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The Globe and Mail

Downward spirals cost NHL coaches their jobs

Bruce Boudreau and Paul Maurice are no longer NHL head coaches for essentially the same reason – their players didn't work hard enough for them.

In Washington, Boudreau's problem was a little different than Maurice's was with the Carolina Hurricanes. Boudreau, 56, was hung out to dry by the Capitals' captain, Alexander Ovechkin, an underachieving superstar who was given the run of the place but is now in a second consecutive season of lacklustre play that spread to the rest of the team.

Maurice, the longest-serving coach in franchise history for the Hurricanes, ran into the same problem all veteran coaches do sooner or later. His players gradually tuned him out as the team fell to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

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Boudreau got the bad news first, with a 6:30 a.m. [all times Eastern]wakeup call from Capitals general manager George McPhee. He was out almost four years to the day after he was hired to bring some offensive flair to the team. A few hours later, Maurice, 44, was told his second go-round as the Hurricanes coach was over.

"We have to get that consistent work ethic," Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said at an afternoon press conference to introduce Maurice's replacement, Kirk Muller.

Both teams turned to coaches with different styles and no experience as an NHL head coach, but the culture shock will be much greater in Washington.

George McPhee gambled that Dale Hunter will be able to make the jump from junior hockey, where he has a long record of success as the owner and head coach of the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights, to the NHL. With Capitals owner Ted Leonsis making it clear last summer he expects the team's record of regular-season success and playoff futility over the past four years to end or big changes lie ahead, McPhee probably thought the gamble was worth it once the Capitals lost eight of their past 11 games and showed no signs of progress.

Boudreau was the fastest NHL coach to get to 200 wins but the Capitals never made it past the second round of the NHL playoffs under him. The trouble was that Ovechkin and other players, such as Alexander Semin, were not willing to commit to the all-round game necessary to win in the playoffs.

At the start of this season, Boudreau tried to crack down, using the coach's only weapon, ice time, to try and light a fire under Ovechkin. But in the NHL you cannot run a laissez-faire program and then try to turn disciplinarian.

Hiring Hunter, 51, was a clear message to Ovechkin and the rest of the lollygaggers on the Capitals roster that the country-club atmosphere is over. In 19 seasons as a hard-nosed NHL player, most of them with the Capitals, Hunter became a franchise icon because he never took a shift off, something the current edition of the team does all too often.

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But who knows how Ovechkin will respond? It was easy for Hunter to strike fear in the hearts of teenagers making a few dollars a week, but Leonsis has 10 more years and $97-million (U.S.) tied up in Ovechkin's contract.

Yes, that is the one big contract other NHL GMs would be willing to trade for but Ovechkin is responsible for the flowering of hockey in the District of Columbia. Without him, Leonsis would not have a long list of sellouts after years of too many empty seats.

If Hunter cannot get Ovechkin and company moving, though, McPhee will find himself on the firing line come spring.

Like Hunter, Muller was a hard-working player for 19 years in the NHL but has a more varied coaching résumé. He was in his first season as the head coach of the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League when Rutherford called and served as a Montreal Canadiens assistant for five seasons before that.

Muller, 45, has a more conventional problem. He does have an underachieving star in Eric Staal but the malaise is spread throughout the roster. He has to get a team that appears dispirited headed in the right direction. Those who know him from his days as an assistant coach with the Canadiens say he is demanding but able to forge a bond with the players.

"He was an emotional guy who coached a lot like he played," Canadiens forward Mike Cammalleri said. "He'll probably be the same way as a head coach, I'd imagine."

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With a report from Sean Gordon in Montreal

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