Commentary

Long shots spark new coaching trend

Updated: May 5, 2009, 1:34 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- From the beginning, this Eastern Conference semifinal series has been about the can't-miss kids: Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

It is more than a little curious, then, that the men who stand behind them each night, the men who draw up the game plans and set these players loose, come from a world far removed from "can't miss." In fact, Washington's Bruce Boudreau and Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma are the long-shot kids in a profession that has been marked for a long time by sure things and familiar names.

Of the eight remaining coaches in the playoffs, these two represent the relatively new trend of looking below, and not simply around, when it comes to filling head coaching vacancies. And it's not much of a stretch to suggest Bylsma owes some debt of gratitude to Boudreau, the patron saint of long-forgotten coaches.

"I don't know if that's in fact what's happened, but if you look around the league, it has happened," said Boudreau, who took over as Caps coach at Thanksgiving last season and went on to win coach of the year honors in the NHL. "I don't know if it has anything to do with the success of us or with them taking a chance on me or not. I think everything is familiarity."

Pittsburgh assistant coach Tom Fitzgerald has known Boudreau since he left Providence College and joined the Springfield Indians of the American Hockey League in 1988. Boudreau was his first road roommate.

"He was a nice guy who treated the kids well," Fitzgerald told ESPN.com on Sunday.

The veteran NHLer said he thinks the hiring of Boudreau, and later, Bylsma, is a testament to GMs who think outside the box and don't just hire a coach because he's been a coach somewhere else in the NHL.

"It means you're not just looking at their résumés," Fitzgerald said.

When Boudreau was hired after coaching in the minors since 1990, Washington GM George McPhee's message was simple -- don't change a thing.

Standing outside the Capitals' locker room Sunday, less than 24 hours after his team had taken a 1-0 series lead over the Penguins, McPhee said that constancy remains, well, constant.

"He's exactly the same," McPhee said. "He hasn't changed a bit. Which is perfect."

Players say the 54-year-old Boudreau uses the same drills he did when he was coaching in the minors and prepares the same way, whether it's a preseason game or a Stanley Cup playoff game.

"He didn't panic after the first two games [against] New York," Washington captain Chris Clark said. "But everything's the same, same preparation. We do the same thing every day and I don't know if that's habit or superstitious or what's going on there."

"Still the same guy that he was in Manchester, still the same guy that he was in the summer camps when I was out in L.A.," added Capitals top defensive center Dave Steckel. "I mean, he hasn't changed one bit. He's still a players' coach. He loves to tell stories, he loves to hear stories in the locker room. But, at the same time, when it's time for business, he's the first one to say, 'Hey, let's get it going, let's focus.'"

You want constant? Well, there's always the wardrobe. Steckel recalled that the first time he met Boudreau, there were some food particles on Boudreau's sweater. Even now, there are some ties that sometimes don't quite match that make their way into Boudreau's ensemble.

"He's gotten a lot better about that, actually," Steckel said. "The second half of the season on the road, he's significantly better and I notice he wears the same suit like all day long, not just for half of the day."

"Nicer suits, but he still doesn't wear them properly," offered Caps forward Matt Bradley. "He definitely looks a little bit better, but I still wouldn't say clothes are his forte."

"He's come a long way, I can say that," Clark added. "I can definitely say it's come a long way, but everyone once in a while, you see the old stuff slipping back in. You see some of the guys that had him in Hershey, they're the ones that really get on him a little bit."

Boudreau's relative disregard for the sartorial end of things is in keeping with his personality and philosophy of coaching.

"He is so firm in his beliefs in the way that he wants his players to play the game, the way he wants his team to play," Caps assistant coach Dean Evason said. "It's cut and dried."

Is there a message to be learned from watching these coaches ply their trade on this stage? One might imagine the coaches' journey from obscurity to this level would act as some sort of inspiration, a potent reminder that perseverance and hard work can pay off.

"For sure," said Bradley. "I think the other thing is he's kind of opened the floodgates for great coaches that have maybe coached in the minors and have been there for a long time and they're finally getting opportunities.

"Sometimes you get guys without experience who were maybe good NHL players who just automatically get a job in the NHL, where you get a bunch of really good coaches down there that didn't really get too many opportunities and I think Bouds kind of paved the way guys coming up from the minors," added Bradley. "With a lot of different teams, you've seen that it works."

Not that this is some kind late-night, hair-growth guarantee; give your minor-league coach a job and win like crazy.

"What we do know is that all of these players were remarkably better when Bruce came up," McPhee said.

"A lot with players and coaches, it's opportunity, and you have to be ready and have the opportunity at the same time," Clark said. "He was ready, he won championships in the past, he won it with this organization in Hershey and had a great team leading up until he got the coaching job. There was an opportunity. We didn't need to look elsewhere in the coaching community."

If he's not an inspiration to his own players, Boudreau sure is to coaches toiling away elsewhere.

"Speaking for Todd Richards [former AHL head coach in Wilkes-Barre] and myself, we were very pleased to see him come up and do well," Bylsma said. "There are a ton of coaches out there, good coaches, and to see a guy get a chance from the American League and move his way up and then do well speaks volumes for the quality of coaching that's out there."

Bylsma served as an assistant for the Pens' AHL team for two years before getting the head coaching job with the big club at the start of this season. He replaced Michel Therrien in January and helped revive the Penguins' playoffs hopes, going 18-3-4 down the stretch and 4-3 in his first NHL postseason coaching experience.

"It's tough to get the opportunity, so when someone does get the opportunity in what a lot of people might have thought was a long shot and does well, those of us that were underneath him in kind of the same spot he was, you say there are lots of good coaches," Bylsma said. "It's why getting a job like this, even getting a coaching job in the American League, it's humbling because when you go try to get a job, you realize how many great coaches there are out there coaching and looking for opportunities like this and the one that Bruce got."

Did Boudreau's success help Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero make the decision to look within instead of replacing Therrien with a coach with NHL experience? Shero ponders the question.

"It probably doesn't hurt," he said. "To me, the minor leagues are not just for developing players, they're for developing coaches."

Even the ones that aren't necessarily the "can't-miss" coaches.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.