against game and goaltender, he was emphatic that his star netminder had been concussed by the strapping winger. But there was Miller on Monday, saying he just wasn’t sure, and maybe his lingering symptoms were related to a disk issue in his neck. All of which underscores, again, that Lucic did not hit Miller’s head (as seen in video and still pictures), and much of the flap over the entire incident centered on how easily, even histrionically, Miller spun around after the contact. Note: Erroneous claims about injury can be harmful to a league’s integrity.

Digging in for winter

HBO is back at it, cranking out its “24/7’’ treatment of the Flyers and Rangers before they meet in this year’s Winter Classic on NBC Jan. 2. The glare of the cameras already has generated some hate between New York’s Brandon Dubinsky and Broad Streeter Jody Shelley. Shelley referred to Dubinsky as a “weasel,’’ prompting Dubinsky to tell the New York Daily News, “It won’t be long before he’s out of the league because he’s a terrible hockey player.’’

Taken for a ride

Can’t beat that Tim Thomas commercial (available on youtube) that has the Bruins goalie in the back of a Boston cab, placing an urgent call to “Peggy’’ from the fictitious USA Prime Credit, because his credit card won’t work as payment for his ride. “Look,’’ Thomas eventually says to the female driver, having gotten nowhere with Peggy on the phone, “I’m Tim Thomas. I’m good for the fare.’’ The cabbie doesn’t buy it, flipping down the sun visor to reveal pictures of Thomas in his hockey gear. As she coos and eerily ogles the pictures, a spooked Thomas begins to slide out of sight in the back seat, pleading with Peggy for help. Think: Kathy Bates, James Caan, “Misery.’’

Down and dirty

Upon word that the Capitals hired Dale Hunter as coach, Sabres bench boss Lindy Ruff recalled getting slammed by the hardscrabble forward in his playing days. “The dirty dog knocked me out with a hit,’’ Ruff told the Niagara Gazette. “That would have been a suspension now, though. East-west. I woke up snoring.’’ Ruff took over the Buffalo bench in October 1997. The Bruce Boudreau-Paul Maurice firings were the 165th and 166th coaching changes since then. And Randy Carlyle was No. 167.

Gloves come off

Sabres rookie Zack Kassian, once high on the Bruins’ draft prospectus, needed only his third NHL game to have his first bout, taking on Islanders winger Matt Martin Tuesday night in Buffalo’s 2-1 loss at Uniondale. The two big boys squared off and treated one another like high-speed punching bags. Kassian lost his sweater in the deal and was fortunate not to receive a misconduct for failing to tie down.

Loose pucks

Capitals GM George McPhee on the decision to fire Boudreau: “The tank was empty.’’ Boudreau said he tried every trick he knew, but the team wasn’t responding . . . Mention of an empty tank reminded your faithful puck chronicler of ex-Bruin Andrei Kovalenko, the Russian winger who posted a meager 37 points in 2000-01. Long known as “The Tank,’’ his performance here earned him the moniker, “The Empty Tank.’’ He played seven more seasons, all in Russia, after his Boston tour . . . Ex-Boston University star Mike Grier, who will turn 37 next month, formally retired. Career stat line: 1,060 games, 383 points. The game needs more Griers . . . Prime young Blues forward David Perron, sidelined early last year when dealt a concussion by Joe Thornton, finally was due to return to the Blues lineup last night after missing 97 games . . . Hunter, by the way, is the only NHLer ever to reach the 1,000-point plateau (1,020, to be exact) and log 3,000 penalty minutes. In his days with Les Nordiques, he strung together six seasons of 200-plus PIMs . . . Ex-Boston College goalie Cory Schneider has been on a tear for the Canucks, posting five straight wins prior to giving up three goals on fives shots to the Predators Thursday night. Robert Luongo retains No. 1 status for the 2011 Cup finalists, but right now, the 25-year-old Schneider (16-4-2 last year) is the guy. His five wins included back-to-back shutouts of Colorado and Phoenix. A lot of hockey to play before the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, but Schneider could be in the mix . . . Boudreau told the Washington Post that Alex Ovechkin called him after the firing and they exchanged pleasantries. Choosing his words carefully when asked what role Ovechkin’s indifferent play may have played in his firing, Boudreau said, “I don’t think it was him rebelling against me - I’ll never want to believe that.’’ . . . Headed into yesterday, the Wild remained at the top of the Western Conference standings while the Sharks, struggling to pot goals, were slotted seventh. Right now, it looks like the Wild got the better of the big summer swap that landed Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi in Minnesota and Brent Burns and Martin Havlat in San Jose. Entering yesterday, Heatley and Setoguchi had combined for a total of 29 points, while Havlat stood an anemic 1-9-10 and Burns, a defenseman, was 4-3-7 . . . From my pal Bob Waterman at the Elias Sports Bureau: Wednesday’s shootout between the Wild and Oilers was the 1,000th since the gimmick was implemented after the 2004-05 lockout. Yep, 1,000 shootouts. Warms my heart. Every one of them should have been sponsored by Pepto-Bismol.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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