Bruce Boudreau is back in business

Former Capitals coach makes smooth transition to Anaheim, has Ducks contending

Updated: May 8, 2013, 3:12 PM ET
By Craig Custance | ESPN The Magazine

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NAHEIM, Calif. -- The first conversation with George McPhee that morning hadn't been a good one. Early on a Monday in November 2011, McPhee told Bruce Boudreau that he was fired as the Capitals' coach. He'd been the fastest NHL coach to win 200 games, but McPhee felt like the Capitals were no longer responding to him. It was time to move on.

So when McPhee called again at around 10:30 a.m., it seemed odd to both Boudreau and his wife, Crystal.

Maybe McPhee changed his mind, Boudreau suggested.

"I doubt that," Crystal answered.

Then, because she was feeling hurt and maybe a bit vindictive, she told him not to answer it. Send McPhee to voicemail.

"He's not your boss anymore," Crystal said. "He gets put on the back burner."

Boudreau answered anyway.

"I said, 'You have reservations? You want me back?'" Boudreau said in recounting the conversation.

There were no reservations or second thoughts. Instead, more questions:

Do you want to coach in the NHL again?

The answer, of course, was yes.

The second question from McPhee was the most surprising.

Do you want to coach tomorrow?

"I said, 'Whoa,'" Boudreau said. "He didn't tell me who, he just said I might be getting a call." Two hours later, Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray called. A couple of short phone conversations later and Boudreau had a new job, his unemployment lasting all of a Monday morning.

Crystal hadn't even had a chance to tell Bruce's mother he'd been fired yet when he was planning a trip to Anaheim.

• • • • •

Watching the Ducks play now, it's so easy to see why Murray didn't hesitate to bring in Boudreau. Anaheim finished with the second-best record in the Western Conference, and the Ducks are tied with the Detroit Red Wings 2-2 in the teams' first-round playoff series.

Anaheim Ducks
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesAnaheim took well to Bruce Boudreau's style and tactics this season, finishing second in the West.
With high-end offensive skill led by Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne, the Ducks have the ideal personnel to play a system that allows offensive players to thrive, utilizing their creativity. A system in which maintaining possession of the puck while entering the offensive zone is the preferred option, rather than dumping it in and hoping for the best in getting it back.

Anaheim also has the right personnel for a coach known around hockey for running a strong power play.

"He has a good power play, generally speaking," Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman told ESPN The Magazine. "If you look at the way [his] teams play, they don't take a lot of penalties. They're careful, they're disciplined."

It's everything that makes the Ducks succeed. They finished the regular season with the league's No. 4 power play (21.5 percent). Their penalty kill isn't as strong but that discipline led to only 162 minor penalties this season, the fifth-lowest total of any team in the lockout-shortened season.

Most importantly, Boudreau gets the most out of his best players.

"One of his strengths is he gets everyone to buy in," Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said via email from the World Championships in Helsinki. "He gives the top players respect and responsibility. He gets his role players in places that they can contribute and he has had good goaltending. It has led to a good year for them."

And that complete buy-in comes through communication.

• • • • •

One thing still stands out for Getzlaf from Boudreau's initial meeting with the team: Boudreau likes to talk and the lines of communication in Anaheim were going to be more wide open than they had been in a long time.

"[The first day] he had talked to the players more … than they were used to in their whole career," Getzlaf said. "That was one thing I definitely realized right away. He was going to be a communicator and talk to me."

Getzlaf said the captain and coach talk almost daily. Sometimes it's discussions about line combinations or tweaking the power play. Sometimes it's just to cheer each other up over the grind of a season.

"I know when he's having some bad days, or I need to leave him alone, or I need to make him smile," Getzlaf said. "That's the relationship we have built over the year here."

Boudreau likes to hold segment meetings, every 10 games if possible. They're one-on-one meetings with players where he gives them a chance to air any grievances and clarify any questions they might have about their roles on the team. It's another chance to deepen the relationship between player and coach.

He sincerely wants to know what's going on in the lives of his players. How's the baby at home? Is your wife enjoying it in Anaheim? Is there anything he can do to make life easier off the ice?

It was one of these sessions in Washington that helped bring to light an issue with one of the Capitals. Matt Hendricks is a guy who always has tons of energy, and Boudreau noticed that energy was gone during one stretch of the season.

Boudreau You wish them only the best. It would be a great story if they ended up in the finals with us.

-- Bruce Boudreau,
Ducks coach, on the Washington Capitals
"I asked him, 'Hendy, you look so tired,'" Boudreau said.

Hendricks had just welcomed twins into his life, and anyone with a newborn can sympathize with a parent who is worn down in those early months. For Hendricks, it was doubled and he was up all night at home.

"So you at least sit there and say, 'Hey, you take today off. You go home and get some sleep,'" Boudreau said.

For Ducks defenseman Ben Lovejoy, the open lines of communication helped him deal with the rotation on defense Anaheim deployed down the stretch this season. When he was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins in a February deal, it was one of the season's more underrated additions. Cam Fowler was out with a concussion and Lovejoy was plugged in to regular playing time. When Fowler returned, the rotation on defense began.

Boudreau made sure each defenseman understood exactly why he was sitting. The Ducks had seven defensemen and he needed every one of them ready for the playoffs. Sitting wasn't necessarily an indictment of how they were playing, it was just a matter of making sure every guy in the rotation was able to stay sharp and remain confident.

"When you're sitting in the press box after something like that, you say, 'OK, I'm going to do this for the team. It makes things a lot easier,'" Lovejoy said. "You're not sitting up in the press box going, 'What the hell did I do wrong?'"

During one game, the Ducks were winning and Ryan was dropped to the third line. Naturally, the doubts crept in, as they would for any player, and Ryan wondered what he did wrong to get pulled off the top line.

After the win and without prompting, Boudreau pulled Ryan aside and told him that he used the game to get different looks. The decision had nothing to do with Ryan's play; it was just a coach getting a feel for new combinations in case he needed them down the road.

What could have festered into an issue for Ryan was gone in an instant.

"Guys want to know what a coach is thinking," Ducks assistant coach Bob Woods said. "I don't think guys want to sit there and play mind games. Those days are gone. I played for Bruce. Some nights he can be brutally honest, but at least you know where you stand. As a player, that just takes the whole thinking part out of the game. You just play."

It's how a coach gets complete buy-in, something Boudreau has right now in Anaheim.

• • • • •

Boudreau has come a long way from the day he left Washington, D.C., to replace Randy Carlyle in Anaheim. On that first plane trip west, he studied the Ducks' roster, trying to figure out exactly what he was getting into.

He knew the stars on the roster -- Getzlaf, Perry, Ryan, Selanne -- but as he got deeper into the names, he realized he knew very little about others he'd be coaching.

"I remember saying, 'Who is Devante Smith-Pelly? Who is Matt Beleskey? I didn't know these guys," Boudreau said. "We had just played them actually, but I didn't pay much attention to them because we were only going to see them once a year."

Now the Ducks are his team. This is a group that can help Boudreau accomplish what never happened in Washington.

He's won at every level and the failure to keep that going with the Capitals still lingers in the shadows. How much of it was his fault? How much of it was just the growing pains of a young team with developing stars?

[+] EnlargeBruce Boudreau and Alex Ovechkin
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesWith an explosive talent like Alex Ovechkin by Boudreau's side in D.C., Caps management felt the team underperformed during the coach's watch.
"I think he does want to prove he wasn't the issue in D.C.," his wife said. "He wants to prove he knows what he's doing. But he just loves his job. On his worst day, getting fired, he was ready to go again. He didn't want time off."

Diving back into work helped Boudreau deal with the hurt that came with leaving D.C. and an organization he and his wife loved. Leaving players and friends who still keep in touch, with Capitals players calling as recently as a couple of weeks ago, according to Crystal.

The mourning didn't really hit until Boudreau returned to his near-empty house in Potomac, Md., after the Ducks' season ended last year. Most of the furniture, clothes and all the flatscreen televisions that are usually tuned to hockey had been shipped west.

It was 6,500 square feet of empty.

"The kids could play hockey in it," Crystal said. "There was nothing there."

That part of Boudreau's life was over. Everyone had to move on and the empty house drove that home.

Boudreau says with complete sincerity that he harbors no ill-will against his old organization. And when he watches the Capitals play, how could he? These are still many of the guys he helped nurture into NHL players. These are the guys he won big with in the AHL.

He sees Braden Holtby playing well and thinks back to the summer camps where everyone knew he'd be the best of the three young Capitals goalies. And folks thought pretty darn highly of Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth.

But that's the past. The focus now is on eliminating the talented Red Wings, then seeing where that leads Boudreau and the Ducks next. Perhaps the future still includes the Capitals, this time in a different role.

"You wish them only the best," Boudreau said. "It would be a great story if they ended up in the finals with us."