Bruce Boudreau was fired as coach of the Washington Capitals on Monday, two days after his team was humbled, 5-1, in Buffalo by an injury-depleted Sabres team that was without nine regulars.
Former Capitals great Dale Hunter, 51, coach and co-owner of the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights for the past 11 seasons, has been tapped as his replacement.
“The reason for the change was we weren’t winning, obviously, and this wasn’t a slump,” General Manager George McPhee said. “You can ride out slumps. This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce.
“Bruce did a terrific job here,” McPhee added, “but when the players aren’t responding you have to make a change.”
Saturday night’s loss, Washington’s second in a row and eighth in the past 11 games, dropped the Capitals’ record to 12-9-1, tied for eighth in the Eastern Conference.
Hunter, who appeared in 872 games for Capitals from 1987 to 1999 and is one of four players to have his number retired by the club, ran his first practice as an NHL head coach Monday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. He will coach his first game Tuesday, when the Capitals host the St. Louis Blues at Verizon Center.
McPhee said he met with Boudreau around 6:15 a.m. Monday to tell him he’d been fired.
“Bruce emptied the tank, he gave it everything,” McPhee said. “He pushed every button he could push.”
In his four-plus seasons behind the Capitals’ bench, Boudreau posted a regular season record of 201-88-40 in 329 regular season games, recently becoming the fastest coach to record 200 regular season victories.
But the team’s recent struggles, the decline in captain Alex Ovechkin’s play and repeated postseason failures forced McPhee to make a change.
“Sometimes it just wears out. ... I’ve seen it before with other coaches. Sometimes like having the same teacher for five years,” McPhee said. “So you make the change and hope that a new voice and a new way of doing things and a new focus gets the best out of these players.”
Ovechkin has one goal and two assists in the past eight games and a total of eight goals in 22 games, a far cry from his 65-goal campaign in 2007-08, and his commitment has been questioned as the Capitals’ slump has deepened.
But asked if the coaching change could mean a new captain, McPhee bristled. “That’s not gonna happen,” he said.
In a news conference Monday after practice, Hunter acknowledged Ovechkin’s slow start but said he was more concerned with getting the team as a whole on the same page.
“He’s been good, he’s been scoring, but we have such a high level for Alex that we expect always more,” Hunter said. “It’s a team game. Alex is one part of it, a big part of it, but we have to play better as a team.”
Hunter, who said McPhee called him Sunday about the job, is the fastest head coach in OHL history to record 300 and 400 career wins, but he has no experience in the AHL, let alone the NHL. Those who have played with or against Hunter, though, believe he will be able to command respect from his new team.
“As a player he won your respect by the way he worked so hard, and if you didn’t give it to him, he’d challenge you,” said Rod Langway, whose retired number hangs alongside Hunter’s. “I’d think he’s the same way as a coach. Honest, straightforward – that’s the type of guy he is. And he’s probably going to ruffle some guys’ feathers.”
Hunter served as Capitals captain from 1995 until his retirement in 1999, an experience he said helped him learn how to get through to players.
“I’m a players’ coach, but the players will know when I’m mad at them,” Hunter said. “If you continuously make mistakes, there will be repercussions.”
Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving 2007 and promptly guided the Capitals from last place to the franchise’s first playoff berth in five seasons, an effort that earned him the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year.
And although his team has continued to thrive in the regular season – the Capitals claimed the Presidents’ Trophy in 2009-10 after racking up a franchise record 54 wins and 121 points – they routinely came up short in the playoffs.
After collapsing in the first round against Montreal in 2010, the Capitals bowed out in four games to Tampa Bay in the conference semifinals last spring. None of his teams advanced beyond the second round.
McPhee said via text message that the Capitals are retaining assistant coaches Dean Evason and Bob Woods.
More on Boudreau firing/Hunter hiring:
Poll: Was it the right move?
Tracee Hamilton: Boudreau had to go
D.C. Sports Bog: Top 10 Boudreau moments
Box Seats: Caps say “Goodnight Bruce”
Q&A: Boswell on firing
Photos: Boudreau fired
Box Seats: Why Bruce had to go