Sunday, April 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Tom Jones: Blame Yzerman, not Boucher, for Lightning's woes

This is how it works in sports. The team stinks, so you fire the coach.

And in many cases, it's the right call. Often, the coach is indeed to blame.

But not this time. Not Guy Boucher. The now-former Lightning coach got a raw deal when he was fired Sunday morning.

Boucher might not be the perfect coach, and perhaps there were things he could have done better. Ultimately, however, the Lightning is going to miss the playoffs not because its coach isn't good enough, but because its players aren't good enough.

Here's all that was accomplished with the firing of Boucher:

It let the underachieving players off the hook and deflected the blame from the person most responsible for this Lightning mess — general manager Steve Yzerman.

It is Yzerman, not Boucher, who hasn't solved the Lightning's never-ending problem in goal. With one goalie (Anders Lindback) whose time has yet to arrive and another (Mathieu Garon) whose time has passed, its 3.03 goals-against average entered Sunday 24th in the NHL.

It is Yzerman, not Boucher, who has failed to plug all the holes on a still slow and jittery defense. The team entered 21st in shots allowed.

It is Yzerman, not Boucher, who believed the Lightning had enough skill up front to be able to compete in the Eastern Conference. Yet the Lightning's top six forwards, especially after Steven Stamkos, disappear for weeks on end and come nowhere close to the talent you can find on the Penguins, Bruins, Rangers, Cana­diens and others.

All the problems the Lightning had before the season are the same reasons why it is near the bottom of the standings now. That's not the coach's fault. That's on the GM.

"Every decision that's made — hiring of coaches, signing players, the trades you make, who we put on the team now, who we assign to the minors — ultimately it's my decision,'' Yzerman said Sunday. "I have a huge responsibility here.''

The bottom line: The Lightning is not that good, and that would be true even if Scotty Bowman was coaching this team.

When he announced the firing, Yzerman said he was not satisfied with the direction the team was headed.

If that was the case, why did he wait this long? Couldn't he tell the Lightning was heading in the wrong direction three weeks ago?

One explanation is he was trying to give Boucher every possible chance to keep his job.

Another explanation is Yzerman was waiting for the exact time and circumstance when it appeared the Lightning's woes were Boucher's fault.

After a dismal performance Wednesday night in Toronto (when the Lightning appeared unmotivated) and a loss Saturday in Ottawa (when the Lightning appeared unprepared), Yzerman had all the evidence necessary to make a move.

But Saturday's 5-3 loss, which turned out to be Boucher's swan song, was a microcosm of the season. The Lightning fell behind not because it wasn't ready to play, but because Garon couldn't stop a beach ball. Despite falling behind 4-0, Boucher still kept the team motivated enough to nearly tie the score in the third period. But Boucher's fate was sealed the moment Ottawa scored an empty-net goal late to close out the game.

Look, none of this is to suggest Yzerman wanted to see Boucher fail. Heck, Yzerman hired the guy. Boucher's failure is, ultimately, Yzerman's failure. Yzerman knows that.

"I'm not blaming the coach for where we are today,'' Yzerman said. "Guy is a good man. He's a good hockey coach. He's an intelligent guy. He's a hard worker. It just isn't working. I have to assume full responsibility for it.''

I'm also not suggesting Yzerman doesn't know what he is doing. Quite frankly, we don't know whether Yzerman can cut it as a GM or not. As of now, the clock is ticking on Yzerman and he has some serious work to do this summer to sort this thing out. And if he can't, then he is next on the chopping block.

First things first. Who will be the new coach?

Well, the popular name out there is Lindy Ruff, recently fired by the Sabres in his 16th season in Buffalo. You could do worse, although I'm not as high on Ruff as some. He made the playoffs about half the time in Buffalo and had so-so success in the playoffs but never won a Stanley Cup. He would, however, have immediate credibility in the locker room, particularly among the veterans.

The other hot name is Jon Cooper, the coach of the Lightning's top minor-league affiliate in Syracuse. Cooper has done well in the minors. His players are well-prepared when they arrive in Tampa Bay, and some NHL team out there is going to hire him, probably as soon as next season. But everything you can say about Cooper are the same things everyone was saying about Boucher three years ago. It's the same coach. Why fire Boucher to hire his clone?

In the end, it doesn't matter who the coach is when you have shoddy goaltending, a porous defense and an offense that doesn't show up half the time. There's not much a coach can do with that.

That's something the general manager has to fix.

Tom Jones can be reached at [email protected] and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.

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