- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bruce Boudreau is happy with the performance of his new assistant coach, Bob Woods. But just to be sure, he decided to poll the constituents.

Turns out, the Washington Capitals’ defensemen agree with the head coach.

“I’ve asked them all individually because you’re always concerned when you go to bat and hire a guy that’s never been in the NHL,” Boudreau said. “You know he can do the job, but he’s an unknown, so it was important for me to get their opinion of him. I don’t know if they’d tell me the truth the other way, but they all seem to be excited about the job he’s done behind the bench.”

When the Caps and assistant coach Jay Leach parted ways after last season, general manager George McPhee might have given the job to another candidate if not for Boudreau’s confidence in Woods. As an assistant, he had helped Boudreau and Hershey of the American Hockey League win the Calder Cup in 2006, and Woods led the Bears to a title of his own this June.

His familiarity with some of the Capitals’ young defensemen was seen as a plus, but Woods was put in charge of a group that had been maligned for its performance in the playoffs last year. There also was transition for Woods, who had never been at the sport’s top level and had to adjust to being an assistant again after nearly two full seasons as the boss in Hershey.

“There is always a feeling-out process and just getting to know the guys,” he said. “I am starting to feel more comfortable with it every day. … Being here and being able to work with some of the best players in the world is a blessing, and I am very fortunate for it.”

The early returns are favorable. Through eight games, Washington has yielded 2.88 goals a game, which was 15th in the NHL through Sunday. That figure is a bit misleading because of some garbage-time goals and inconsistent goaltending.

Save for a forgettable performance in Philadelphia, the group patrolling the blue line hasn’t really been a weakness. The Caps have yielded only eight goals in the past four games despite facing two of the top offensive clubs (San Jose and Detroit) from a season ago in that stretch.

“It has been great that the young guys know what to expect from him, and it’s been a seamless transition,” defenseman Brian Pothier said. “As far as his coaching style, it is real easy for us because he’s sort of hands-off during the game. He’ll pull you aside on an off day and say, ‘Hey, listen, watch this here and there.’ During games he is an encourager.”

Pothier spent a little time with Woods last season, but the players who have extended experience with him are Mike Green, Jeff Schultz and Tyler Sloan. When Green hit it big two seasons ago, everyone pointed to Boudreau being the biggest influence on his breakout campaign. Woods was the forgotten man, but he played a large role in his development during 108 games with Hershey.

Green has said he wants to become a better all-around defenseman this year, and Woods may play a large role in that as well. Green’s offensive numbers (one goal, five points) aren’t at his transcendent 2008-09 pace, but his work on defense has improved.

“He taught me a lot [in Hershey] and gave me a lot of confidence to play the game,” Green said. “I feel like I am getting better and better defensively since he’s been here.”

Woods hasn’t made drastic changes, but he is stressing aggressive play in front of the net and more desire to win puck battles along the wall. A couple of his charges, particularly Sloan and Shaone Morrisonn, have stood out at times because of their feistiness.

Leach was a fiery guy, and while the long-term ramifications remain to be seen, some of the Caps’ younger defensemen could be better off with Woods.

“Jay was old school. Old-school guys tend to have a little bit of bark more so than other guys,” Tom Poti said. “He was really good back there, and we had a couple of great years with him. There isn’t anything bad to say about him at all.

“[Woods] is a calming influence. He’s not a yeller or a screamer, which I think is good when you have a young crop of guys. You don’t want to get under their skin too much.”

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