In assessing the Caps’ surprise coaching replacement, let’s start with two key points. One, the Capitals stopped listening to Bruce Boudreau and he needed to go. It was plainly obvious based on their play over the last month. The blowout at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres Saturday, a team with nine regulars out the lineup, sealed it.
Second, Dale Hunter may be a Caps legend but has also been a legitimate candidate for an NHL head coaching gig for a while. This isn’t a Joe Gibbs-style move made largely to appease the fan base. The hiring makes sense on multiple levels.
For one, the Capitals teams he captained in the ‘90’s were the antithesis of the current group. They may have lacked the skill to compete for a championship but were a tough opponent to play against. They were disciplined. They paid attention to forechecking and defensive positioning. They brought the effort night in and night out.
Beyond his playing days, Hunter has been very successful in coaching the OHL’s London Knights, one of the premier junior Canadian franchises, to success over the last decade. His accolades include bringing London its first Memorial Cup Championship in 2004-2005. He was voted coach of the year the prior season.
In ten years behind the bench, not only did the Knights make it to the playoffs every single year, they made it out of the first round in all but two of those seasons. Under Hunter’s watch, the Knights made it to the third round or further five times.
The list of current NHLers who he helped develop is impressive, including current Caps Dennis Wideman and John Carlson, and NHL stars Corey Perry, Patrick Kane and Rick Nash.
The question with Hunter is whether he’ll command the respect of the veterans on the Caps who seemingly tuned Boudreau out. He has zero NHL coaching experience, even as an assistant. Dealing with egos of multi-million dollar professionals is different than dealing with kids in the OHL.
Then again, General Manager George McPhee only had to look to the Caps’ division rivals in Tampa to see that prior NHL head coaching experience isn’t a pre-requisite to immediate playoff success. Dan Bylsma also took over the Pittsburgh Penguins mid-season three years ago and led them to a Stanley Cup championship. He had 54 games of professional head coaching experience.
In simple terms, McPhee clearly needed to make a coaching change to save the season, and while Hunter is a risky hire, it may end up being a brilliant move.
If Hunter doesn’t work out, it will probably be a far bigger indictment of the players in the locker room than the new coach. After the repeated playoff failures, system changes and mixed messages Boudreau had sent over the years, perhaps it’s even understandable that his words began to fall on deaf ears. Now, Ovechkin and company are out of excuses if they fail.