The Blue Jackets’ season ended in mid April, and while things here in the WFNY corner of the CBJ world have been quiet (that’s called “knowing your audience,” son!), GM Scott Howson and the front office have had anything but a quiet six weeks. After nailing down the fourth pick in the draft lottery, there has been scouting to do. Oh, and there has been the matter of hiring a new coach. But other than that…
The Blue Jackets early on targeted five candidates for interview (head over to Dark Blue Jacket for some very good background on all five; check the left frame), including interim coach Claude Noel. The presumed front-runner was former Jackets player and current Portland Pirates (Buffalo’s AHL team) coach Kevin Dineen. That’s why it shocked many who followed the team that Howson was willing to wait almost three additional weeks to interview Hamilton Bulldogs (Montreal’s AHL team) coach, Guy Boucher.
Well, there appears to have been good reason, as The Dispatch is reporting that Boucher has been offered the job to coach the Blue Jackets. He has until Tuesday to accept or reject the offer, at which time a contract will be discussed or the Jackets will move on to their second choice. Boucher has been one of those young, untested coaching candidates that seems to be the “hot” name; one of those guys usually pops up in every sport every off-season. This year, that is definitely Boucher.
He’s 38 years old, and if he accepts the Columbus job he will be the youngest coach in the league. In what is starting to become a league-wide trend, the Jackets are hoping to go long on a younger, less proven guy instead of a proven old-guard kind of coach. This is only Boucher’s fourth year of coaching, and first in what is considered “pro” hockey (he coached three years in juniors, and this year was his first in the AHL). He was, however, awarded the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award (AHL’s top coach) after his Bulldogs finished with a 52-17-3-8 record, which was the best in his conference. He runs an unorthodox system that no one in the league has ever really tried:
Boucher runs a 1-3-1 forecheck – which is rare in its own right – but it includes a highly unusual wrinkle. While the first skater into the zone steers the puck toward the outside, the left-side defenseman skates along the left wall with two forwards to his right and the right-side defenseman trailing the play. … Former Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock has always preached a 1-2-2 zone, with lots of back-end support and little risk. Meanwhile, in the defensive zone, Boucher is willing to take even more risks. “If the puck is in deep with two skaters cycling, he’s sending three of his guys after it,” [an] AHL coach said. “If there are three, he’s sending in four. His goal is to outnumber them on the puck.” Former Blue Jackets winger Mathieu Darche, who played early this season under Boucher, described his system to the Canadian Press as: “Five men, everywhere.” Many question whether such a system would be successful in the NHL. Not only are the players skilled enough to expose the overpursuit, the argument goes, but the level of scouting in the NHL would allow teams to prepare for it. “People didn’t think it would work in junior and it did wonders,” an NHL general manager said. “People didn’t think it would work in the AHL, and look where Hamilton is now. Will it work in the NHL? I think we’ll find out pretty soon, either in Columbus or somewhere else.”
That’s not to say Boucher is flying around by the seat of his pants. While he’s never played or coached in the NHL, Boucher has plenty of other notches on his resume. He has three degrees: a bachelor’s degree in both History and Biosystems Engineering, and a Master’s degree in Sports Psychology. It’s the last one, many feel, that makes him such an intriguing candidate. He’s viewed as a master motivator, and that quality certainly had to have gotten Scott Howson’s attention after watching his team basically tune its Hall of Fame coach out less than a year after making their first ever trip to the playoffs.
Mathieu Darche continued, heaping praise on the preparation and adjustment abilities of Boucher: “He will tweak the system when it’s not working. It’s not ‘my way or the highway’ with him. He will get his power play unit together between periods and make some adjustments and they will work. His adjustment level is great. He’s not a stubborn coach. Aside from the Xs and Os, he’s unbelievable in dealing with players on an individual level. His communication skills are outstanding.” In other words, 180 degrees from Ken Hitchcock.
Jackets center Derick Brassard played for Boucher in juniors, and had this to say: “Every day was a new challenge for the players, and every player was accountable to the team. I’ve never played for a guy like him, a guy who is capable of getting the best out of every player. He was always in your head, always keeping you energized and motivated. It was always very motivating.”
Many would argue that those qualities alone may make Boucher the perfect fit for Columbus, which is a roster that many felt before this season was poised to develop into a perennial playoff contender. As I noted, in many ways he’s the polar opposite of Ken Hitchcock, and it became painfully clear that Hitchcock’s methodology was no longer working with this club. So, it stands to reason to move in the opposite direction, and with Boucher’s motivational and adjustment skills coming highly regarded, this can be seen as a big step in the right direction.
That’s not to say there’s not some other risk in tapping Boucher, above and beyond the questions about his system as mentioned above. It’s no secret that there’s a difference between motivating kids in juniors and motivating NHL players who are often getting paid more than the coach. The same is generally true with all professional sports. In addition, it’s a risky move, as Howson has interviewed four other candidates, three of whom are still technically in the running if Boucher declines. But, would they be willing to be his “consolation prize” if Boucher turns him down? Howson has to hope so.
The word around the league seems to be that Boucher will have more offers coming his way in the not-too-distant future, and that he can afford to be picky; the biggest speculation is that he’s already considered to be Montreal’s coach-in-waiting, and having been born and raised in Quebec would view that as his dream job. So, if Boucher decides that he’d rather wait for that job and turns Columbus down, are they left holding the bag? Dineen is rumored to have drawn the interest of new Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman, and CBJ coaching candidate Scott Arniel has already also interviewed with Atlanta.
Conversely, it’s important to remember that Howson, himself, was the “second choice” in the Jackets’ GM search, after their first choice turned them down. One aspect that gives Jackets fans a reason to chug the Kaopectate is summed up by this: The Dispatch guys gathered some comment from ESPN’s Mulleted One Barry Melrose, who pointed out that he wouldn’t have needed a weekend to mull over his first NHL coaching job offer at age 38:
“It’s unusual for a coach that young to need more time,” Melrose said. “I’m not saying it’s good or bad, it’s just unusual. I know I would have walked to the city that offered me my first job.” When asked if it might require “24 hours,” Melrose replied: “Not 24 minutes.”
At this point, though, there’s little Howson and the Jackets can do but wait until they hear from Boucher. One silver lining is provided by The Dispatch’s Aaron Portzline:
Spoke to two of the three “other” candidates on Sunday. Neither of them would go on record, but one of them had this to say when asked if being a second choice would bother him: “I can’t speak for anybody else, but I’d still be honored. It’s a chance to coach in the NHL. There are only 30 of those jobs in the world. It’s disappointing, sure. But that’s the business we’re in: you get knocked down and you get back up and keep going. I actually think I’d get over it pretty quickly.”
In the end, while there’s definitely some risk involved, there’s also something good to be said for going young. As we’ve documented at various times in The 5-Hole, the league has gotten demonstrably younger since the lockout back in the mid-2000’s. Pittsburgh’s run to the Stanley Cup last season was Exhibit A for what a young coach who knows how to get the most out of his team can mean: Pittsburgh was languishing out of the playoff picture around the winter holidays, and fired their coach. They hired young fireplug Dan Bylsma, went on a tear of Biblical proportions, and brought home Lord Stanley’s hardware. Bylsma was 38 when he was hired (albeit, actually promoted from within the Pittsburgh organization), and four months later he was hoisting The Cup.
Howson is hoping that brining in a younger coach like Boucher will have a similar effect on his very young roster. I’m not saying that Boucher will have these guys winning The Cup anytime soon; shoot, even the playoffs are a stretch after the way this team wilted this season. But, Howson is betting long-term that a young guy like Boucher with the skills to motivate a young team is the solution to his problem.
He’d better hope so. If Boucher doesn’t work out, or worse if he doesn’t accept and inadvertently scuttles the whole coaching search, Howson may soon find himself on the wrong end of a pink slip.
[update] Though details are not readily available at this point, as of about 4:15 PM The Dispatch is reporting that Boucher has told the team no in response to their offer of the head coaching position. No clue where this leaves the coaching search, though one suspects that Scott Howson will be on the phone to his second choice soon. Hopefully his second choice is the one quoted above who says he’d still be honored…
[update] As of about 6 PM, The Dispatch is reporting that GM Scott Howson has moved on to Plan B, and that Plan B is Manitoba Moose coach Scott Arniel. Check out this great piece on Arniel by Rick Gethin over at The Hockey Writers.
Arniel photo credit: CanucksArmy.com