The rumors seemed annual ritual at this point, even though it was only Bruce Boudreau's fourth season with the Washington Capitals. This time, though, Boudreau couldn't survive the speculation, combined with his team's practically-inconceivable struggles.
Boudreau was fired Monday, replaced by Ontario Hockey League coach and former player Dale Hunter.
It wasn't exactly surprising to see Boudreau sent packing. "Gabby" had been head coach for four years and a week, taking over on November 22, 2007 and immediately leading the promising young Capitals on an impressive surge toward the Southeast Division title.
Washington lost to Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs that year, falling in overtime of Game 7. In all, Washington won just two playoff series under Boudreau, needing seven games to dispatch the New York Rangers in 2008 before losing in the second round to Pittsburgh, and then last year's five-game victory over the Rangers.
Boudreau's 2-4 record in playoff series has to be considered a negative on his resume, because the Capitals had home ice in each of the six series he coached his team in.
In the end, though, it took this most recent stretch -- 5-9-1 after a 7-0 start -- to finally force general manager George McPhee to pull the trigger.
Boudreau seemed to try to take on more of a taskmaster role as of late, but his "teddy bear" reputation had already been established. It's not always easy to take the good cop and morph him into a bad cop. The Capitals seemed to need a bad cop at times, especially in the playoffs, and Boudreau knew that. Give him credit for trying, but the most well-known attempt by him to seem like the bad cop was nothing short of comical.
(You've seen the speech, you know it's not safe for work. So don't click the play button if you're at work or anywhere you wouldn't talk like a sailor.)
Hunter comes in from the OHL's London Knights, where he served as coach and general manager for over a decade. Hunter recently became the 13th coach to win 450 games in the OHL. He was Capitals' captain from 1994 to 1999, and he is still beloved by Capitals fans. His number is retired in the rafters at Verizon Center.
But what about this group of players?
Boudreau clearly wasn't connecting with the stars anymore -- he had no idea how to handle Alexander Semin, and it didn't seem he was exactly getting along with his captain lately, either -- but will Hunter, with zero NHL coaching experience, have an easier time?
He's handled young kids -- the OHL is for players aged 16-20 -- his entire career, and the Capitals aren't exactly full of young players in the top six. There are veterans all over the lineup, veterans who already feel they know how to play the game, not impressionable young players eager to learn what it takes to develop into an NHL player.
This could have been a perfect fit for Ken Hitchcock, frankly, before the veteran signed on in St. Louis. Oddly enough, his Blues are at Verizon Center Tuesday for Hunter's NHL coaching debut.
Instead, though, it's Hunter's gig, and McPhee may be "all-in" on this move. After four years of playoff failures -- some of them quite embarrassing -- McPhee needs this team to win, or he may find himself out of a job. He has hitched his wagon to Hunter.
It's a strange choice for McPhee, given the franchise needs to win pretty quickly. Of course, he'll look like a genius if Hunter gets the ship righted and the Capitals start winning again. What should worry Capitals fans is what will happen if Hunter can't get the Capitals on the right track.
After all, there are no guarantees with coaching changes, and there certainly is no guarantee going forward if owner Ted Leonsis decides that he's seen enough underachieving out of an organization that he expects to be much more successful than it has been.