Matt Gajtka is a writer and co-editor (with Matt Shetler) for CityOfChampionsSports.com, a blog devoted to covering Pittsburgh sports. His day job is with the Muskegon (Mich.) Lumberjacks of the United States Hockey League, where he is the Communications Director and Broadcaster.
A team with high expectations had made a sudden plunge in the standings, causing many in the hockey world to wonder if their time at the top had come to a premature end. As a result, their successful head coach was fired and replaced by a man with zero experience managing an NHL bench.
The team I reference was the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins, who relieved Michel Therrien of his duties with his team in an unforeseen slump following one of the best 20-game starts in franchise history. Dan Bylsma, who was in the midst of his first season leading an AHL club, was promoted to take the Penguins’ reins. We all know how the story ended.
Of course, the first paragraph could also apply to this year’s Washington Capitals, who canned Bruce Boudreau the Monday after Thanksgiving, the holiday that often marks the beginning of serious self-evaluations for NHL franchises. Much like Therrien, Boudreau had achieved great regular-season success after taking over in midseason years prior and instituting the oft-desired “culture change.” Much like the Penguins of three years ago, the Caps began this campaign strongly at 7-0-0 and looked to be on track for another Southeast Division title. Much like Bylsma in February 2009, new Washington bench boss Dale Hunter has never donned the mantle of NHL head coach until his sudden elevation.
Certainly there are differences in the two narratives. Therrien had instilled discipline and structure to achieve results in Pittsburgh; Boudreau famously let his offensively-minded talents skate free and overwhelm opponents with speed and skill. Therrien guided the Pens to within two wins of the Stanley Cup; Boudreau’s Caps never penetrated past the second round in four postseasons. Bylsma took over in Pittsburgh with only 25 games to go and the team out of the East’s top eight; Hunter will have four-plus months to right the Capitals, who are still in position to at least make the playoffs despite recent lifeless play.
Nonetheless, the goal of the Capitals – and every team who makes such a major change midstream – is to match what the Penguins did when they espoused Bylsma: unleash potential in time to chase the Stanley Cup. But while teams in all sports traditionally respond well to a coaching switch, at least in the short term, can Hunter really be Bylsma version 2.0 in this case?
At some levels, the former Caps captain matches up with Pittsburgh’s “Disco Dan.” From all accounts, he’s done well managing the often bloated egos and stubborn personalities of high-level junior hockey with the OHL’s London Knights for the last several years. His teams play a high-tempo style that allows elite talents to thrive. He will likely try to unleash the Caps like Boudreau did in November 2007 en route to four division crowns in a row.
Ironically, Boudreau finished his Washington tenure in Therrien-like fashion, employing a no-nonsense attitude and stifling his thoroughbreds with a passive on-ice philosophy. The Caps’ about-face led to a midseason rebound last year, but it seemed like much ado about a small sample size; prior to last year’s November swoon, the only things holding Washington back from making a serious run at the Stanley Cup were three straight Game 7 losses, one of which was to the Penguins in the ’09 second round.
But that’s neither here nor there. In the end, Caps GM George McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis made the decision that the players were no longer responding to Boudreau, the one-time darling of the NHL coaching brigade.
Just like Pittsburgh in 2009, the new guy’s success or failure will be determined by his ability to squeeze more production out of his adopted superstars. Alex Ovechkin’s current malaise is eerily reminiscent of Sidney Crosby’s stagnation pre-Bylsma. It’s easy to forget now, but No. 87 had grown predictable and frustrated under Therrien’s counterpunching system. Bylsma’s insistence on forcing the issue rejuvenated Crosby, as did Sid’s improved shot and his willingness to use it.
Crosby’s goal-scoring prowess, as well as Evgeni Malkin’s MVP-level play late in the season and in the playoffs, boosted the Penguins to the Cup in 2009. If Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom and company become more effective in a timely fashion, a similar happy ending is certainly possible in Washington.
Can Hunter awaken what might be a sleeping giant? As a Penguins fan, I feel more apprehensive about the Capitals bouncing back today than I did yesterday.