Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post
Monday was a rainy day in Arlington, Virginia.
As light rain pattered across the giant glass window that serves as the entrance to Kettler Capitals Iceplex, Vice President and General Manager George McPhee strode around the corner and towards the throng of reporters waiting for him.
“Good morning,” McPhee said. “Thank you for coming.”
“I imagine the first question will be about Dale Hunter. This morning, Dale and I met at about 10 o’clock, and he let me know that he will not be able to return as the coach. He’s going to head back to London. I guess we’re all fathers and sons and husbands first before anything else, and if we have our priorities right in this life, then family comes first. And Dale, he needs to go home.”
And just like that, it was over.
Dale Hunter’s reign as the head coach of the Washington Capitals was over after 169 days, 37 wins, and 37 losses. It was over in less than a season.
But it’s over. And that was the right call. For club and for coach.
Dale Hunter did a tremendous job as the head coach of this team. There is no doubt that he came in and changed the culture of the Capitals by holding everybody accountable for their play. They were annoying, tough, and stubborn. They were like Dale Hunter as a player.
“He had this club playing the way he played,” said McPhee. “Home or road, winning or losing, healthy or hurt. He had this team playing hard.”
He got this team, his team, to buy in to his system. And he put together a nice little run, winning seven playoff games and knocking off the Stanley Cup Champion Bruins before falling to the Rangers in seven games.
But the reality of the situation is that the Capitals lost. They lost because the Rangers were better than them and because of lost opportunities, sure. But they also lost because they were completely reliant on collapsing defense and a historically great run from a rookie goaltender; a performance like that from Braden Holtby nobody saw coming. And, quite frankly, they got a little bit lucky, just as they got unlucky in game five against the Rangers.
“It’s tough to play that way sometimes,” said Troy Brouwer. “Because one bounce can determine that game, no matter what you do through the course of those games. Sometimes it’s hit or miss. Over the course of the season, it’s tough to play playoff hockey for all 82 games and then continue it in to the playoffs.”
In other words, reliance on blocking shots and pure defensive hockey is okay in the playoffs, to an extent. It’s undeniable that defensive hockey can win in the playoffs. Often it does. But to say that the way Hunter took it to an extreme is the “right way to play” is incorrect, because it requires a lot of luck. And you can’t build something based on luck and hoping you get the bounces.
There is a difference between playing “the right way” – that is, blocking shots, hunting pucks on the forecheck, establishing a physical presence – and doing what the Capitals did for the majority of their time under Hunter. The Capitals butchered their puck possession numbers and their offensive numbers, both of which are essential to winning in the playoffs as well. It’s not just defense. That’s not how it works.
Since the lockout, no team has won the Stanley Cup finishing the regular season outside of the top eight in goals per game. The Capitals were 14th this year. That may change this June, but that would, again, be the first time. In addition, no team has won the Stanley Cup finishing outside of the top five in goals per game in that postseason. The Capitals were tied for 10th this postseason in goals with the Rangers, but the other three remaining teams – Phoenix, New Jersey, and Los Angeles – are all in the top five.
Under Dale Hunter, the Capitals simply could not score with any type of consistency. As has been documented by many people, the Capitals’ corsi rating, which measures puck possession, plummeted under Hunter. It’s hard to win games when you don’t have the puck. You need to score, and, when you have the puck, the other team cannot score.
“I think you’ve gotta find a good mix,” said Nicklas Backstrom, who led the team in points for most of the season despite missing 40 games with a concussion. “You’ve got to play good defensively, and then good things happen offensively. Our top players, myself included, we should have been scoring more goals.”
What’s more, Alex Ovechkin and Hunter clearly did not get along. I applaud Ovechkin for sucking it up and doing what was asked of him by Hunter. But he’s not that type of player. You can talk about how Ovechkin needs to be committed to more defense as the captain all you want, and he probably should. But Ovechkin does not have the richest contract in NHL history to have 65 points and play middling defense. He has the richest contract in NHL history to score goals, and, at the very least, put up points. It’s who he is.
Ovechkin didn’t make his frustrations a secret, either, when asked about his dwindling ice time in the playoffs or his style of play on Monday.
“Me, personally, it was pretty hard, to be honest with you, but I have to do it for the team. It doesn’t matter if I like it or not, I have to play like that, because he’s my coach, and I’m going to listen to him. Like he said, I had to be a plumber. So I was a plumber.”
Was Ovechkin the reason that Hunter left? Absolutely not. Dale Hunter made it perfectly clear in his time in Washington that he didn’t give a damn what anyone thought about him, including, in a way, his players. It was his way or the highway, and he proved it with his lineup decisions. Alex Ovechkin is not a coach killer, and he didn’t have Hunter fired.
It is impossible to ignore, however, that Ovechkin needs to score more, and to me, a big part of making that happen will be whoever the next coach of the Capitals is. Whatever is wrong with Ovechkin, it needs to be fixed, and the next coach needs to have a plan to do it and eventually actually do it. Dale Hunter was not that guy.
You may say that picking a coach around a player is not the best idea. But this isn’t just any player. This is the highest-paid player in the league, one of its faces, the Captain and face of your franchise – who has nine years and $85.8 million left on his current contract. The Capitals are invested in Ovechkin more so than any team has ever invested in one player, and it places them in a unique situation in this salary-capped era of the NHL. It’s not ideal, but it is reality.
This is not, in any way, to say that Hunter’s tenure did not have any positive effects, because it did. Hunter left his mark, and he did it his way. But it will be more off the ice – and how he brought this particular group of men together, both as a coach and as a mentor who has been there before.
“He tells you exactly what he thinks, and he was a hardworking guy himself,” said Backstrom. “If you’re going to win hockey games, you have to work hard. If you work hard, good things happen to you.”
In addition, Hunter led, almost directly, to the growth of two career fourth liners, Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks, into important, strong, reliable players.
“I learned a lot from Dale,” said Beagle, who broke his foot in game five of the Rangers series, but won 54% of his playoff faceoffs before getting hurt. “The opportunity he gave me, I knew, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try and establish myself as a third line center and as a guy that a coach can go to, to play big minutes in big games. I’m grateful for the opportunity he gave me and tried to do my best to do what I could to help the team win. The last three months have been great, they’ve been the best three months of my life playing hockey. I owe a lot to Dale.”
“I just want to thank him for what he did,” added Hendricks. He came in here and he really helped mold the culture of our team and the character in that room. He gave me a great opportunity and I’m just very thankful that I played for him. […] He gave me that confidence. I gained confidence in myself, and I gained confidence in my game. I proved to myself I can play a good role, a significant role, on a team in this league.”
Knowing that those two players can contribute in such big ways is beneficial for the Capitals, and if it weren’t for Dale Hunter, we probably would not have known that to be true in such a capacity.
And, of course, there is the overall philosophy that Hunter brought, not on the ice in terms of systems; but off of the ice. That will likely be the lasting impression that he leaves with these Capitals.
“He had the guys playing a lot harder, that’s for sure, guys carried themselves the right way,” said Jason Chimera.
“Good teams play together, they don’t play as individuals, they play as a group,” added Hendricks. “I think it did a lot for our team, for our confidence, and we did some good things. To beat the Stanley Cup champs, that’s pretty big.”
“They [the coaches] brought in a lot of good things,” said Backstrom. “We’re doing things that a lot of people didn’t think could happen with this team. We’re committed, and we’re blocking shots, and we’re playing good defensively. That’s something we’ve got to build off.”
Build off of. Not rely on, build off of.
How the Capitals build off of this season will be very interesting to watch. This year was, all things considered, a failure. Washington, again, failed to live up to their preseason expectations because they had little balance, in personnel or in coaching philosophy. They’ve been at the extreme ends of both the offensive and defensive spectrums, and this year, the extreme defense did not work.
But the year was not lost, and part of that was because of Dale Hunter. He emptied the tank, doing all he could do for the franchise that he has been a part of his entire career. But he did all that he could. He got all that he could out of this team.
As he prepared to leave Kettler on Monday afternoon, Hunter walked around in view of the media, already wearing his London Knights windbreaker. He saw Marcus Johansson and walked up to the young Swedish center, putting his hand on his shoulder and giving it a little shake.
“Keep going, JoJo. Give ‘em hell. Give ‘em sh**. Keep shooting. Follow your dream.”
Johansson looked up from the puck he was signing, a sheepish smile on his face.
Yes. Thank you, Dale.
Harry Hawkings is a college student who covers the Capitals for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here.