Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Who is this Guy Boucher?

[5/23 UPDATE: Aaron Portzline of the Dispatch offered his own research on Guy Boucher in the Sunday paper.  It's a good piece - especially as he lays out Boucher's on-ice system better than anyone else I've read thus far.  At the same time, it reads to me like there's was more content but not enough space to print it all.  Hopefully Aaron uses Puck Rakers to continue sharing the knowledge.] 

Despite how the weekend unraveled, it appears that Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson's transition into the second round of (permanent) head coach interviews comes with an asterisk.  The tea leaves from Howson's public comments tell us that he still is willing to hold up the bus to talk to someone in particular, someone that he has not been able to reach due to the person's team not having completed their season.  As Howson said, "It’s looking more like it will be late May [now apparently early June],” Howson said. “You can’t control the whole process."

Speculation is that the "someone" is Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens) head coach Guy Boucher, whose team is still playing in the AHL Western Conference finals against the Texas Stars (and leads the Stars, 2-0, meaning that an AHL finals appearance is very likely).  With the NHL scouting combine next week in Toronto (a decent slap shot's distance away from Hamilton), it's possible that Howson and Boucher could talk then...presuming the Canadiens grant Howson permission to do so at that time.

Howson's apparent desire to talk to Boucher is very serious -- even to the point where he could risk losing another coaching candidate to another team.  This, of course, is a real possibility as there are now four NHL teams in the market for head coaches (Columbus, New Jersey, Atlanta and Tampa Bay) and one CBJ candidate, Manitoba Moose (AHL - Vancouver Canucks) head coach Scott Arniel is interviewing toward the end of the week with Atlanta.  Considering that Boucher has only been a hockey head coach since 2006 (QMJHL's Drummondville Voltigeurs, 2006-09; Hamilton Bulldogs, 2009-present) with no NHL experience as a player or coach, his candidacy is a bit of a mystery to Central Ohio hockey fans.

We can all see from his  Wikipedia page and Bulldogs biography that he's a winner - something we would certainly enjoy in Columbus.  But what has made him a winner so instantaneously, and what is it about his coaching style that makes Boucher so effective?  Will that style transfer to the NHL in general - and Columbus in particular?  And what does Howson's patience in pursuit of a conversation with Boucher say about the what he might be looking for in the Columbus Blue Jackets next head coach?

Not finding any meaningful discussion of these questions online, I decided to research this matter myself and share what I found.  Fortunately, my investigation turned up a few distinct perspectives - that of diehard fans (CBJ follower @frickindannie, who also harbors a serious love of the Bulldogs; and Kathy K of the Hab it her way blog, who tracks the Canadiens and their minor leagues as well) as well as a sports industry guy (Von Jeppesen, who currently interns in Media Relations for the Canadian Football League's Hamilton Tiger-Cats and also completed an internship in the Bulldogs' Broadcast and Communications department).  What makes the multiple perspectives even more intriguing is that their similarities are greater than their differences, which tells me that we're getting a strong read on Boucher.

What did they have to say?  Read on...

@frickindannie and Kathy K offer the following:
I asked my friend Kathy, who has been following Boucher since his junior hockey coaching days (he's only been with Hamilton a year), and this is what she had to say: 
"Well as you know coachwise he has a very offensive style, which is considered kind of "new age" even if for the most part it's pretty much relentless puck pursuit which is a pretty basic idea. He's basically all about doing the simple things, but about doing them super well. Ex: While the current power play is a little, well, blah, his previous systems (Drummondville, Team Canada World Junior Championships) had upwards of 25-40% efficiency because he got his players to master puck control and concentrate on ... I don't know how to word this but, explosiveness? Does that make sense?
But his approach on individual players and his putting emphasis on "The team is a useless structure if you don't know the individuals behind it" might be the biggest thing in making him a ~rising star~ because a) Not many coaches really work that hard (or to his extent) with their players b) It's gotten him so much success.
He took essentially the same team who finished last one season, worked with a few new pieces who had each only had marginal success in their junior careers (Yannick Riendeau, Dany Masse), if any experience in north america at all (Dmitri Kulikov), and brought them to the franchise's first league title. In other words, he is a bamf."
What I've noticed most from him myself is his ability to take these young kids (probably 75% of the Bulldogs are 25 or younger, less than 3 years pro) and mold them into something better by putting a lock and key on the ego. They have good discipline, and he doesn't seem to be afraid to force the boys to own up to their mistakes. He's also not afraid to sit somebody down if they're not pulling their weight (and the roster status allows it). 
He's taken the Bulldogs team which has been depleted with injuries for a majority of the season (only once, briefly, did they have a surprlus) and also depleted by the Canadiens recalling half of their team. I think in a way, he would be good for the Jackets in that right, that they're so young and probably (at least from the outside it seems) undisciplined and he seems to work really well at fighting against the odds. 
Von Jeppesen's insights - and he was kind enough to look a little bit past Boucher's style and personality and speak to the likelihood of Boucher leaving the Canadiens organization as well:
As you may have already read, Boucher was hired last June after the Bulldogs mysteriously let go their entire coaching staff after a fairly successful '08/'09 season. No explanation was ever given besides them being told the organization had chosen to go in a different direction.
It's my opinion that the "direction" is to groom Boucher to be the eventual head coach of the Montreal Canadiens.
Boucher is unlike any other coach I have seen or heard about it. He comes with an interesting background - a former player forced to retire due to illness, pursued an educational background in Psychology and uses that intellect to coach. Boucher coaches with a 'new blood' attitude. A mindset knowing that 18 players on the bench are all different - some need to be talked to calmly, some need to be yelled at. A lot of coaches talk about knowing when to push what buttons with whom - Boucher has been a master at every level he has coached thus far. 
His style of play? I recall one Bulldogs player classifying it as "relentless." 
At the time when Boucher was hired, the Bulldogs spoke about "speeding up the process" to hire him due to the fact so many teams were interested in his services. Boucher himself said he had offers from both NHL and AHL teams.  
There are a number of reasons why I am skeptical of any rumours of Boucher accepting a job elsewhere at this time. 
First - He very well may be under contract (never heard how long), as I imagine the team would have signed him to a longer deal than just one year. 
Second - He is getting to work with familiar faces, such as prospect Gabriel Dumont, who the Canadiens signed at the end of April. Dumont played for Boucher with the Drummondville Voltigeurs last season. 
Third - Being a Montreal native, Hamilton is a good fit family-wise. 
Finally, I believe that if Boucher was truly interested in a coaching job in the NHL he would have taken it last year. I truly think the Canadiens brass feel he is the future coach of the franchise and will give him the post once the Jacques Martin era ends in Montreal. He is young, talented, and most importantly (for the Canadiens) French Canadian, and can also speak English very well. In my opinion, it would be extremely foolish for the Canadiens to let him get away from under their grasp.
The first thing that strikes me is the psychology aspect of coaching.  Most likely, this is because it is fairly clear that former CBJ coach Ken Hitchcock did not have the appropriate motivational tools in his toolbelt for the team.  If memory serves correct, Howson is on record as saying that this deficiency WILL be corrected with his next hire.  With the very young CBJ roster, Boucher's ability to reach and motivate very young (professionally-speaking) players is critical.  That he has demonstrated that his ability works with championships (and championship appearances) to prove it makes him that much more attractive.

Next, the X's and O's.  Note that the term "relentless" is used in both commentaries.  Boucher apparently uses an offensive approach - no pre-lockout clutch-and-grab, as best I can see - that again appears to be successful in the post-lockout professional hockey world.  Again, Boucher is coming across as the "anti-Hitch" in both style and substance.  (Never mind that Hitchcock probably could be Boucher's father when you consider the age differential...)

Lastly, let's consider Von Jeppesen's comments about Boucher's ties to the Canadiens organization.  Considering Boucher's rapid rise with Montreal and the relatively advanced coaching age of Habs head coach Jacques Martin, I think those comments are more likely spot on than not.  At the same time, Scott Howson was on the radio/tv NHL Live show today and said, "This person is going to have to be able to stand behind the bench in 3-4 years and still be here and hopefully being a Stanley Cup contender by then."  That tells me that Howson probably has a "team loyalty" question or three in his back pocket for the candidates - Boucher included.  I could see this being a make-or-break matter; CBJ management has been open about their admiration of the stability of the Nashville Predators and the GM/head coach combination of David Poile and Barry Trotz.  It appears that they want to duplicate that model in Columbus.  If Boucher (or Arniel, Dineen or Noel) won't make such a commitment, I can't believe they will get hired.

This has been very interesting information to digest.  I found it useful in learning why Boucher is such the hot commodity in Columbus.  (Are the other three teams looking to talk to him as well?)  Hope you enjoyed it as well.  Thanks to @frickindannie, Kathy K and Von Jeppesen for their help in making this possible!

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