Washington Capitals GM George McPhee said Dale Hunter's decision to step down as head coach, less than 48 hours after the team was eliminated in Game 7 vs. the New York Rangers, "wasn't unexpected" by the team; and it's easy to understand why.
McPhee said he was told at a meeting Monday morning and did not try to persuade Hunter to return once told. A new coach could be in place by the draft or later, though McPhee said he was not in any rush.
Hunter signed a 1-year deal with the Capitals upon replacing Bruce Boudreau as head coach in November, leading to plenty of "one and done" speculation as he could escape back to the London Knights of the OHL without an contractual obligation to remain in the NHL.
Turns out, the speculation was accurate. Dale Hunter, one and done.
In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he coached with little regard for the politics of the team, the ramifications for next season or the marquee status of its talent. Dale Hunter Hockey meant you played the ice time he dolled out and the stats-and-body sacrifice he demanded.
There was criticism that this style couldn't sustain success in the playoffs, and it finally faltered against the Rangers in Game 7. But it certainly couldn't be sustained for an 82-game regular season; not with Alex Ovechkin due $9.5 million per season through 2021 and Nicklas Backstrom due $6.7 million through 2020.
Hunter knew this, and hit eject, as someone with little desire to manage the egos of NHL players -- see his scratches during the season of players like Mike Knuble and John Erskine, both of whom weren't even given much justification from the man benching them.
As I wrote over the weekend, his time with the Capitals is not in vain. He convinced this team to play with a level of selfless sacrifice and defensive commitment it hadn't exhibited before under Bruce Boudreau. This coaching staff offered a psychological blueprint for a team that has lost its wits during postseason adversity in the past.
As McPhee said, via Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post:
"We loved everything about Dale. We were delighted he could come in a spend 6 months with us. He really taught club the 'how' of winning."
"I thought he did a great job of coming in and helping us out," McPhee said. "Trying to hire a coach in the middle of the season is a difficult process. …So to have Dale available to come in, even if on a temporary basis, was something we liked a lot. That's why we did a one year deal, because we didn't know if he could do it beyond this season."
... "There's no gray in Dale's life," he said. "He's very decisive. The only thing I asked Dale was, 'Does this have anything to do with anything that's going on here?' He said, 'Absolutely not. He loved it here. This is his team.'"
Now it's on the Capitals to prove this learning experience was effective. Ovechkin in particular is going to take heat, deserved or undeserved, for another coach leaving in the span of six months that dared monkey with his ice time. I think the Capitals became better players under Hunter; but that's only a theory until they prove it.
The next move for the Capitals? They need a coach with a ring. Someone that's been there and commands respect. Their Joel Quenneville. Their Peter Laviolette. Their John Tortorella.
Problem is that those guys are employed. Will they go with a Paul Maurice? Will they opt for an old friend in Ron Wilson? (UPDATE: Our buddies JP and Neil Greenberg mentioned Guy Carbonneau and Craig MacTavish respectively -- both solid options.)
RIP, Dale Hunter Hockey. It wasn't fun while it lasted. But that was the point.
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