Pierre Dorion walked out of an eight-hour meeting with Guy Boucher and realized he had found the next head coach of the Ottawa Senators.
“I stepped out of that room and I said, ‘Someone will have to be very special to outdo Guy,'” Dorion told TSN 1200 on Monday. “To sit in a room and talk to somebody for eight hours, the time just flew by. In my heart, I knew he was the right guy.”
That extended meeting was conducted with Dorion, assistant general manager, Randy Lee, and senior advisor, Daniel Alfredsson. When the trio had tough questions about the Senators' issues from last season, Boucher impressed everyone in the room with his through and detailed answers. This was on the heels of a four-hour meeting that Dorion had already conducted with Boucher a couple of weeks earlier. In between those two face-to-face meeetings, Dorion and Boucher had a series of shorter conversations by phone and were in contact on a regular basis. The 44-year-old Boucher said the constant communication with Dorion gave him a very positive feeling about his chances of landing the Senators job.
“I felt like his candidate throughout the entire process” Boucher told TSN 1200. "I know there was other candidates, but the way he dealt with me – it really felt like we had a connection from the beginning.”
Of course, there were other candidates – most notably, Bruce Boudreau, who had been recently fired by the Anaheim Ducks. Boudreau and Dorion met for nearly six hours on Friday and speculation ramped up on the weekend that the Senators had made a contract offer to Boudreau. When Boudreau opted to sign with the Minnesota Wild, the optics looked pretty bad for the Senators, as one report suggested Ottawa was not willing to give Boudreau a four-year contract offer.
This set off alarm bells for Senators fans, who were convinced that the budget-conscious mind of owner Eugene Melnyk played a hand in losing out on Boudreau. But on Monday, Dorion explained that he never went deep into contract negotiations with Boudreau. Instead, he said it was more of a general discussion of “contract parameters” with the finalists, including Boudreau and Boucher. Dorion noted that even when he was engaged in broad contract talks with the finalists, it was Boucher’s agent that he phoned first.
On Saturday afternoon – after conferring one final time with Lee – Dorion said he opted to hire Boucher.
“At a certain point in time with Bruce (Boudreau), I said, ‘It looks like I got my number one guy. You can go ahead if you have other offers,'" Dorion said.
So if this timeline is to be taken at face value, the Senators passed on Bruce Boudreau – and not the other way around.
“There was no doubt in my mind,” added Dorion. “This wasn’t a popularity contest. This was hire the best coach for the Ottawa Senators.”
That version of events certainly comes as a surprise to the critics who were taking shots at the Senators thrifty ways on the weekend, when the Wild announced a four-year contract with Boudreau believed to be worth $11 million. Dorion insisted on Monday – as he has throughout the entire process – that money was never an obstacle in landing a head coach in Ottawa.
“Mr. Melnyk – from the get go – made very clear to me, ‘Pierre you have the resources to hire the best coach,'" said Dorion. “If Mike Babcock or Joel Quenneville were out there and we felt they were the best coach, we would have hired them – no matter of salary or budgets.”
Dorion hasn’t had a sleepless night since making the decision to hire Boucher on Saturday.
“I feel as confident about this decision as anything I’ve done in my hockey life,” said Dorion, who noted that he also had to convince then-general manager Bryan Murray to take a chance on a skinny defenseman named Erik Karlsson in the first round of the NHL Draft.
Dorion added, “I feel as confident about that decision as I do about this one.”
The relationship Karlsson has with the new head coach will certainly be one of the first things scrutinized by the fans and media. Boucher pointed out that he’s had an excellent track record in coaching elite talent – including being behind the bench for Steven Stamkos’ 60-goal season with the Lightning. Before taking over the Tampa job, Boucher went to Stamkos’s hometown of Markham, Ontario to have an extended breakfast at a Cora’s restaurant with the budding superstar. The two talked a little about hockey, but mostly about Stamkos’s family, his life and what motivated him off the ice. Boucher has a degree in sports psychology and wants to know what makes every athlete tick, since everybody has different motivations.
So you can expect him to have a similar meeting with Karlsson at some point before the start of this season.
“My plan here - before all the systems and before we talk Xs and Os – is to get to know these players individually, so we tap into their strengths first and not their weaknesses,” Boucher said. “If you start talking about weaknesses, and you focus on that, you’re not going to have confident people.”
“The biggest thing is to manage people and connect. And when you don’t connect with them, you lose them,” Boucher explained. “You manage people, relationships and chemistry. And you definitely have to manage leadership.”
Boucher says he watched approximately 30 of the Senators games after the Christmas break and he’s got a very good sense of what Karlsson brings to the table. He does not subscribe to the theory of needing to radically change a superstar to play a certain way. Instead, Boucher believes that Karlsson’s defensive game needs to “evolve” – but that will only come with him remaining as one of the elite offensive blueliners in the game.
“I’ve been watching him for a long time,” explained Boucher. "To me, I find that people focus on players' weaknesses too much. I’m so excited to have him on this team, so I can coach him. With somebody like that there’s so many possibilities. We’re going to ask him to drive this team with his strengths. Everything that he brings is going to be focused on what he does best.”
Ottawa fans will be excited to know that Boucher was also behind the bench for Mike Hoffman’s 52-goal season with a Drummondville team that reached the Memorial Cup in 2009. While Hoffman never seemed to totally mesh with Dave Cameron and Paul MacLean in Ottawa, there is hope that he can re-establish a positive relationship with his old junior coach behind the bench.
That Boucher works well with offensive stars runs counterintuitive to what most hockey fans think of when they are asked to remember his time behind the bench in Tampa. Boucher’s 1-3-1 system was heavily criticized for being dull and a neutral-zone clogging tactic that was the modern incarnation of the dreaded trap. His controversial scheme was put in the spotlight in a game against the Flyers in November of 2011 when Philadelphia defencemen refused to bring the puck out of their own zone to highlight Tampa’s unwillingness to forecheck. Boucher says he gets a chuckle out of the fact that he’s best known for that single game.
“It’s a little ironic,” Boucher said with a laugh. “Does it bother me? No, because anybody who’s played for me finds that funny.”
Boucher referred to coaches as the “biggest thieves in town” and that he’s constantly looking to steal good ideas from other teams. And so while you might see the 1-3-1 system on some nights, don’t expect that to be a regular occurrence in Ottawa, because Boucher says you need to constantly adapt your coaching style and methods. He said he will address the Senators' 5-on-5 defensive struggles at some point and he would like to implement a “pack mentality” on defence.
And when it comes down to it, that’s what sold Dorion on the idea that Boucher was the best fit for his club.
“What we’re looking for, Guy checks all the boxes,” said Dorion. “He definitely has a great defensive structure. He knows how to coach offensive talent. He’s an excellent communicator. To me, a good coach is someone is someone who knows Xs and Os and can transmit that to the players.”Dorion told reporters a few weeks ago that in order for a team to be successful, the general manager and head coach had to have a positive relationship – not unlike a marriage. On Monday, both Dorion and Boucher said all the right things in their first public appearance together. And the two of them are hoping that - for a change - the honeymoon will actually last for a long time here in Ottawa.