The transactions made by the Ottawa Senators during the offseason were both controversial and harmful to the team. Trading Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman for far less than their value have damaged the team’s identity and talent pool. But the most damage was arguably done to Guy Boucher’s long-term future as head coach of the Senators.
Boucher is entering his third season behind the bench in Ottawa and cracks have already begun to show after last year’s disastrous campaign. The ‘1-3-1’, or neutral zone trap, Boucher is so fond of seemed to fall apart as the Senators finished 30th in goals allowed and Ottawa went from making the Eastern Conference Final the year prior to picking fourth overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
You could attribute this fall to bad goaltending, a lack of elite players outside of Erik Karlsson, or management not giving Boucher resources to help the team, but it all falls on his shoulders in the end. Now, with Karlsson gone and the Senators looking like they will finish in the bottom five of the league for the second straight year, Boucher could be running out of time in Ottawa.
But what’s interesting is if you look at Boucher’s time as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, you would see many similarities that have followed him to Canada’s capital. Unfortunately, not all of those similarities are positive.
2010-11: Boucher Hired By Lightning, Finds Success
Boucher was named head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the 2010-11 season. That Lightning team finished seventh in goals scored in the NHL, offsetting their defensive performance (24th in goals allowed). Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos both recorded 90-plus point seasons, propelling the team to a second-place finish in the Southeast Division and a playoff spot. The Lightning made it to the Eastern Conference Final against the Boston Bruins. The series went all the way to a seventh game, where the Lighting finished one goal away from the Stanley Cup Final in a 1-0 loss. The Bruins would go on to win the Stanley Cup in seven games against the Vancouver Canucks.
Boucher’s defensive scheme seemed to be effective at preventing shots, as the Lightning finished third in the league in shots allowed (2,106). The team also had a surplus of gritty, physical players like Nate Thompson, Ryan Malone and Sean Bergenheim. His tactics prevented shots and helped create offensive chances that more than made up for the goals opposing teams scored.
A team with strong defensive capabilities and a gritty nature making it all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final only to finish one goal away from playing for the Stanley Cup?
That sounds awfully similar to the 2016-17 Ottawa Senators. Boucher’s first season with Ottawa had Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman leading the way with Craig Andersen in net as the Senators finished 11th in goals allowed. Players like Mark Borowiecki (364 hits, 201 blocked shots) and Tom Pyatt (89 blocked shots) brought a physicality to the lineup and the Senators finished second in the Atlantic Division and made the playoffs, only to lose in double overtime to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, one goal away from the final.
2011-12: A Steep Fall
After exceeding expectations the season before, Boucher and the Lightning experienced a sharp decline during the 2011-12 season. The team went 38-36-8, missing the playoffs. The culprit of this decline? The team’s defensive performance. The Lightning allowed the most goals in the NHL (281 goals, 3.42 goals per game) and the defense that worked so well preventing shots went from third in the league to 16th along with a team save percentage of .887%. The Lightning placed 25th on the power play (15.24%) and 26th on the penalty kill (79.23%), a massive drop from 2010-11, when the team finished sixth and eighth in those categories, respectively. They also couldn’t get shots to the net, falling from seventh to 28th in the NHL (27.2 shots per game).
Last year the Senators not only missed the playoffs but finished 30th in the NHL in goals allowed. They went from 17th in the league in shots allowed to 24th, and both their penalty kill and power play finished towards the bottom of the league (26th and 27th in the league, respectively). In both of Boucher’s sophomore seasons, his schemes were snuffed out by opponents and it hurt his teams, especially on the defensive front.
2012-13: Boucher is Fired
The Lightning brought back Boucher for the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season. After a 6-1-0 start, the Lightning would lose 12 of their next 15 games and falter to a 13-17-1 record, resulting in Boucher’s termination. The team’s defense under Boucher continued to meander. In his 31 games as coach that season, the Lightning allowed 95 goals, or 3.06 goals per game. The team tried to score their way out of the issue, but 101 goals (3.25 goals per game) were not enough. At season’s end, the Lightning went 18-26-4 and finished 26th in shots allowed (1,451), 24th in shots for (1,323) and tied for 24th in save percentage (.899%).
After his firing, Boucher was hired as head coach of SC Bern in Switzerland’s National League. He coached there from 2013 to 2015, being fired by the team in November 2015. He would be hired by the Senators for the same position in May 2018 after the Senators fired Dave Cameron in April.
Will History Repeat Itself?
The similarities between Guy Boucher’s time with the Tampa Bay Lightning and his time with the Ottawa Senators is not a coincidence. Every coach has his tactics and team structure, and while Boucher’s approach may work during the first year, it appears that opposing teams adapt well and Boucher’s own teams suffer offensively and defensively because of it.
Boucher’s third year in Ottawa does come with some asterisks. Pierre Dorion and Eugene Melnyk are embracing the rebuild and much of the talent besides a few key players are unproven, still developing, or just depth pieces to fill roster spots. Management could end up cutting him a break even if the team flatlines again. If he is a good presence and helps the younger talent develop properly, Boucher could make it through the season. But with that way management has been acting recently, it could go either way.