When Guy Boucher steps behind the bench in Detroit on Friday night, he will officially have lasted longer as head coach of the Ottawa Senators than he did with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
As it stands on Wednesday, Boucher’s resume has exactly 196 games with both the Lightning and the Senators. There are some eerie similarities between his two tenures, including a surprise run to a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in his first season, followed by two campaigns riddled with inconsistency and disappointment.
Despite being fired by the Lightning 32 games into this third season behind the bench, his coaching record was slightly better in Tampa than it has been in Ottawa through the same number of games:
With Tampa: 97-79-20, .546 points percentage
With Ottawa: 85-86-25, .497 points percentage
Boucher was relieved of his duties as Lightning head coach by general manager Steve Yzerman on March 24, 2013, following a 5-3 loss to the Senators.
Yzerman suggested at the time that there was a disconnect between himself and his head coach.
“Philosophically, without being specific, there’s a difference between myself and [Boucher],” Yzerman said at the time. “I have certain beliefs as a manager of the team and what I want to see. And unless I’m prepared to go behind the bench and do it my way, I can’t instruct the coach to do it the way I want it done.”
As we examine the relationship between Boucher and his current general manager, Pierre Dorion, it’s worth noting there was a fracture in their bond last season. Dorion was openly critical of Boucher on multiple fronts during his season-ending press conference, including his practice habits and deployment younger players.
This was in stark contrast to their first season together in 2016-17, where Dorion and Boucher appeared to be in lockstep with every decision that was made.
This season, an educated guess would put their relationship somewhere in between those two extremes – not as harmonious as it was in their first season, but not as disjointed as it was at times during last year’s nightmare campaign.
Boucher didn’t appear to be in favour of two roster decisions made by Dorion so far this season. The head coach made it clear he didn’t have any issues with Zack Smith when the club placed the veteran centre on waivers during training camp.
The head coach also had to bite his tongue when Dorion decided to send Alex Formenton back to junior. Boucher wanted Formenton’s speed in his lineup every night, but was eventually overruled by Dorion who felt his development was better served with another year in junior.
“That was definitely not my decision. I liked him a lot,” Boucher said at the time.
While the Senators are languishing at the bottom of the standings – they are currently 27th overall based on points percentage – there isn’t a feeling in this market that Boucher’s job is on the line any time soon. At best the seat beneath him is tepid or lukewarm, whereas it felt like it was scorching hot at times last season.
The lack of heat on Boucher is likely a function of the external expectations being radically altered for this franchise. A year ago, the Senators had convinced themselves they were legitimate Stanley Cup contenders and each loss in December felt like a soul-sucking endeavour that pushed them further into an abyss.
This season, the club has boldly stated they’ve started a rebuilding process, where each loss is viewed as a learning experience for the younger players.
At this point, it seems likely that Boucher will finish out this campaign, which will coincide with the end of his initial three-year contract. Next week, he’ll pass Cory Clouston (198 games) on the list of all-time games coached with the Senators. If he lasts the entire season, he’ll also pass Rick Bowness (235 games) and Paul MacLean (239 games).
Boucher would then join Jacques Martin as the only head coaches in franchise history to complete three full, 82-game seasons behind the bench with the Senators – a fact that speaks to the volatile nature of the position in Ottawa. In terms of stability, the head coach of the Senators has about the same job security as a goaltender in Philadelphia, which is to say it always feels like it’s hanging by a thread.
While his short-term future appears safe, the next question is: How likely is it that Boucher returns next season for a fourth campaign behind the bench in Ottawa?
On one hand, Boucher can point to the rapid development of the Senators young stars this season as a point in his favour. Thomas Chabot, Colin White and Brady Tkachuk have all exceeded expectations in the first 30 games of the season – not an easy task for first-round picks to accomplish in a hockey-obsessed marketplace. Boucher also deserves credit for giving 21-year-old Max Lajoie a significant role on this team, as he’s logging more than 20 minutes per night.
And the Senators power play has also shown signs of improvement this season, after Boucher personally took control over the group. For most of the season they’ve ranked in the Top 10 in the NHL on the power play, although they have recently hit a wall that has seen them slip to 13th. Still, considering they lost their two most gifted offensive players in Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman, Boucher should be lauded for his improved power play and the team’s ability to fill the opposition’s net with pucks.
While offence hasn’t been a problem for the team, the defensive play has been another story – and that might be Boucher’s ultimate downfall. The Senators are dead last in the NHL in goals against per game (3.91) and shots against per game (38.2) – two metrics that do not reflect well on the coaching staff. The penalty-killing unit has improved lately, but they still rank 29th in the league and has been under constant scrutiny since that Uber video surfaced showing the players being critical of their short-handed play.
In Boucher’s first season behind the bench, the Senators were a Top 10 team in terms of goals against per game (2.56) and they played an air-tight system that seemed to give them a puncher’s chance against any opponent in the league. This season has been a stark contrast from that version of the Senators, with Craig Anderson usually trying to withstand a barrage of shots on a nightly basis.
If Boucher can correct that problem in the next 50 games, he could probably make a compelling case to return for a fourth season behind the bench.
Whether Dorion listens to that argument is a different story altogether.