After the Capitals fell in a Game 7 to the top seeded Rangers on Saturday night, the mood of the fan base in DC was a familiar one. Yet again their beloved Capitals came up short in a Game 7 in a series they could have won and once again the core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alex Semin could not bring a Stanley Cup to the Nation’s Capital. But, unlike in past years, there was a feeling of optimism about the loss. Despite a subpar performance in Game 7, the Capitals for once did not exit in embarrassing style. In fact, if not for a missed coverage in triple overtime and a poor penalty in Game 5, there is a chance the Capitals are still dancing. They played inspired hockey and seemed to gel and buy into a system that can get it done in the post season. That optimism vanished this afternoon though, as the man who got the team to play that style and who was suppose to perfect the system next year, Dale Hunter, stepped down as Head Coach of the Washington Capitals.
While this is a gut punch to an organization that despite the loss had made great strides this season thanks in large part to Hunter’s new approach, it should not be a total surprise. Much of the sports media has been discussing for a long time not whether the Capitals would bring Hunter back but whether he would want to come back. As has been well document, Hunter owns a wildly successful team in the Ontario Hockey League (London Knights) that means money is not an issue for the Hunter family. He owns a farm in the area that he has lived on since his retirement from the NHL and his family remained in the area while he was coaching in DC. Not only has the team been successful, but Hunter has proven he can create NHL players, such as John Tavares, Patrick Kane, Michael Del Zotto, and John Carlson. Hunter cites his reasons for leaving being a want to spend time with his family and tend to the family business, the London Knights.
There is no doubt that the react by many in DC will be that Hunter quit on the Capitals. That is an understandable but unfair reaction. If there is any group Hunter owes nothing to, it is the Washington Capitals. He is arguably the most popular players in the history of the franchise and was willing to leave the Knights in the first place to help his former team out. In fact, Hunter has said the Capitals were the only team that he would consider leaving London for. Family should always come first and no one should fault Hunter for not wanting to bring his family back into the rigors of NHL life fulltime. No doubt many will question whether his supposed rocky relationship with Alex Ovechkin played a role in his decision, but unless that story come out from Ovechkin or Hunter, the fans and media owe Dale Hunter the benefit of the doubt.
So what does this mean for the Capitals? Dale Hunter brought to DC what it was desperately missing under previous administrations; accountability, commitment to defense, and toughness. If you did not play well under Hunter, you did not skate, as Mike Knuble, John Erskine, and even the Alex’s (Ovechkin and Semin) learned. That accountability was seen no more than in Ovechkin’s drop in ice time when the team was leading due to his defensive lackings. The Capitals also learned how to play real team playoff defense under Hunter, as they played incredibly in their own end. And everyone bought into it, something Boudreau could never do, due largely in part to Hunter’s pedigree as a coach and player. This was shown no more clearly than in Game 5 when Alex Ovechkin dropped to block a shot from the point. He also took bit players under previous coaches and turned them into key cogs in the machine, such as Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks. But most importantly, Hunter taught this team how to be tough, both mentally and physically. Under his tutelage, the Capitals become the only team in NHL history to bounce back from OT losses with a victory four different times. Many Capitals cited it was easy to bounce back from bad games under Hunter, mainly due to his calm demeanor. This team responded to Hunter better than they ever did Boudreau when it mattered and will be missed.
George McPhee now has quite possibly the most important choice of his time in Washington around the corner; who’s next? The Capitals window for a championship seemed to be shutting this season before Hunter came along. McPhee needs to make sure the team does not regress with the next hire. The news is not all bad though. Hunter was not perfect. With a chance to hire a new coach, McPhee can look for someone who could be an improvement over Hunter in some areas, such as the power play and offensive scheme. He also has a chance to bring someone in with a little more experience dealing with adults rather than teenagers, which was Hunter’s specialty in the OHL. Hunter also reportedly was not a great communicator, which can be improved with the new hire (although we cannot know that for sure). The important thing is he cannot pick an offensive minded coach. He needs to pick someone whose philosophy on winning is similar to Hunter’s. Defense and toughness wins championships, as these Capitals now know.
So who are some options? Here are a few who might fit the bill:
- Mike Kennan: Iron Mike has been working in the NBCSports studio the last year and is a more charged version of Hunter. He too plays a defensive style and helped an underachieving team reach the promise land in 1994 when he brought the Cup to New York in his only year with the Rangers. He is a much more intense coach than Hunter though, so he might not be the perfect fit if they want Hunter 2.0.
- Marc Crawford: Similar to Kennan. Veteran coach out of work who has won Cups. He also has experience working with stars as he won the Cup with Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg.
- Jim Johnson: Johnson was brought in by Hunter to coach the defense this year with the Capitals. There is no doubt his impact was positive as defense became the hallmark of the team. His main negative is a lack of head coaching experience.
- Mark French: French is currently the head coach of the Hershey Bears, the Capitals AHL affiliate. The Capitals have gone this route before when they hired Boudreau and it is the trendy thing in the NHL. But, given the success Hunter had implementing the new style; it is unlikely someone from the Boudreau School of coaching will get the job.
- Brent Sutter: Former Head Coaches of the Flames has not had a lot of success in recent years, but comes from a solid pedigree and would have a much better roster in DC. He won the Stanley Cup twice as a player and led the Canadian Junior team to two gold medals. He also had success with the Devils, who have always been known for their defense. The Capitals seemed to respond well to a former player, and this one has rings.
- Patrick Roy: This one would seem unlikely has there is also an opening in Montreal. But he has seen success at the Junior level, like Hunter, and has a proven track record of success as a player.
- Steve Konowalchuk or Craig Berube: Both former Capitals current in assistant in the NHL (Colorado and Philadelphia). Neither has NHL head coaching experience and neither has won Stanley Cups, so they are unlikely hires. More just a fun option to throw in light of Hunter’s connection to the Capitals.
There is no doubt that the decision not to return made by Hunter is a gut punch to the end of a season that was surprisingly optimistic for the future despite the normal playoff failure. The next few months will be very interesting for the Capitals as they not only decide who should coach, but what players return, mainly Mike Green and Alex Semin. But rather than question Hunter’s motives or being angry or worried about the future, Caps fans should thank Hunter for one hell of a post season ride and for showing the Capitals how to win.
Matt Ragghianti is an NHL writer for The Sports Blitz Network and can be contacted at MRagghianti@TheSportsBlitz.com