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Bulldogs' Guy Boucher tiptoes around questions about NHL coaching future

MONTREAL - Almost every coaching vacancy in the NHL has Hamilton Bulldogs head coach Guy Boucher's name attached to it in some way.

The American Hockey League coach of the year is clearly a hot prospect to make the jump to the big league next season, but Boucher is not ready to look at the buzz surrounding him as anything more than pure speculation.

"I'm a man who loves what I do, and what I do is develop players so we can build something," Boucher said Thursday as the Montreal Canadiens continued their week-long development camp. "Right now, I have that already. But there are steps to take, and I want to respect those steps when it comes to other teams. If there is interest it needs to become concrete, and only then will I be able to think of anything other than what I'm doing here."

The strongest interest appears to be from the Columbus Blue Jackets, with general manager Scott Howson attending a Bulldogs playoff game recently and reportedly receiving permission from the Canadiens to speak with Boucher.

But Boucher wasn't going there Thursday.

"I'm not touching that," Boucher said.

Tampa Bay, Atlanta and New Jersey also have coaching vacancies.

When Boucher was hired by the Canadiens last summer to coach their top farm club, receiving a multi-year contract that runs for at least the next two seasons, it was assumed he was being groomed for an eventual position in Montreal.

Though Boucher dodged practically every question regarding his immediate coaching future, he did hint that he might want to see that original plan come to fruition.

"Sports psychologists are hired by Olympic athletes to help them focus on the present," Boucher said. "It's difficult sometimes, but I have to practise what I preach to my players. For me, at the moment, coaching in the NHL is one thing, but I'm also in the organization where I always wanted to be."

Boucher, 38, has been a wild success at every level he's coached, from McGill University to the junior ranks and now the AHL. Much of that success has come from his cerebral approach to the job.

He holds three university degrees, including a master's degree in sports psychology that he uses to motivate his players to set goals for themselves and then work hard to exceed them.

Boucher is said to be an extremely effective communicator, taking great pains to learn everything he can about every player on his team so he can deal with them on a one-on-one basis.

"He listens to all his players, regardless of their status," said Canadiens prospect Gabriel Dumont, who played under Boucher in both junior and briefly this season in Hamilton. "He knows each player and knows how he needs to manage each player."

Boucher also has a reputation as a great team builder. He's known for creating a family atmosphere where every player feels like he belongs, no matter their level of skill or importance.

"He makes his teams do things that no other coach does," said Habs prospect Philippe Lefebvre, who played under Boucher in junior two years ago. "He had us go through team building exercises to improve chemistry. While you're doing it, you're wondering why and it feels kind of stupid. But later you realize that if you work as a team you'll have more success."

Many assumed that kind of approach would not work as well with grown men in the pros as it did with teenagers at the junior level, but Boucher proved those doubters wrong this year in Hamilton.

The Bulldogs were constantly losing players as the Canadiens dealt with injuries all season, with a franchise record 17 players spending time in both Hamilton and Montreal.

But despite the constant traffic between the two cities, Boucher's Bulldogs kept winning. They had the second-best record in the AHL at 52-17-11 and came within a game of reaching the Calder Cup final.

"My approach is based on the individual," Boucher said. "So whether you're talking about 17 or 18-year-olds or 30 or 35-year-olds, players want to improve, they want to win and ultimately you find the same problems and strengths in each individual. It's the same starting point, so I didn't need to adapt my approach too much.”

On the ice, Boucher has built an image as a master tactician who can find new twists on old systems.

While an assistant coach for the Canadian junior team in 2009, Boucher set up the power play with current Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban playing in the high slot rather than on the point, a sort of 1-3-1 formation that caught opponents off guard. The result was a Canadian power play that scored on half of its 42 opportunities.

"I do like to think outside the box, I've always been like that," Boucher said. "It's a dynamic business where people are trying new things, so you'd better be up to date. I try to come up with new stuff, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But in the past few years I've found a pattern that works for me."

It's a pattern that has Boucher on a fast track to the NHL after only one year of professional experience. He has not made it clear whether or not he will jump at any opportunity to come his way, but Boucher says it's nice to hear his name being mentioned.

"It's flattering, but you can't let yourself get too flattered because things change quickly in hockey," he said. "It's a world where opinions can fluctuate, so right now it's flattering but I'm keeping my feet on the ground."

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