Rebuilding Senators’ needs conflicted with Guy Boucher’s style

Pierre Dorion talks to the media about firing Guy Boucher and what he his looking for in a new head coach of the Ottawa Senators.

When they were rival coaches in Switzerland four years ago, Guy Boucher and Marc Crawford had a pact.

If either one got another head coaching job in the NHL, he would bring the other guy on to his staff.

So it was that when Boucher, former head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning (2010-13) and Bern SC (2013-16), was hired to coach the Ottawa Senators in 2016, he hired Crawford as his associate coach.

On Friday, Crawford was in the awkward position of replacing his friend. Boucher was fired by Senators general manager Pierre Dorion Friday morning, a decision made Thursday night after Ottawa’s 4-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers. It was the last-place Senators’ sixth straight defeat.

An emotional Crawford, speaking barely above a whisper, declined to say what strategic changes he would bring for Ottawa’s final 18 games of the season. Not this day, out of respect for the 47-year-old Boucher.

“Seeing Guy this morning, my heart goes out to him,” Crawford said. “My heart goes out to his family. I’ve been in that position before.

I hope they help each other through this difficult time.”

Crawford, 58, added he hopes Boucher gets some needed rest while getting away from the game for a while.

“I don’t take a lot of joy in the fact I’m getting this position today as interim coach at the expense of his demise,” said Crawford, a Belleville native who has 1,151 games of experience as an NHL head coach and won a Stanley Cup with Colorado in 1995-96. “But I believe Guy will rise again.”

Why was the change made now?

As recently as Tuesday, Dorion was quoted saying Boucher was his coach and would be evaluated at the end of the season, which also marked the end of his contract.

“Guy is our coach,” Dorion said, following the trade deadline. “I don’t think anyone will disagree with me on this one that I’ve probably made his job pretty difficult the last few weeks, and we’re going to support him.”

At least for a few days.

Something happened in that Oilers game, whether it was Boucher failing to challenge for offside on the winning Edmonton goal, or for scratching rookie defenceman Christian Wolanin from the lineup. In a broader sense, the Senators punctuated their rebuild by trading top scorers Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel over the past week, and that plunge to a youth movement magnified Boucher’s perceived shortcomings with prospects.

Dorion wouldn’t say exactly why he fired Boucher, but hinted that Boucher’s handling of the young roster was a factor. Call-ups like Drake Batherson and Logan Brown often saw limited ice time. Dorion also said he wanted to see his team skate more in practice. (He hated Boucher’s “rest is a weapon” mantra of last season).

“In this rebuild, playing the kids is crucial,” Dorion said. “The development of our young players is essential for this team to have success moving forward.”

Dorion said he liked the team’s compete level against Calgary in a 2-1 loss on the weekend. He didn’t like what he saw against Edmonton.

Under Boucher, the Senators went 94-108-26 in three seasons, the sixth-worst record in the NHL since 2016-17, according to Sportsnet Stats. However, he did lead Ottawa to a berth in the Eastern Conference Final in 2017, losing to Pittsburgh in a Game 7 overtime.

The Senators have been a disaster ever since, finishing 30th in 2017-18 and now anchored in 31st place with a record of 22-37-5. It isn’t Boucher’s fault that the Senators don’t own their own lottery pick in the upcoming draft, but that fact surely didn’t improve Dorion’s mood.

While addressing the players prior to Friday’s practice, Dorion emphasized that their recent play was “unacceptable” and had to improve, despite the fact there is no shot at reaching the playoffs.

“I want to see a compete level that is unmatched,” Dorion said. “I want to see a team culture that will transfer to next year. And I think we want to see – we’re giving a chance to a lot of players . . . we want to see them thrive.

“Their agents tell me, if they had more ice time they’d be better. So, let’s see what they can do.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Two Ottawa players spoke to reporters, veteran goaltender Craig Anderson and hard-nosed defenceman Mark Borowiecki. Both expressed surprise at the timing of the move, if not the move itself.

“This is a results-driven business and we haven’t been getting results for a long time,” Borowiecki said. “Players felt the brunt of that. We lost some guys in here that were important . . . and we lose a coach as well. I think that shows there’s blame to go around.”

Anderson was more blunt, saying the team was stuck in a “rut” and failed to adapt.

“We didn’t show the ability to change it or try something new,” Anderson said. “We also lost some key individuals who held us together. They weren’t here this year or last.”

Hmm. Weren’t here this year or last? That could refer to leaders like Dion Phaneuf, Kyle Turris and Chris Neil who were gone by the fall of 2017.

Anderson feels the coaching staff wasn’t able to work with young players to smooth over errors.

“We were kind of status quo all year, we didn’t really improve,” Anderson said. “And that is one of the things that was frustrating, from a goalie standpoint — we make the same mistakes over and over and there’s no improvement.”

Boucher’s strategies worked well during the run of 2016-17, but Anderson said the coach wasn’t able to change gears.

“Over time, the system gets exposed and then you have to adapt your system . . . as the years went on, we kind of got stuck in that rut and didn’t try to adapt,” Anderson said.

“We weren’t growing as a group, and we weren’t growing as individuals. This might be the change that is needed for our young guys to step up and start playing well, play the way that got them here.”

Dorion said an extensive coaching search would begin after the season, with Crawford as a candidate.

“I joked with him if he goes 18-0 he’s got the job,” Dorion said. The GM bristled at a question of whether the Senators would spend the money to hire an elite coach.

“We will hire the best coach available . . . we did that last time,” Dorion said.

In the team’s release outlining the coaching change, Dorion included his prerequisites for the next head coach. He must be:

• A teacher who will focus on the development and growth of each player on the team.

• A listener who encourages feedback from players and the coaching staff.

• A communicator who lets every team member know where they stand and what is expected.

• A tactician who brings structure and game planning that will enhance our rebuild.

Crawford’s lifetime record in the NHL with Quebec, Colorado, Vancouver, L.A. and Dallas is 549-421-78 with 103 ties. He was head coach of Team Canada at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the one where Wayne Gretzky didn’t get a chance at the shootout versus the Czech Republic.

Crawford lauded this current group of Senators, despite the record.

“We really do have a great group of players here, though they’re not showing it in the standings,” Crawford said. “They’re a group that cares for one another, and that emotionally is as good as any Stanley Cup team that I’ve been around.

“These are young guys in a difficult situation . . . we want all of them to give us their best effort, to play for one another. . . build on the foundation that’s here.”

Their first test under the interim coach won’t be easy. The Senators face the first-place Lightning in Tampa Bay on Saturday.

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