Well after Tom Kelly retired, we sat in his garage on a summer day and I asked him if he had any regrets about his managerial career.
He didn’t second-guess a crucial move or wonder why he wasn’t in the Hall of Fame. Typical of the way his mind constantly calculates odds and strategies, he said he regretted being so loyal to his reserves.
Kelly won two World Series in part because he got so much out of his reserves. If he had to do it over, he said, he would treat the bottom end of the roster like a taxi squad, getting as much as he could out of a marginal big-leaguer, then sending that player down and bringing up another marginal big-leaguer for a spell.
Watching Bruce Boudreau coach the Wild reminded me of that conversation and of the way former Wild coach Jacques Lemaire observed his players. Lemaire even watched their body language between periods.
Lemaire believed hockey players are always either progressing or regressing, and he wanted to be prepared to push, prod, elevate or demote anyone.
Boudreau has helped the Wild rise to the top of the Western Conference by blending the philosophies and habits of two of the most skilled coaches and managers in Twin Cities history.
Lemaire and Kelly saw the game on a more minute level. They were also willing to act on what they saw.
Boudreau has constantly juggled lineups. In less-skilled hands, such moves can reek of or cause panic but Boudreau’s decisions have been overwhelmingly effective. He is the chef who can use standard ingredients and make a better stew.
He also has adopted Kelly’s retrospective philosophy of treating the end of his roster like a taxi squad. He will call up a player for a boost, a tryout or to take advantage of an upcoming matchup, then send that player right back to Iowa.
Boudreau will change lines at any time without worrying about egos. In the counterintuitive way that good coaching often works, doing so has pumped air into a few egos.
“He is a different kind of coach than I’ve experienced before,’’ Wild owner Craig Leipold said. “He walks in the locker room with an aura of success, saying, ‘I’ve been there before I’ve seen these issues, I’ve addressed them and we can make it work together.’ There are no situations in that locker room that he is afraid to address.
“He will shake up lineups, bring people up from Des Moines, say, ‘Let’s see how well they play,’ and then say, ‘I really love the way you play, but I’m sending you back down to work on some things.’ And the players respect that and respond.”
A year after locker room divisions damaged Mike Yeo’s career, Boudreau has erased dissension. “All I have heard in the locker room is that we have the best locker room that any of our players have experienced in their NHL careers,” Leipold said. “They’re all happy. Of course, we’re winning, and that makes people happy. But I would say most of the players would say, ‘I’m not used to playing in these particular situations on the ice, but I like doing it, and we’re winning, so I’m buying into the system.’ ”
Outstanding coaches don’t necessarily reinvent the wheel; they just make it roll more smoothly.
About 12 players are performing as well or better than they have before with the Wild. When a player slumps, Boudreau meets with him, changes his role and usually elicits a strong response, as when Charlie Coyle moved to center Tuesday and immediately became a playmaker.
When Anaheim fired Boudreau, Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher immediately flew to meet with him. “Chuck called,” Leipold said. “He said, ‘Hey, I’ve never really known Bruce, but I just met him and I think he’d be perfect for us. It’s going to cost us more than we thought. Are we OK with that?’ ”
For a few dollars more, Leipold hired a coach who would take him to the top of the Western Conference.