Commentary

Rep versus reality for Boudreau, Caps

Updated: September 28, 2011, 2:53 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Va. -- In the NHL, reputation is often reality.

For instance, it would be heretical for anyone to suggest that Lindy Ruff, the longest-serving coach in the NHL, be fired from the Buffalo Sabres even though the team has missed the playoffs twice and been bounced in the first round just as many times over the past four seasons.

Likewise, you haven't heard many calls for Barry Trotz's head in Nashville. Trotz, who has presided over the Predators since they came into the league in 1998, was a Jack Adams Award nominee last season for coach of the year. Yet, the team has won just a single playoff round in its history (it happened this past season).

We're not suggesting either man isn't a fine coach or that they should be dusting off their résumés. But they represent often an interesting counterpoint to Bruce Boudreau, head coach of the Washington Capitals, a man many in the hockey world firmly believed would be sent packing last spring when the Capitals were swept in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

[+] EnlargeBruce Boudreau
Geoff Burke/US PresswireBruce Boudreau is entering his fifth season as coach of the Washington Capitals.

Before Game 3 of that series, Boudreau was even asked if he believed his job was in jeopardy. Boudreau wasn't particularly pleased with the line of questioning, but in a little more than 36 hours, his talented team's season came to an abrupt conclusion.

"I think we're all sensitive to our jobs. We all love our jobs," Boudreau told ESPN.com after the Caps' training camp session Saturday morning.

The gregarious Boudreau didn't just fall off the stick truck. He understands there isn't a coach in the land who doesn't take an NHL job without fully expecting, at some point, the day will come when the welcome mat is turned over. "We know the business we're in," he said.

But what is confounding about the impressions of Boudreau and the Capitals is that they are often misguided, if not flat-out wrong.

There is the myth Boudreau cannot adapt. Yet when key players last season were not producing offense at their normal level and the team started to go sideways in front of the entire hockey world thanks to HBO's ever-present cameras, Boudreau and his staff introduced a more buttoned-down system that was less risky and demanded better team defense from his entire squad.

How did it turn out? Well, a team that was trailing Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division started reeling off wins, clinching the Southeast for the fourth consecutive season (tying San Jose for the longest current string of division championships) and earning its second straight top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The other myth is Boudreau can't coach defensive hockey and the Caps can't play defensive hockey. Well, let's check. The Caps finished with the fourth-best mark in the NHL in goals allowed per game, second in the Eastern Conference behind eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston. A year earlier, when they were the talk of the NHL for their offensive exploits, the Presidents' Trophy-winning Caps were 16th overall. The Caps also saw their penalty-killing unit improve from 25th two seasons ago to being tied for second overall with Vancouver last season.

Of course, when you are as blessed with talent as the Caps are, and when that talent fails to achieve the goals that are set, none of those details seem to matter. The perception of the Caps is they are underachievers, even though they have won more playoff rounds in the past four years (two) than Nashville and Buffalo.

Boudreau gets that, too, not that he likes it much. The improvements the team has made defensively "are not as sexy as saying we scored 40 more goals than any other team," he noted.

"It's frustrating to the players and it's frustrating to me because we changed the way we play. It's a tough thing to do," he said.

It's a change that took place only because players were willing to buy in, and perhaps give up padding scoring totals for the sake of the new system. Yet the sacrifices that made such a change possible get the short shrift, and players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green get criticized because their offensive numbers are down.

Fair or not, any missed opportunity is a difficult burden to carry.

Boudreau admitted he found it even more difficult to get over the Caps' playoff loss to Tampa this past summer than the previous season's end, when the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens upended Washington in the first round.

"It was just more difficult for whatever reason," he said. "It took me a long time to get over it."

It doesn't matter that by time the second round rolled around, defensemen John Carlson, John Erskine and Green were all either significantly banged up or out of the lineup. In the final game of that series against Tampa Bay, Scott Hannan, a player acquired as a fifth/sixth depth defenseman, played 24:56. That's too much.

"We just weren't good enough on the blue line," Caps GM George McPhee told ESPN.com recently.

The injuries and the fact the power play went bust in the playoffs (the Caps were 5-for-35 this past spring) combined to doom the Caps, but that didn't doom Boudreau. There was speculation that owner Ted Leonsis would lower the boom himself. But McPhee almost immediately insisted he expected Boudreau to return this season, and ownership and management held to their belief that Boudreau could get the job done.

McPhee said he believes this is still a very good team and he remains optimistic Boudreau is the man to lead it. He talked with enthusiasm about the job Boudreau has done in addressing some of the team's weaknesses, like its defense.

"I don't want to change a lot because it's a good, solid team," said McPhee, adding that this is not a team that needs to be broken down.

"It's really gratifying," said Boudreau with a smile. "But I think it goes both ways, the loyalty. They've showed it to me and I've showed it to them."

That kind of loyalty in the face of speculation doesn't go unnoticed in a dressing room, either. So, as it has been the past couple of training camps, the focus in Washington is on trying to get this very good team to be a championship team.

Boudreau said his players came into camp in the best condition he's seen since he's been there. The practices have been up-tempo. Alexander Semin, blasted by former teammate Matt Bradley for his cavalier attitude in the playoffs, has been more engaged.

"He's asking me questions, where to go and what to do," Boudreau said. "He wants to know because he wants to learn and he wants to get better."

Between now and the start of the regular season, someone will undoubtedly write or say that Boudreau is on the hot seat. And someone else will wonder if the Caps can play good enough defense to win a Cup.

It won't matter to Boudreau and the Caps, who understand there is often a significant divide between reputation and reality in the hockey world.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.