Hunter inherits Capitals’ combustible mix of egos
Does Dale Hunter know what he’s getting into? Do the Washington Capitals? Because as Hunter replaces Bruce Boudreau as the Caps’ coach Monday, it comes down to this:
Hunter is used to coaching kids who follow orders, and now he inherits a combustible mix of NHL egos that hasn’t been coachable - starting with slumping superstar Alex Ovechkin(notes). He has never coached at a level higher than junior, yet the bar couldn’t be higher here. The only way this will be successful is if the Capitals win the Stanley Cup.
Boudreau just reached 200 victories quicker than any other coach in NHL history. He has a 201-88-40 regular-season record among a number of notable accomplishments. Owner Ted Leonsis blogged a thank-you note to Boudreau that reads like a happy retirement note, not a firing announcement.
“Bruce was instrumental in the team’s success over the last four seasons,” Leonsis wrote. “He won four division championships, a Presidents’ Trophy, an Eastern Conference banner, two playoff series and coached us to our best records in team history during the regular season. He also won a coach of the year award and holds the record for winning 200 games faster than any coach in NHL history. He is a good man.”
Yet all that wasn’t enough.
It wasn’t enough because Boudreau couldn’t escape the second round of the playoffs in four attempts, and he couldn’t change on the fly—turning the once high-flying, fun-loving Capitals into the type of defensive, disciplined unit that wins in April, May and June.
The nadir came Saturday night. After a listless 5-1 loss to the undermanned Buffalo Sabres dropped the Capitals to 3-7-1 in their last 11 games, Boudreau criticized their mental toughness, saying they hadn’t dealt with much adversity except for the playoffs.
It sounded like the same thing he said as the Caps went through an 0-6-2 slump during the first half of last season. Only this time—having benched Ovechkin with a game on the line, having scratched Alex Semin for taking too many penalties, having scratched even good soldier Joel Ward(notes) for sleeping in and missing a meeting - Boudreau sounded like a leader that had run out of buttons to push.
“If I have to teach them how to be tough,” Boudreau told reporters, “I don’t know quite how to do that.”
Up until that quote, I had Boudreau’s back.
The Capitals rebounded from that 0-6-2 slump last season, adjusted their style and finished first in the Eastern Conference. General manager George McPhee didn’t abandon Boudreau after the Caps were swept in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning. So why abandon him now? The Caps were good enough to be the last team to lose in the NHL this season, starting 7-0-0, and their latest problems seemed like growing pains as Boudreau stuck to his plan to enforce accountability. Boudreau seemed to have earned the right to see this through and take one more shot at the playoffs.
But when a coach admits he doesn’t know how to address his team’s greatest weakness, it’s time for him to go. Boudreau is a good coach and a great character who will find another NHL job. He just went as far as he could go in Washington.
The Capitals need a firm hand and a rebuilt identity. Hunter seems like a natural in that sense. He knows toughness. He not only put up 1,020 points in the NHL; he racked up 3,563 penalty minutes. He captained the Capitals, and his No. 32 hangs from the rafters. When you think of the Washington franchise, he is one of the few men who comes to mind first.
Hunter has at least two things going for him: He has a talented team that is capable of winning big when at its best, and he’s new. He can come in, crack the whip and demand accountability from Day One, and the players will never be able to wonder why he wasn’t like this before. It won’t feel forced.
The irony, though, is that Hunter also symbolizes the Capitals’ failure to win the Cup. After 12 seasons of striving in Washington - and only one appearance in the Cup final, getting swept by the Detroit Red Wings in 1998 - Hunter was traded to the Colorado Avalanche at the end of his career so he could take one more shot at a title. He didn’t win one in Denver, either.
And here’s the issue: Hunter won a Cup as a coach, but it was a Memorial Cup. He was the fastest coach to reach 300 and 400 victories - and he just reached 450 - but that was in the Ontario Hockey League, not the National Hockey League. The 51-year-old has worked with stars such as Rick Nash(notes), Corey Perry(notes), Patrick Kane(notes) and John Tavares(notes) - not to mention Capitals John Carlson(notes) and Dennis Wideman(notes) - but that was when they were members of the London Knights, not NHLers.
There is a big difference between what the Capitals have done and the other coaching moves around the league. When the St. Louis Blues replaced Davis Payne with Ken Hitchcock on Nov. 7, they swapped a young coach for a 533-game winner. When the Carolina Hurricanes replaced Paul Maurice with Kirk Muller on Monday, they swapped a veteran coach for an up-and-comer, but at least Muller had served as an assistant with the Montreal Canadiens and done a brief stint as an AHL head coach - precisely because he needed more experience to be an NHL head coach. The Blues and ‘Canes both are shooting for the playoffs. The Caps want to win it all.
No one knows how this will go. This could be a brilliant move, or it could make the problem worse. Hunter is not known as a communicator. It’s one thing to tell teenagers what to do; it’s another thing to yell at guys like Ovechkin and Semin. The fans might care about Hunter’s history with Washington, but do the players? If the Capitals continue to fail in the playoffs, will they end up looking for a more player-friendly coach again?
Or do they have the players to win in the playoffs under any coach?
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