The Washington Capitals’ firing of Bruce Boudreau came as a shock to few. The team wasn’t performing, and hadn’t been performing for a month. What did bring a certain amount of intrigue was the selection of former Caps captain Dale Hunter to be Boudreau’s successor.
The Caps have continued a theme of “keeping it in the family” this season. After announcing that Olaf Kolzig would return to the team to help as a goaltenders’ coach, the team signed another former Caps captain and homegrown talent, Potomac, M.D. native Jeff Halpern. The team has also announced former Cap Jim Johnson will replace assistant coach for defense Bob Woods under Hunter.
Hunter has been a successful coach at the junior level. Usually, that’s not enough to get a bump straight to the NHL. General Manager George McPhee’s familiarity with Hunter likely helped his cause, but was it a wise decision to bring in a coach based mainly on his days as a player?
While he has coached before, Hunter
has never coached anyone over the age of 20. He has had great success with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League as head coach and GM, winning a Memorial Cup in 2006 and consistently being ranked one of the best franchises in the league. The Knights have finished first or second in their division eight out of the 10 years Hunter has been behind the bench.
However, coaching in the NHL is a completely different situation. You are no longer tasked with developing talent, but you are tasked with getting the most out of already-established stars. In Hunter’s case, stars like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin, and Mike Green. Getting bigger personalities to mesh (with bigger paychecks) is a more daunting task.
While he has no official experience coaching adults, Hunter has cited his years as Caps captain as training for his current position. He believes that those years of being the go-between with the team and coaching staff and leading the team emotionally prepared him for this job today.
He could be right, but several questions were raised after the ice time distribution in last night’s loss to the Blues. After the first period, call-up Cody Eakin had more ice time than Ovechkin. Brooks Laich had nearly two minutes more ice time than Ovechkin, and Joel Ward had just one second less.
It is, of course, just one game. As Hunter changes the system to fit his style and becomes more acclimated with the players, he will get a better feel for the team (the two Caps he’s coached in London, John Carlson and Dennis Wideman, were first and second on the team in ice time, respectively).
Nothing will be known until Hunter gets more comfortable, but one thing he can’t afford to do is treat this like juniors. He has just as much to prove as anyone, and the pressure is on to deliver a winner in Washington.