The Wild flew home from Chicago on Sunday night with the best record in the Western Conference. If you're listing reasons for that surprising development, put Bruce Boudreau’s name at the top.
Yes, goalie Devan Dubnyk has played like an MVP candidate, the addition of Eric Staal has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, and roster depth finally looks legit.
But Boudreau’s handling of players has set a tone of accountability woven through the best first half in team history. His deft touch with in-game adjustments and willingness to ride a hot hand demonstrate just how much coaching matters.
“We’re all men,” Boudreau said. “If somebody is not going as well, then he doesn’t play as much. It’s a fine line, but I think it’s a pretty easy line to follow.”
Refreshing approach, isn’t it?
With the exception of Staal, this is basically the same team as the one that fell apart last season, got Mike Yeo fired, then huffed and puffed to the playoffs.
Boudreau’s pull-no-punches coaching style is blunt, yet his players seem to respect him and play hard for him. That’s a delicate dance for any coach to master. Managing different personalities often becomes as important as a coach’s strategical acumen.
Boudreau prefers private meetings to clear the air rather than rant and rave like a lunatic. He tries to hold individual meetings with players every 10 to 20 games. Some take five minutes, some a half-hour.
Boudreau asks about their families and their personal lives before dissecting their performance on the ice. He sets his expectations and allows them to share their thoughts. Players probably never leave the room wondering where they stand.
“It’s a conversation you don’t normally get to have just sitting in the dressing room talking to players,” he said.
Boudreau’s résumé gives him credibility. A veteran coach with a record of success commands respect. Players know he’s not just winging it. They have to accept criticism or a demotion because they can’t pretend to know more than a coach who has seen just about everything in the game.
Yeo’s biggest weakness was that he bent over backward too far to appease veterans. Showing loyalty to veterans is fine, maybe even smart, until that leeway becomes a detriment to team success.
Boudreau plays no favorites. If a veteran isn’t producing on the power play, next man up.
In a loss at Calgary, Zach Parise played one shift in overtime and neither he nor captain Mikko Koivu took part in the shootout because they were struggling at the time.
In a game against Nashville a few weeks ago, Boudreau liked what he saw from fourth-liner Jordan Schroeder, so he elevated him to the first line in the third period; He then used him in overtime, where he assisted Jared Spurgeon’s winning goal.
After watching Koivu and Ryan Suter have a disastrous first shift in overtime in New Jersey, Boudreau changed strategy the next overtime and used faster players.
Boudreau met with Parise two weeks ago to address his lack of production. Boudreau’s message?
“If I think that this guy’s not playing as good, I’ll mix and match and move those guys around,” Boudreau said.
In other words, he doesn’t keep pounding his head against a wall and hope his headache magically disappears.
“If one doesn’t play as much in one game, it’s not because we don’t like him,” Boudreau said. “Somebody might just be going better at that time. It’s not fair to the guys that are playing better to not be able to play just because somebody is supposedly on a higher line.”
That’s the mark of a confident coach, having an ability to demand accountability of every player while also maintaining respect inside the locker room.
Boudreau said his style has evolved with experience. He coached Alex Ovechkin in Washington and Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in Anaheim, so he’s well-versed in handling players with stature.
“I’m still cognizant of how much guys play and how much ice time they need,” he said. “It’s just when push comes to shove, you want the best for your team because when you win, everyone seems to be happy.”