Although he coached in Washington for only six months, Hunter was credited with changing the culture by players and teaching the team “the ‘how’ of how to win” by General Manager George McPhee.
Regardless of whom McPhee brings in to guide this team or the exact system they employ, the Capitals hope the team can continue to draw on the lessons they learned from Hunter even if he isn’t behind the bench.
“I hope our identity going forward is that of a hard-working, blue-collar, not-going-to-give-you-anything, tough-to-play-against group of SOBs,” Brooks Laich said on breakdown day. “We want to be known as a team that’s very hard to play against. . . . I think there’s a very strong character group in there and guys that can lead and I’m sure you’ll see a lot of the same team next year.”
Hunter focused on making the Capitals a disciplined, defensive hockey team where ice time was earned, not given. The system drew criticism from those who thought Washington’s star players were being smothered and that allowing an opponent to dictate flow and dominate possession was a dangerous approach when playing close games, where any bounce could determine the outcome.
It didn’t make all of the players happy – Alex Ovechkin acknowledged the style of play took some getting used to on his part – and it took until late in the regular season for Hunter’s message to translate into on-ice success.
But like it or not, the tight system put the Capitals one win away from the Eastern Conference finals. Even if some of the specific strategic aspects change, the consistency and mental wherewithal Hunter helped instill in the Capitals is a valuable asset.
“He really transformed this team I think into a team that works extremely hard, one that is honest, one that I think other teams don’t like playing against,” Karl Alzner said. “It’s good to go out there and put forth an honest effort and [have] the ability to go home and tell yourself that was an honest effort. Instead of some of the games we were having at the beginning of the year where we’d come back and you’d kind of second-guess yourself: ‘Was that all that we had?’ ”
How much of a lingering imprint does any coach leave on a team once they’ve left? It’s debatable and likely depends on the particular situation, but veterans Mike Knuble and Jeff Halpern said that there are always pieces you take from each bench boss.
“I think every coach and every player in an organization leaves a certain mark on a team,” said Halpern, who cited the example of traits left with the Los Angeles Kings by former coach Terry Murray. “I would expect nothing different for these guys next year to carry a lot of that stuff over and to have those expectations.”
Said Knuble: “Whoever comes in next is going to have something else to run but those players can still take some things from Dale, the way he did things. People may say that it’s too laid back or it’s too defensive but there are still a lot of little parts that you can take from his system that will help you win games down the line.”
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