Yet Boudreau, who won more than 400 games and eight division titles in nine seasons as the coach of Washington and Anaheim, stammered when asked if Hitchcock was right about experience. That’s unusual for the garrulous Boudreau, whose nickname, Gabby, is part of the title of his autobiography.
“I don’t know if I’m smart enough to know all those things,” Boudreau said recently while standing in a hallway at the Xcel Energy Center, dressed in faded jeans and a green Wild golf shirt.
He added: “I know what works for me. There’s not a formula. It’s just the way you think, and what you think would fix it. That’s just feel for the game, but experience is what makes you think that.”
Balanced scoring, breakout production from young forwards like Mikael Granlund and All Star-level goaltending from Devan Dubnyk contributed to Minnesota’s 28-6-3 record since Dec. 2, a period that included a 12-game winning streak in December.
Subtle changes by Boudreau and his staff also helped, including moving the speedy Granlund to right wing and reorganizing the penalty kill.
“They’ve got four lines that can make plays, and they’re all dangerous and fast,” said Chicago Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville, whose team is in second place behind Minnesota in the Central Division. “Their defense is mobile. And they have the puck a lot. They make you defend more.”
Anaheim fired Boudreau last April 29. He was unemployed a little more than a week before the Wild outmaneuvered Ottawa for his services. The Ducks let him go after losing a playoff Game 7 on home ice for the fourth consecutive season, an N.H.L. first.
But the Wild did not care. Since landing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter with matching 13-year, $98 million free-agent deals in 2012, the Wild earned four consecutive playoff berths but lost in the first or second round each time, the first three to the Blackhawks. Winning a Stanley Cup, the avowed goal of the team owner, Craig Leipold, remains elusive, and Parise and Suter, both 32, are not getting any younger.
Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher twice hired first-time N.H.L. head coaches, Todd Richards and Mike Yeo. Both were eventually fired, Yeo last February. This time, rather than retain the interim coach John Torchetti, who had never been a full-time N.H.L. head coach, Fletcher moved quickly when Boudreau became available.
Certain Wild players remain respectful of Yeo, who replaced the fired Hitchcock as the coach of the Blues. Others suggested that the team needed a different voice.
They found one in Boudreau, a character whose vagabond playing career included a stint with the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey Association and a skate-on role as one of the Hyannisport Presidents in the movie “Slap Shot.” (Boudreau’s notoriously messy apartment in Johnstown, Pa., earned more screen time than he did, serving as the home of Reggie Dunlop, Paul Newman’s character.)
Coaching in Washington, Boudreau gained YouTube notoriety with an expletive-laden, between-periods speech captured by HBO’s “24/7” series before the 2011 N.H.L. Winter Classic. In 2013 with Anaheim, a shouting match between Boudreau and Patrick Roy, Colorado’s coach at the time, ended with Roy trying to push down the stanchion between the benches, costing Roy a $10,000 fine.
“Bruce is going to tell you how he’s feeling,” Dubnyk said. “He’s a very transparent coach. He’s not going to hide anything. You don’t walk around the room wondering where you stand. That’s obviously an important thing. He’s going to let you know if he wants more out of you. If he doesn’t say anything, then you’re probably O.K.”
Asked how he familiarizes himself with new players, Boudreau cracked, “We put bugs in their homes,” before segueing into a serious answer.
He has said all along that it would take until Christmas to learn his players’ habits and quirks, something that has proved to be true.
“We see the players as much as we see our families during the season,” Boudreau said. “It’s not hard to get to know them.”
Parise found Boudreau’s extensive use of video as a teaching tool especially helpful. The Wild avoided the annual midseason slump that characterized Yeo’s tenure. Last season’s 1-13 stretch over January and February dropped the Wild from fifth to ninth in the conference and cost Yeo his job. The Wild recovered to make the playoffs before losing to Dallas in the first round.
Boudreau likes to juggle lines during games to stimulate production. The slumping veteran wing Jason Pominville, demoted to the fourth line in early January, responded with 23 points in 21 games. Charlie Coyle broke a 16-game goal drought this month when Boudreau shifted him from wing to center. Boudreau said the versatile Coyle needed to skate more, as centers do.
Boudreau credited Granlund’s rise to a tip from the Wild captain, Mikko Koivu, Granlund’s teammate on the Finnish national team.
“When I first got the job and phoned Mikko, he said Granny would be a good left winger, but he’d be better on the right,” Boudreau said. “I took those words and ran with it.”
Granlund took off in November once Boudreau shifted him to right wing and plugged another speedster, Jason Zucker, at left wing. Granlund, 24, is tied for the team lead with 19 goals and leads the Wild with 36 assists and 55 points, all career highs.
“I’m not the biggest guy, and you need to defend a lot down low,” said Granlund, listed as 5 feet 10 inches and 184 pounds. “As a winger, you’re not wasting so much energy defending down low, battling there, so you have more energy playing offense. That’s kind of the thing. I have a little more energy and jump to play offense.”
Coyle, a 21-goal scorer last season shuttling between center and wing, has 14 while posting career highs in points (44) and assists (30). The veteran Eric Staal, signed as a free agent, has 17 goals, four more than all last season between Carolina and the Rangers. In all, 10 Wild forwards have at least 10 goals, tied with Washington for the most in the N.H.L.
“We’ve not going to have a 50-goal scorer, but we’ve got guys contributing every night,” Boudreau said “That’s how you win. Teams can’t focus on checking one line.”
Defensively, Boudreau and the assistant Scott Stevens, the Hall of Fame defenseman for the Devils, prefer that the Wild keep the front of the net clear while giving the 6-6 Dubnyk unobstructed looks at long shots. That’s the style the Devils rode to a Stanley Cup in 1995 under Jacques Lemaire, Stevens said. (Lemaire later coached the Wild from 2000-9.)
Entering Wednesday’s games, the Wild had allowed the second-fewest goals in the league, 138, while Dubnyk leads the N.H.L. with a .933 save percentage, 2.01 goals against average and 32 wins.
“I always liked the Wild,” Stevens said. “I guess I felt they underachieved a little bit all the time, which actually isn’t a bad thing. Right now the guys are starting to play consistently and reach their potential, which is nice.”
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