Turbulent WILD week only leaves more questions than answers

Marc Elliott

Bruce Boudreau on the 75th  anniversary card of the AHL
Bruce Boudreau on the 75th anniversary card of the AHL

WEST DULUTH.... If the WILD trade of forward Jason Zucker was an eye opener early last week, the abrupt dismissal of Head Coach Bruce Boudreau on Friday sent mid-level earth tremors through the limestone bluffs along the Mighty Mississippi in the Twin Cities, not to mention within the hockey community at large. It just wasn’t something that seemed to be on the radar as the season trudged on, so to say it was a surprise is an understatement. When current team GM Bill Guerin came in late last summer he basically told the assembled masses that he was going to take his time to analyze everything about the team and organization that he could. As Boudreau was in the final year of his coaching contract, and with no extension, or even talks of such on the table, it was accepted that he would likely coach out the season, get a bouquet of flowers and a au revoir’ from the team on his way out. 

After the club posted an anemic start to the season, they stabilized and even got relatively close to a Wild Card playoff spot at one point only to regress and fall back again. If there is anything consistent about the team at this point, it’s that it’s inconsistent. After Guerin cut the cord on Boudreau, upon being pressed about the move at the ensuing presser he could only state that he felt it was time for the team to hear a “new voice”. OK. Few, if any pro sports teams are going to get specific in these situations, so to receive a standard cliche’ level response isn’t a surprise. Fans and media alike are usually left to their own devices in these matters. But obviously, there are many factors involved when a club makes a change like this. How does it break down?

For Bruce, if you follow the game astutely, you know he first came on the scene here years back as a member of the Fighting Saints. I went to many Saints games and actually saw him play. As a player he was always on the fence between the National and the ‘A’. To this day he remains as the 8th all time scorer in AHL history, 16th in goals, and is in the top 25 all time scorers in professional hockey history. He was inducted into the AHL HOF in 2009. His coaching career began back in the early nineties and took him on a journey through minor league hockey that is almost storybook in stature before finally getting a shot at the NHL in 2007. He hasn’t looked back. He has been in WAS, ANA and in MIN compiling a 567-302-115 record and holds a .635 win percentage for regular season play. He has had mixed luck in the playoffs, going 43-47. 

Like all coaches he has his strengths and deficiencies. I never viewed him as a hockey “innovator” like his mentor Roger Nielsen or a Herb Brooks, rather I saw his style as that of an old school hockey type that blended in the new aspects of the game as time moved forward, with the overall experience factor of someone who literally has seen it all in the game. He was always media and fan friendly, kind of a hockey everyman type, and didn’t come across as overbearing with his players, but his expectations of them were always clearcut. I’ve heard more than once that if you couldn’t like Boudreau you were lost as a human. On the other side, he would have the occasional in-game gaffes, sometimes seemed to favor veteran players over young up-and-comers and if he had an inkling that as a player you weren’t honoring the game and what it required of you, he had no problem whatsoever in suffering you. That is his code. He did seem to have a weakness in judgement when it came to deciding when to challenge a call and when not to. And it’s apparent that he struggled to find a winning strategy for OT games. But obviously, personnel come’s into play there as well.

Why dismiss him now? Honestly, I don’t have a plausible answer for that yet. It was no secret he wouldn’t be back after this season. This edition of the Wild is a bit of a mirage team. They can look great at times and will leave you scratching your head at others. This group plays some “busy” hockey on occasion.. Worse, they have convinced themselves that when they do that they are “playing with energy and purpose”. Saturdays debacle versus the SJS says otherwise. The post game quotes from interim Head Coach Dean Evason and some of the players were disgusting actually. The team has a mix of vets, who at least half of are past their peak production and a group of young players still vying to collect the experience necessary to play at this level consistently and the goaltending has been seriously up and down. To think they have been as close to a playoff spot as they have, well, that has to be a testament to Bruce doesn’t it? But Guerin has made it clear that the target is still a playoff spot. And that’s pure owner Craig Leipold-speak right there. 

All of the available data says this team isn’t going to make the playoffs. And Guerin just made his first big rookie GM mistake. For all of the luster he had obtained by the return he got for Zucker, he took that right off by unceremoniously dumping Boudreau. He underestimated how much the fan base liked Bruce, (2 to 1 in a major poll) and the reasons stated don’t add up. And BTW, Bruce was 16 games away from coaching his 1000th game, which turns the optics on this move in a very negative direction for Guerin and the club. Well Billy, you only got one rookie GM mulligan and you just used it. On top of that, there are a lot of pretty smart fans here in The State of Hockey. Your post firing presser had you looking like Ralph Kramden in an episode of The Honeymooners. Hom-ina, hom-ina, hom-ina… 

Fans can see right through that stuff here Bill. Hockey IS in our DNA. I know the discomfort you felt on Friday. So I’ll have to afford you some slack. You said last fall that you had to take a deep look into the soul of this club. I would have had a read on that by Thanksgiving. I knew by then what this team had… and what it didn’t. The base is restless. We’ve been treated to seasons of a false belief that we had a real Cup contender here. We didn’t then and we don’t now. Leipold is nebulous with the base when it comes to outlining an actual plan for the future of this team. And now you are making the same mistake. Take your mulligan Bill and start being straight with us, we will embrace you for it… PEACE