With the latest episode of “Washington Capitals Playoff Woes” having just finished shooting in Tampa Bay, the next step for this franchise revolves around head coach Bruce Boudreau. For Boudreau, whose unlikely rise from minor league journey man to National Hockey League head coach has been well documented and has served as an inspiration to many, this represents the fourth straight year in which the Capitals have failed to live up to their potential.
What is more disturbing is that in all four years, including the most recent collapse, the team has lost to teams seeded below them; teams they were both theoretically and on paper better than, and teams they should have defeated. The string of collapses began in 2007-2008 when a vastly improved Capitals squad, having gone from playoff outsider to third seed, succumbed to the sixth seed Philadelphia Flyers in seven games.
2008-09 featured an epic battle between the second place Capitals and the fourth place Pittsburgh Penguins that ended with Sidney Crosby’s Penguins winning in seven games. But perhaps the biggest failure of this franchise came one year later where, having won the Presidents’ Trophy as the top team in the league during the regular season and holding a 3-1 series lead over the eighth place Montreal Canadiens, fell in seven games. The Tampa Bay Lightning series of this year adds to an embarrassing resume for a team that on paper should be mentioned with the likes of Detroit and Boston as model NHL franchises. Unfortunately for Capitals fans games are not determined on paper.
With Boudreau’s fate likely sealed, the task comes along of appointing a replacement. And here is where Craig MacTavish comes in. With much of the talk this season surrounding the new defensive identity the Washington Capitals assumed under Boudreau, MacTavish would continue the trend being a defensive coach himself. And although sometimes criticized for his reliance on the defensive game, Ryan Smyth, Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff all reached career highs in points under MacTavish’s tutelage.
MacTavish was able to lead an eighth-place Edmonton Oilers team to within 60 minutes of the Stanley Cup. How he did it was by devising gameplans based on the opponent the team was facing. He organized a trap system that stymied the Detroit Red Wings, and was able to shut down players such as Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Corey Perry. Perhaps his greatest strength is his ability to adapt to the opponent and create a gameplan based on which team he is facing, and has the ability to use line matching to showcase his players, as opposed to the generic playing of four lines with no strategy.
What derailed him in Edmonton was the disconnect between the coaching staff and the Oilers upper management. He needs some defensive players to succeed, and relies on them, using line matching to negate the opponent’s offensive players; and lacked the adequate personnel for his systems during the latter part of his tenure with the team. Marty Reasoner, who to many fans is an average fourth line player, played a huge role on the Oilers during the MacTavish era by winning faceoffs and shutting down the league’s best forwards; and the team changed significantly when he signed with Atlanta as a free agent. Players such as Jason Chimera and Boyd Gordon would likely see their roles increase under MacTavish.
The difference between Washington this year and Tampa Bay last year is that the Lightning could afford to take a risk and hire someone (Guy Boucher) who had never coached in the NHL because they were not expecting to contend right away. Washington, with a demanding owner, expectant fans and just two seasons removed from the Presidents’ Trophy, needs to win and win now. MacTavish brings plenty of Stanley Cup experience as both a player and coach (four as a player, one as a coach), and knows the sacrifices it takes to win from both perspectives, something Bruce Boudreau could not claim. Make no mistake about it, the Capitals will not progress unless they have a proven Stanley Cup veteran behind the bench.
Everyone in hockey, including MacTavish, knows that in order for the Washington Capitals to be successful, Alex Ovechkin needs to be a big factor; and his role would not change at all under a new head coach. What MacTavish would bring is a strong veteran leadership with Stanley Cup experience, as well as a defensive system with room for offensive creativity.
MacTavish has studied the game for the past two years and watched it evolve, and would still showcase Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom and the other high profile forwards Washington boasts. With time running out for the Capitals to prove they are real contenders in the National Hockey League, hiring Craig MacTavish makes the most sense for the Washington Capitals to make a statement to the rest of the league.
Salim Valji is based in Edmonton AB, writing about all topics hockey for THW. His work has appeared in the Edmonton Journal, Fox Sports and NHL.com. He is credentialled by the WHL and Hockey Canada and attended the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. He will be covering the 2012 IHHF World Junior Hockey Championship for THW.