Dale Hunter was the wrong choice to be the head coach of the Washington Capitals.
Now that that is out of the way, let me say first that letting Bruce Boudreau go was the correct call by George McPhee. Boudreau was, and still is, a fantastic coach who did wonderful things for the Capitals organization and the city of Washington. But his time had come. Washington, a team who on paper should crank out at least 45 wins, were spinning their wheels and getting blown out by mediocre teams like Winnipeg and Toronto. In November.
The Capitals had tuned Boudreau out; he had lost the team and they did not believe in his system. That, in additon to the fact that Boudreau had failed to make it out of the second round of the playoffs over the last three years while having arguably the most talent-laden roster in the league during that time. It was simply over.
Part of that is certainly on the players for being entitled for three and a half years under Boudreau before their head coach attempted to reign them in. They didn’t have killer instinct in the playoffs, letting 3-1 and 2-0 series leads slip away. And of course, part of it is on Boudreau for not preaching that instinct and letting the inmates run the asylum for three and a half years before trying to regain control through “accountability” with stunningly poor results.
In order attempt to fix the problem, George McPhee brought in franchise icon Hunter from the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. Hunter had an amazing run with the Knights: six division titles, six seasons of over 100 standings points, and a Memorial Cup victory in 2004-05. And yet, he was still the wrong choice to be the head coach of this team.
The reasons are twofold. First, the Capitals are still a very talented team. Alex Ovechkin may be being outperformed by Matt Moulson and Max Talbot, Alexander Semin may still be invisible almost all of the time, and Tomas Vokoun might be vastly underperforming, but at the end of the day this team is, quite frankly, better than most on paper. The issue is not making the playoffs, it is going far in the playoffs.
Why hire a coach who has not only no playoff experience, but one who has never coached professionally before?
The Capitals have Stanley Cup aspirations this year. First year coaches almost never win the Stanley Cup. Dan Bylsma is the exception, not the rule, and even then he had coached in the AHL before he took over for Pittsburgh. People say Hunter was hired for his toughness and no-nonsense attitude. Fine. Why not hire someone like Marc Crawford, who has actually won a Cup and possesses those attributes?
Secondly, the Capitals have built a franchise around scoring goals. Lots of goals. Dale Hunter’s system preaches the opposite of that. Hunter’s system relies upon puck support, a trap in the neutral zone, and good defensive zone play from the forwards. It does little to open the game up and give players chances to score. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding: in the nine games since Hunter took over, the Caps have scored one goal five times.
That’s fine when you are a team like the Bruins who have 11 great two way players and a glorified enforcer in your forward corps who can play great defense and still score because they wear people down. The Capitals just do not have that.
Because no matter how hard you try and get Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, among others, to play good positional defense, they just won’t do it. Heroic shifts and shot blocks are nice; they don’t indicate consistently good defensive play or positioning. By forcing Semin, and particularly Ovechkin, in to doing what people think is “necessary to win,” are the Capitals actually lessening their chances by ruining the drive of their franchise players, goal scorers, and captain?
Why not let them loose? Try and let Team Russian Sniper do what they are paid a lot of money to do? Some have characterized, falsely, that Alex Ovechkin is a “coach killer.” What if it is in fact the coaching that is killing Alex Ovechkin? I haven’t seen the old Alex since November of 2010. It’s not a coincidence that’s when Boudreau started the new defensive system. The questions are worth asking.
The Capitals failed to make it out of the first round with a free-flowing system in place, yes. They also managed to build a 3-1 series lead before running in to one of the most incredible postseason runs by a goaltender in the history of the NHL. It wasn’t that fact that they played offensive hockey that was the reason they lost, it was Halak. Halak was system-proof; he proved it by eliminating the defending Stanley Cup Champions in the second round. Why not go back to what made them the most dominant offensive team in over a decade in 2009-10?
Is Hunter’s system the more likely to grind out close playoff games? Probably. But this roster is not situated for that kind of system. It wasn’t when Bruce Boudreau played a defensive system; the result stayed the same in the playoffs. It certainly isn’t now. If Hunter were to have been named the coach in the offseason, when it was more logistically feasible to make huge changes to the roster like the Flyers did, the move would make more sense. Not right now. Not with these players. This an offensive team. It’s what made them so great, it’s what sold tickets, it’s what elevated the Caps to arguably the biggest deal in DC sports.
I am sure that Dale Hunter will grow into a fantastic coach and win a lot of hockey games when given the right players to execute his defensive system. But that will take time. Boring hockey is fine, as long as you find a way to get it done. The Caps haven’t been able to do that.
Should Dale Hunter be fired? No. That’s ludicrous. But expecting a Championship seems unrealistic. It’s a shame that the results, again, probably will not be there this year.
For a fan base and a franchise growing more desperate by the day, it just might not be good enough.