Dale Hunter: Looking Forward by Looking Back

Caps head coach Dale Hunter has manned the helm for two weeks and has struggled to revive a moribund team so it’s apparent there will be no quick fix for the franchise but instead a slow transition. It takes time for a coach to leave an imprint in the team’s physical and emotional make-up. And yet what characteristics does Dale Hunter as a coach possess that we can elicit insight as to what the Caps will look like in the future?

What was Dale Hunter’s coaching record like in OHL? Albeit there’s an enormous difference between coaching NHL hockey and junior hockey but when you look at Dale Hunter’s coaching stint with the London Knights certain traits and styles emerge; offering intriguing possibilities for the Washington Capitals.

If you apply my rating system to Hunter’s coaching stint with the Knights his success point total in the OHL is an impressive 35 in ten full seasons of coaching. (When Hunter was called up by the Caps, his Knights had a winning record and were in first place in their division).

He only had one losing season (in his rookie year) but even then he still was able to salvage a playoff berth. Seven times in his OHL coaching career his teams had a winning percentage of .600 or better. (Indeed Dale Hunter led all OHL coaches in career winning percentage). Therefore Dale was not only a winner he also won big: winning six divisional titles; earning ten playoff berths; reaching the Memorial Cup finals in 2005 and 2006—and winning the Memorial Cup in 2005.

Hunter is also a molder and shaper of great hockey talent: Rick Nash, Dave Bolland, Corey Perry, Rob Schremp, Patrick Kane, and goalie Steve Mason all sharpened their blades and honed their skills under Hunter’s tutelage. All save for Bolland and Mason were first round draft picks in the NHL draft.

Dale Hunter’s London Knights not only were strong in the standings. They were also strong in the team stats as well—and this is where we can derive even greater insights as to what Hunter might get the Washington Capitals to accomplish.

Unlike Bruce Boudreau who rose and fell with his offense and the power play—Dale Hunter demanded (and got) tactical balance with the London Knights. In his rookie season in 2001/02 Hunter’s Knights were 15th and 16th in offense and defense respectively. By 2004 the Knights were tops in the OHL in both categories. Indeed Hunter’s Knights achieved consecutive double firsts in offense and defense from 2003 to 2005.

Even more impressive was the Knights power-play offense: five times in six seasons they led the OHL in power-play offense. This was their greatest tactical strength although during his last two seasons there their power-play offense declined somewhat.

If there was a tactical weakness with Hunter’s OHL teams it was in the penalty-kill. Although the Knights led the OHL in penalty-killing from 2003 to 2005 on the whole the Knight’s were always average in killing penalties.

What about their on-ice personality?

Dale Hunter was one of the most ferocious players in NHL history: able to generate points and penalty-minutes with equal skill and ease. But as a coach Hunter’s Knights never led the OHL in team penalty minutes; only four times in ten seasons were they among the top five in that category.

Hunter has seven games under his belt (with a 3-4-0 record) but the changes he has made with the Caps thus far have been subtle. Their overall offense, power-play offense, and penalty-killing have perked up slightly but their defense has regressed (under Boudreau the team’s GAA was 2.70; under Hunter it is 3.00)

The only major change Hunter has wrought is in the team’s physicality. The Caps’ team penalty-minute totals have increased considerably. Under Bruce Boudreau the team was averaging 7.6 penalty minutes per game. Under Hunter the team is now earning 11.4 penalty-minutes per game.

But most important of all is Dale Hunter himself. Unlike Bruce Boudreau who was a career minor-league player who had to prove himself as an NHL coach, Hunter already has proven himself: his jersey hangs from the rafters of the Verizon Center and his portrait occupies a prominent place at the Caps practice facility. Unlike Alexander Ovechkin who is a legend-in-the-making; Dale Hunter is already a legend in the hearts and minds of Caps and NHL fans around the world. If Hunter can turn the team around and take them further than Bruce Boudreau did then his legend will grow ever greater.

In many ways the hiring of Dale Hunter is a cautionary tale for Alexander Ovechkin. What Dale Hunter gave to the Caps (and to the game) as a player is incalculable. Hunter is a hockey paradigm that Ovechkin has yet to strive for let alone achieve. If Dale can get #8 to play with same the ferocity and grit like he did then that will be a signal triumph. Actually what the Caps need right now is a player like Dale Hunter to jump-start the team’s collective heart.

If Dale Hunter is to achieve any type of success he must eliminate the team’s collective lethargy. Their 5-1 loss to Philadelphia on December 13 shows that there is still enormous work to be done. One can speculate whether George McPhee and Dale Hunter will engineer any blockbuster trades before the trade deadline comes up next month. Certainly the Caps need the presence of one or two character players with solid defensive skills to bolster the team. If no trade is made then you can definitely look for the team to emphasize defense in the 2012 NHL draft; and in the post-season trade and free-agency market.

When you sum up Dale Hunter’s record of achievement it comes as no surprise that long-time Caps GM George McPhee tapped him to lead the Caps. George McPhee is one of the best GMs in the NHL today; with a keen eye for discovering (or acquiring) coaching talent. McPhee discovered Bruce Boudreau and gave him his first NHL coaching stint. And it was McPhee who hired Ron Wilson (after Wilson was fired by Anaheim) to lead the team. Wilson responded by leading the Caps to their sole Stanley Cup final appearance.

Dale Hunter has that same potential for greatness. Given time, Dale Hunter will mold the Caps into a Stanley Cup contender and, hopefully, make Washington the hockey capital as well as the political capital of the U.S.

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2 Responses to “Dale Hunter: Looking Forward by Looking Back”

  1. Rob Matic
    December 19, 2011 at 8:59 pm #

    The Knights did not make it to the Memorial Cup in 2006. They were swept in the OHL finals by Peterbrough

  2. Matthew DiBiase
    December 29, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    Dear Rob:

    Quite true. I misread what I saw on the internet. I appreciate your input. Despite that one glitch, did you like the rest of the story?