Bench Boss Level Up: Greatest Head Coaching Upgrades in Washington Capitals History

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Recently, sports media platform The Athletic released an article on the greatest upgrades in the history of each NHL team. In the case of the Washington Capitals, it was the hiring of David Poile as General Manager that made the list, while the drafting of Alex Ovechkin was also a potential choice but ultimately rejected. In this piece, NoVa Caps’ Diane Doyle takes a look at the best upgrades behind the bench in franchise history.

Replacing Gary Green with Bryan Murray

Gary Green was named Head Coach of the Washington Capitals on November 14, 1980.  The Capitals went 23-30-11 for the remainder of the 1979-80 season under Green, 64 games in all, with 57 points and a .445 points percentage. In 1980-81, Green’s Capitals went 26-36-18 during a full, 80-game season, with 70 points and a .438 winning percentage. The team suffered a terrible start for the 1981-82 season, winning only one game in the first 13 games of the season, and as a result, the Capitals relieved him of coaching duties on November 5, 1981.

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During his short tenure with the team, Green’s Capitals went a combined 50-78-29 in 157 games, with an overall points percentage of .411, which admittedly was skewed downward by the horrific start to the 1981-82 season.

Roger Crozier served as interim coach for one game, which the Caps lost. The Capitals then appointed Bryan Murray as Head Coach on November 11, 1981. For the remainder of that season (66 games), the Caps went 25-28-13 for a winning percentage of .477 under Murray.  Murray’s first season did not look like a huge upgrade over Green’s first season on the job, but the team showed a dramatic improvement in Murray’s first full season with the team in 1982-83, going 39-25-16 (a .588 points percentage) for a third place finish in the division, and the team’s first playoff berth. The following season (1983-84) was even better for Murray and the Capitals, as the team finished with a 48-27-5 record and .631 points percentage. The team was able to sustain their success for several years after that, usually finishing in second place and making the playoffs; however, they were unable to advance past the second round of the playoffs. The team had a poor record for the early part of the 1989-90 season, going 18-24-4, which resulted in Murray being relieved of his coaching duties and replaced with his brother, Terry on January 15, 1990.  Bryan Murray’s overall record with the Caps was 343-246-83 in 673 games for a point percentage of .572. He was clearly an upgrade over Gary Green although the team had acquired better personnel.

Replacing Jim Schoenfeld with Ron Wilson

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Ron Wilson replaced Capitals bench boss Jim Schoenfeld after the 1996-97 season, a season in which the Caps failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since the 1981-82 season. Under Schoenfeld that season, the Caps had finished with 33-40-9 record, 75 standings points, and a .457 points percentage. Under Wilson in 1997-98, the Capitals went 40-30-12, with 92 standings points, a .561 points percentage, and third place in the division. During the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Capitals accomplished something no other team in the history of the franchise had been able to do: advance to the Stanley Cup Final. In examining Schoenfeld’s career as the Washington bench boss, the team performed well during a part of one season, going 19-12-6 in 37 games with 44 standings points and a .595 points percentage, but falling in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The team’s performance fell off in subsequent seasons, with a 22-18-8 record and 52 points during the strike-shortened, 1994-95 season, and a 39-32-11 record and 89 points during the 1995-96 season. The further drop off of the team’s performance after that prompted his removal. His overall record behind the Capitals bench came to 113-102-34 in 249 games for a .522 points percentage.

The Capitals’ performance fell off in 1998-99, as the team dealt with numerous injuries.  They were only able to post a record of 31-45-6 for 68 points, and a percentage of .415. The team improved after that, finishing with a 44-24-12-2 record in 1999-00, as well as 102 standings points, and a points percentage of .622, and a 41-27-10-4 record in 2000-01 for 96 points and a percentage of .585, finishing in first place in their division in both seasons, but were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. The 2001-02 season was another drop off for Wilson’s club, as they went 36-33-11-2 with 85 points, a points percentage of .518. They missed the playoffs and Wilson was relieved of his duties as a result. In 410 games under Wilson, the Caps went a combined 192-159-51-8 with a points percentage of .540, as many key players grew older throughout his term.  After his tenure in the District, he was hired by the San Jose Sharks, whom he helped transform from a consistently losing expansion team to a consistent contender and then to Toronto who was a losing team. Overall, most observers considered Wilson to be a much better coach than Schoenfeld given their career coaching records. In judging their careers with the Capitals, Washington trended downward under Schoenfeld, but were usually decent performance-wise, while under Wilson, they initially improved, then had a down season, but rebounded for two years before falling to mediocrity. Admittedly, Wilson’s points percentage was bumped up by the fact that for the 1997-98 season, the NHL introduced overtime periods to the NHL, so teams would earn two points for winning in overtime when prior to the season, they earned one point for each tie and there were no overtime games during the regular season.

Replacing Glen Hanlon with Bruce Boudreau

Glen Hanlon was named Head Coach of the Washington Capitals on December 10, 2003, after the team had a horrendous start to the 2003-04 season, with an 8-18-1-1 record, just 18 points, and a win percentage of .321. Hanlon did not fare well for the remainder of the season, as the management decided to trade most of the team’s veterans for draft picks and prospects and rebuild the team. As a result, the Capitals posted a record of 15-27-9-2 for 42 points, and a winning percentage of .389.  Overall, the team had the third-worst record, thanks in part to tie-breakers, and were just one point better than the worst team in the league, the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, the Caps’ ineptitude that season allowed them to be included in the draft lottery, where they won the first overall pick and the right to select Alexander Ovechkin.

In 2005-06, after the NHL labor lockout was over, the Capitals’ performance was still mediocre under Hanlon, as they went 29-41-12 for 70 points and a .427 points percentage (There was a difference in counting points as there were no more ties; games would proceed to an overtime period and if the game was still tied, the teams went to a shootout). In 2006-07, the Capitals went 28-40-14 for 70 points and a .427 points percentage. In 2007-08, as the team dealt with injuries, they got off to a 6-14-1 start for just 13 points just before Thanksgiving, losing their seventh game in a row and the worst record in hockey.

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As a result, then-General Manager George McPhee replaced Hanlon with Bruce Boudreau, who at the time was coaching the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate Hershey Bears. For the remainder of the season, the Caps went 37-17-7 for 81 standings points and a .664 points percentage under the rookie bench boss. The team won seven consecutive games to end the season, and ended the 2007-08 season with a 43-31-7 record, and made the playoffs. Boudreau won the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL’s Head Coach of the Year. Replacing Hanlon with Boudreau was a major upgrade for the team and a turning point for the franchise. A team who had a better chance of winning the draft lottery and the privilege of drafting Steven Stamkos changed coaches and instead, made the playoffs, even though they were ultimately eliminated in the first round. The team sustained their success under Boudreau, going 50-24-8 for 108 points and a .659 points percentage the following season. In 2009-10, they won the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy for having the best record in the regular season, by going 54-15-13 for 121 points and a points percentage of .738. In 2010-11, the team went 48-23-11 for 107 points and a points percentage of .652, their fourth consecutive first place finish in the Southeast Division. However, the Capitals could never advance past the second round of the playoffs. Boudreau was fired on November 28, 2011 as the team was mired in a slump and replaced with Dale Hunter.

The contrast between the records of Hanlon and Boudreau is stark.  In 239 games, Hanlon was 78-122-9-30 with a points percentage of .408.  In 329 games, Boudreau was 201-88-40 for a points percentage of .672. He proved his success was no fluke when he coached his next team, the Anaheim Ducks, to similar success.

Replacing Adam Oates with Barry Trotz

The Capitals hired former player Adam Oates as Head Coach after the 2011-12 season.  During the truncated 2012-13 season, the Capitals went 27-18-3 in 48 games for a points percentage of 594. The team performed poorly during the 2013-14 season, finishing with a 38-30-14 record and 90 points, and a points percentage of .549, finishing in fifth place in the Metropolitan Division and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07.  The Capitals fired Oates after the season and replaced him with longtime Nashville Predators bench boss Barry Trotz. During Oates’ tenure, the Capitals played 130 games, and went 65-48-17 for a points percentage of .565.

The Capitals’ performance improved during the 2014-15 season, their first under Trotz,going 45-26-11 for 101 points and a points percentage of .616, and finishing second in the Metropolitan Division. In 2015-16, they went 56-18-8 for 120 points, a points percentage of .732, and the franchise’s second Presidents’ Trophy. In 2016-17 they won their second consecutive President’s Trophy on the heels of a 55-19-8 record for 118 points and a points percentage of .720. However, in all three of those seasons, they were eliminated early in the playoffs, as frustration began to build. In 2017-18, their regular season record regressed slightly, as they finished with a 49-26-11 record for 101 points and a points percentage of .640.  This time, the Caps won the Stanley Cup, an achievement that had eluded them throughout their history. Trotz resigned after the season to take a job with the New York Islanders as a result of a contract dispute with the team. Trotz’ overall record during his time with Washington sits at 205-89-34 for a points percentage of .677 in 328 games.

Conclusions

If one had to evaluate which coaching upgrade was the best in the history of the Washington Capitals, it was the coaching change from Glen Hanlon to Bruce Boudreau. While a certain amount of the success could be explained by the maturation of prospects, the Caps were a lottery team under Hanlon and became a potential contender for the Stanley Cup under Boudreau.  The upgrade from Oates to Trotz was improving a team that had descended into mediocrity under Oates to a potential Stanley Cup contender under Trotz. The upgrade from Green to Bryan Murray transformed the team from a poor team to a consistent playoff team.

By Diane Doyle

Further Reading
Bryan Murray and the Washington Capitals’ 1982-1983 Season
Wash Post: Bryan Wilson Obituary
Wash Post: For Barry Trotz, all signs pointed him to the Washington Capitals
7 Best Moments of Bruce Boudreau’s First Year In Washington
Best Moments of Bruce Boudreau’s Capitals Career: Part 2
Best Moments of Bruce Boudreau’s Capitals Career- Part 3
Best Moments of Bruce Boudreau’s Capitals Career- Part 4
A Look Back at the Capitals Season-Ending, Playoff-Clinching Winning Streak of 2007-2008
Barry Trotz Resigns as Capitals Coach –Wash Post: Barry Trotz steps down as head coach of Washington Capitals

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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