When a coach gets fired, it is often a wake-up call for the players. The in-season firing of former San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer qualifies as the NHL version of a wake-up call. DeBoer’s replacement, interim head coach Bob Boughner, should be the beneficiary of the wake-up call. That’s not how it’s worked.
Bob Boughner Wakes Up the Goalies
The Sharks are playing better under Boughner, even if the game results are less than stellar. San Jose has been in every game, leading or tied in the third period in all but one game under the new coach.
Had the Sharks finally woken up? Or at least started to move a bit? Boughner and new goalie coach Evgeni Nabakov seemingly revived both Sharks netminders, getting solid performances from both Martin Jones and Aaron Dell.
Boughner’s debut saw another mediocre performance from Jones. Boughner made a switch, of sorts. Not a full on commitment to Dell, but at least a move away from using Jones as the lead starter. Since then, the Sharks have played Dell five times and Jones three. In total, they combined for .926 save percentage.
Alas, the goalies have proven the exception.
Bob Boughner and Skater Adjustments
Boughner instituted a more aggressive forecheck and placed greater emphasis on playing a heavy game. He’s reduced the emphasis on the point shot from defencemen in favor of play closer to the net. This allows the Sharks prominent power forwards to drive the offence.
Lines were juggled and the power play was tweaked. He did some message sending, including sitting a couple of younger players for a bit in the third period of a recent game.
Still, when it comes to the skaters, Boughner didn’t do anything too big, hoping the team would respond to what is essentially a continuation of the team’s approach under DeBoer.
The Bob Boughner Wake-Up Call
If the Sharks stirred a bit in Boughner’s first few games, they hit the snooze button for some recent games against some of the league’s weakest teams. No week was more damning of the team than the three game set played against the Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings.
The Sharks managed to lose to the Kings on home ice, despite holding a 2-0 lead in the third period. The veteran Sharks got outpoised by a team playing seven players with less than a full season of NHL experience. The Kings were led a by Martin Frk, who scored twice. Frk was playing his first game for the Kings. The only reason the Kings weren’t a last-place team is because the Sharks occupied that spot.
The Sharks did take advantage of a flat Flyers team, who were coming off their holiday break and a cross-country flight. The Sharks’ 6-1 win could have marked a turning point. It didn’t.
The next game, against the last place Red Wings, was beyond frustrating. Respected Sharks analyst Sheng Peng called it a new rock bottom. The Sharks lost 2-0 against a team which ranks dead last in both goals allowed and goals scored. A team also missing several of their best players. Like the Kings, a team playing several NHL wannabes.
A Blueprint for Losing
The Red Wings first goal proved decisive. It came off a turnover from Erik Karlsson. Sharks television analyst Jamie Baker noted Karlsson’s error in real time. Karlsson, exiting the Sharks zone had no ‘high reward’ option (ie, no odd man rush). He did however, have both low-risk and high-risk options. Baker pointed out the low-risk option Karlsson shunned. Instead of a simple pass from his forehand to an open teammate, Karlsson attempted a high-risk play. He attempted a back-handed sauce pass through traffic. The pass was intercepted and the Red Wings scored moments later off a quick strike in transition.
To be fair, Karlsson’s judgment errors are not the only issue on the team, but his play is symptomatic. Talented players can not consistently overcome poor judgment. The team knows how to play better, but it doesn’t. It’s a choice made by the players.
Interim Coach Bob Boughner
I liked the Sharks move to hire Boughner. Less than 10 games into his tenure, I’m wondering if it is time to fire him.
One thing a new coach needs to do when replacing a fired coach mid-season is to make changes. Meaningful changes. Shake things up so everyone knows it is no longer business as usual. It is one thing to make changes and fail. It’s another to try mostly the same things which failed and continue to fail. At least so far, Boughner falls into to latter category.
Boughner’s tinkered. But aside from the netminders, he’s done relatively little. Granted it is tough to do major surgery on the fly. But things like the power play are not fixed and do not require major surgery. The Sharks are in the midst of a 3-for-50 run on the power play. They’ve also allowed one goal in the stretch, meaning the Sharks power play is operating at a 4% efficiency. A good NHL power play runs at 20%. It is literally five times worse than it ought to be. Despite the urgency, Boughner has not gotten this fixed. He hasn’t even done much to change the approach.
Lather, Rinse, Repeat, Get Fired
In Boughner’s nine games as interim coach, the Sharks have led four times with 12 minutes to go in regulation and been tied four others. Simply hold that score and even if the team lost all overtime games, they’d have 12 points in those games. Instead they have seven. The ability to compete suggests the process is acceptable, but the inability to close suggests there’s a focus issue. The sort of focus problem which shouldn’t infect a veteran team.
Boughner’s decided the players must get themselves righted. This explains the relatively modest changes. He’s partly right on this. If the season weren’t on the brink, tinkering might be enough. But the season is on the brink and what Boughner’s done hasn’t worked fast enough. Time is a luxury Boughner had precious little to begin with and he’s almost out of it. Even if the team plays better, anything resembling a lather, rinse, repeat cycle will finish with another new head coach.
The Sharks do have a formula for a rapid improvement. They have managed to fix the goaltending. Now fix the power play. A team can win a lot of games posting better than .920 save percentages coupled with a power play which delivers. The Sharks can do both. Indeed, they did both to pull out their 3-2 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Dell’s brilliance kept the game even in regulation and the Sharks took advantage of an overtime power play to gain the two points.
Bob Boughner’s Inaugural Road Trip
The slim chances for a Sharks playoff appearance are slipping away. The win over the Pens is a just single step on a very tough road back. Boughner is on his first road trip as the Sharks bench boss and it is a formidable one. It is possible that by the end of the current road trip, the Sharks could effectively eliminate themselves from playoff contention.
To quote Igor in Young Frankenstein, it “could be worse.” If the Sharks were in the Eastern Conference, their playoff chances would already be gone. But the Sharks are in the Pacific Division, the league’s weakest. A point total a good bit lower than usual may slip into a Pacific Division playoff spot. It is keeping hope alive.
The End of the Bob Boughner Era?
This Sharks team had stopped responding to a good coach, so the Sharks axed him. And most of his staff, too. The coaching change was a wake-up call. Boughner has done less than I’d hoped with his opportunity, but there are improvements, especially in net. The issues aren’t all on him, but life isn’t always fair. Unless there is a major turnaround, the end of his era is in sight. The players heard the wake-up call, stirred a bit and hit the snooze button. Maybe they’ll wake up shortly. Maybe the Pens game is the turning point. But its probably too late. For this season and for Bob Boughner.
• Joe Thornton hit another major milestone, moving into sole possession of seventh place on the NHL’s all-time assist list, passing Adam Oates. It came on the overtime winner against the Pens. While Thornton was hitting major milestones with great frequency in recent seasons, they are becoming less frequent. In part because Thornton is slowing down, in part because he’s so high on several lists there are not a lot of left people to pass.
• Logan Couture is the Sharks representative to the All-Star game. He’s probably the lone Sharks player worthy of the honor. The Sharks player in the last men in vote is Tomas Hertl, who isn’t deserving this season.
SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 04: San Jose Sharks assistant coach Bob Boughner watches the Sharks play against the Vegas Golden Knights at SAP Center on October 04, 2019 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)