It’s not hard to be a fan of Guy Boucher. The man comes through the screen like the ultimate nice guy, always full of positive energy, always full of positive reflections in even the most negative situations. He makes you feel good. It doesn’t hurt that the man really knows hockey. Guy Boucher might very well be a great hockey coach, and he may go on to coaching greatness and go down in the history books with the likes of Scotty Bowman and Toe Blake and Al Arbour. These things are impossible to know. It’s also impossible to know if Jon Cooper will be the right coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning, or if he was a better choice than the more experienced and recently fired Lindy Ruff. Time will tell. And time, I would argue, has made it crystal clear that Guy Boucher was no longer the right man for this job.
My own questions of Boucher’s ability to instill a winning culture in this franchise popped up early in the season, when the Lightning were still winning games. He seemed to put sunny spins on negative situations (like the team’s first game on Long Island), and was always looking at the positive. That’s fine – it’s great even, if you’re having a conversation with Guy over a cup of coffee. However, it set my subconscious to tingling, probably because of all the great coaches I have seen, and I’ve seen a lot of them, I’ve never seen one that doesn’t demand absolute accountability from his team for their failings. I’ve never seen a single great coach that comes/came across as “just one of the guys.” And Boucher comes across as “just one of the guys.”
Boucher came across as a part of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Every great coach I’ve ever had the privilege of watching came across as above the team, as the man the team was ultimately accountable too. Great coaches might not be their players’ enemy, but they’re not necessarily their players’ friends either. Ask TSN analyst Aaron Ward what he thinks of Scotty Bowman. Ask a number of players what they think of “Iron” Mike Keenan.
Of course, the real problems with Boucher’s coaching style revealed themselves on the ice. In particular, they revealed themselves in the defensive zone, where in game after game the Bolts struggled to break out over the blue line, often giving up multiple chances in sequence. You can blame this on sup-par defensive players all you want. You can say the Bolts’ forwards are lazy and not backchecking hard, but if you do, I would suggest that you haven’t been watching the Bolts very closely this season. There is no lack of effort from this team in its own end. Steven Stamkos hustles hard to catch up to every play that breaks over the Lightning blue line. The problem starts after he gets there, where he often finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. What’s lacking is not effort – it’s knowledge. And I refuse to believe that Steven Stamkos, or any other player that’s worked his way to the NHL for that matter, playing under various coaches with their various systems and the intricacies of that system, is simply not smart enough to implement Boucher’s system. The problem is the system doesn’t work at this level.
And lo and behold, two games into the post-Boucher season, we’re already seeing proof that his systems were a problem. Throw the scores out the window. They’re not important. My opinion on this would be the same had the Bolts lost or won both games by double digits, because goals are not the statistic that tells the story on Boucher and his failed defensive system. What matters is this and only this: time in attack zone.
All season long, the Lightning have been plagued by an inability to break out of their own zone. They would find themselves pinned in their own end for sometimes multiple shifts in succession. Now suddenly, Boucher is gone, and break outs have not been an issue for the Bolts. Coincidence?
I know what you’re thinking – two games is far too small a sample size to make such an assessment. And you would be right, but only if you could provide a two-game span under Guy Boucher that the Lightning were able to break out of their own end as well as they have in these past two. Or, for that matter, can you find a two-game span where the Lightning gave up a combined 38 shots? You can’t.
But Boucher’s 1-3-1 and his ideas about funnelling the puck and the play to “the basket” in his own end are only the tip of the iceberg. The real issue with Boucher, the granddaddy of Boucher-related problems that ultimately got him fired, was his refusal to break away from the system he believes in even while his team was making it very clear that either A.) the system doesn’t work, or B.) this particular team is incapable of making it work. And even if B is true (which I doubt), it’s still Boucher’s responsibility to come up with something better, something more suited for the players he has to work with. But he didn’t. He stuck to his guns, even while the team was giving up on him.
TSN analyst Ray Ferraro tweeted shortly after Boucher’s firing that the Tampa Bay bench had been dead during the Toronto game. The team had likely been progressively tuning Boucher out for some time. They stopped believing in him.
I’ve seen a lot of arguments over the last few days that Boucher’s firing was caused by “bad goaltending” or “bad defensemen.” Such arguments are at best not very well thought out, and at worst, ridiculous. If anything, the team’s sub-par goaltending was the only reason why Boucher was given the benefit of the doubt for so long (which is ironic, considering Boucher’s greatest glory was achieved on the back on unrealistically stellar play by Dwayne Roloson in 2011). CBC’s Elliot Friedman, in an interview on Sports Net 590 radio, said “Yzerman believed there were deficiencies in goaltending and [the Lightning] need to play differently to cover up for those and Boucher wouldn’t.” But it goes beyond that. The fact of the matter is Anders Lindback was playing his best hockey of the season just prior to his injury and the team was still losing. And before I’ll listen to any of your arguments about how terrible this team’s defensive unit is, I’ll first require you to tell me what’s so great about the Winnipeg Jets’ defensemen. How about the Carolina Hurricanes defense? The Toronto Maple Leafs?
Take a look at least season’s Tampa Bay Lightning defense. Compare that to this season’s. No one is saying that the Bolts’ have a blue line capable of contending for a Stanley Cup – but they should be better than last year. This year’s team should not be plagued with the same problems as last year’s team. The common denominator is the coach.
I am not saying that Guy Boucher was the only problem with this team. I’m not even saying he was the major problem. But he was definitely a problem, and it was getting worse as the players progressively tuned him out and stopped believing that he was the man capable of leading them to success. The only mistake in firing Guy Boucher was that it wasn’t done two weeks ago, when the team still had a realistic chance at making the playoffs.
With all that said, I’m not sure if Jon Cooper is the answer. He, like Boucher, is coming in long on accolades and short on experience. What I do know is that the players called up from Syracuse, starting with Alex Killorn and most recently with Radko Gudas, players previously coached by Cooper, looked a lot more NHL-ready than many players who’d been playing with the Lightning for years. Gudas, in particular, is patient and calm in his own end, a far cry from what we’re used to from most Bolts’ defensemen playing Boucher’s system.
Another thing I know is Cooper is making an excellent first impression. He’s saying all the right things. In his first press conference as coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Cooper relayed a story about talking with GM Steve Yzerman upon his hiring. “If we’re going to do this,” Cooper says he told Yzerman, “I’m really gonna try and screw up your draft pick.”