OTTAWA â€” There’s a persistent sneer on Guy Boucher’s face, but the Ottawa Senators head coach doesn’t lose his cool like he might have in the past after a disappointing overtime loss.
“When you’re younger you either say too much or you let the emotion take over,” Boucher said a day after a 2-1 defeat against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday. “But I also knew that if I gave myself an hour or two after that (loss), watching some video and figuring out what’s what then you put things in perspective and they fall into place.”
Boucher’s evolution behind the bench has helped propel the Senators to their finest season, potentially, in a decade and one that captain Erik Karlsson describes as perhaps “the most consistent and best season that I’ve ever been (apart of) here playing for the Ottawa Senators”.
Ottawa has made huge leaps defensively, becoming an unexpected contender for the Atlantic division crown. But for Boucher personally, progress from a failed first NHL coaching experience with the Lightning has nothing to do with Xs and Os.
“People ask me what I’m doing differently (from) Tampa. On the ice: nothing,” Boucher told the Canadian Press following a recent practice in the nation’s capital. “It’s not about hockey.”
Instead, it’s about a vastly different approach to handling a hockey team.
Boucher has unclenched his grip over the coaching operation in Ottawa and learned to manage his energies in a more effective manner. That means, for one, delegating more responsibility to his coaching staff â€” which includes experienced former NHL head coach Marc Crawford.
Boucher even hired each member of the staff with specific duties to delegate in mind.
Known for being overly harsh at times with the Lightning, Boucher has tried to pull back with the Senators too. There are days he won’t even take the ice.
“I come in, I inject what I need to inject, but I pull away more than I used to,” Boucher said.
He’s also tried to develop a more direct relationship with the general manager â€” Pierre Dorion in this case, who hired Boucher shortly after taking over for Bryan Murray â€” “because really he’s the one that goes and gets the players.”
Boucher needed the experience in Tampa, which started with an appearance in the 2011 Eastern Conference final and ended in firing less than two years later, to figure out what he could do better as a coach. He recalled paying little mind, for example, to the bigger picture during his Lightning tenure.
“And there’s things that I used to think was really important and they’re not really that important,” he said.
Boucher found perspective from the dismissal as well as a distant experience coaching in Switzerland for two-plus seasons. He was fired by Bern shortly after he declared his intent to return to North America.
If Boucher’s changed, so too have the Senators under his lead.
Ottawa, entering Sunday’s action, has leaped from 30th in shots against to 16th; from 29th on the penalty kill to 12th; and from 26th in goals against to 10th.
The Senators, primarily, have turned into a shot blocking machine at Boucher’s insistence, second in the NHL and on pace to cast aside almost 200 more than last year’s 13th ranked group.
Karlsson says the club has become “extremely defensive” under Boucher, passive and patient in their approach. “It requires a lot of hard work in the defensive zone to create offence and that’s the way we’ve been winning games â€” 1-0, 2-1 â€” and we’ve been sticking to that for most part of the year,” Karlsson said.
Boucher had the word “speed” plastered around Ottawa’s dressing room at Canadian Tire Centre 12 times and “if we had a 13th spot I would’ve put another one there.”
Altering the Sens defensive fortunes for the head coach meant executing faster than opponents and ultimately gaining “fractions of seconds” on those foes over the course of the season â€” being a step in front of an opponent’s defensive zone set-up for example. Boucher wants his group to “defend hard and fast” so it can quickly transition to offence.
It took until early December before the product started resembling what he had in mind.
Boucher says he needed a group of offensively-inclined players to realize it was the second step to success. The top teams, he explained, were the ones that knew had to keep the puck out of the net first and foremost, citing Scotty Bowman-led squads in Detroit as well as the more recent Chicago Blackhawks dynasty.
Whether his more tempered approach yields long-term results will be part of the test for Boucher. His Tampa experience quickly unravelled and this Senators squad has tenuous underpinnings â€” only slightly outscoring foes (plus-4 goal differential) while posting bottom-10 puck possession numbers.
Ottawa hasn’t slid much at all so far though, their longest losing streak a mere four games. Boucher credits the players for sticking to the details, “paying the price” and staying together.
“That’s why when people ask me, ‘What have I done?’ (Shrugs). Really? My job is just to direct,” Boucher says. “They’re the ones that are doing it. And they’re the ones that should get all the credit.”
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press