When a Capitals employee recently asked an opponent who had played for Hunter in London what he thought of the coach, the response was, “He never talks to his players.”
That’s a feeling echoed by many of the Capitals, including publicly by players such as Michal Neuvirth and Roman Hamrlik, who had no idea why they were benched earlier this season. Defenseman John Erskine reportedly went 51 days without talking to Hunter.
There was a second-period intermission outburst by Hunter that triggered a victory, but most of the time he seems almost bothered by the play of his team. Not incensed. Not angry. Not furious. Just . . . bothered.
If he makes eye contact with anyone, it’s not for very long.
Most of the people close to the organization, almost all of whom declared the move a no-brainer after it was made, are in shock that Hunter’s rousing playing style didn’t translate. Not one I spoke with believed Hunter would return next season.
Why would he? He has a great gig with his London Knights. They buy the best junior talent and immediately command respect based on their stature.
By comparison, coaching the Capitals is a hassle — a multi-pronged job that involves not only talking to players with healthy egos but occasionally being up front on why a goalie might have been brought up from Hershey. It’s harder to conceal the truth in the NHL.
What should McPhee have done? What he should do now: Go out and find the next Kirk Muller and save his job. Muller was hired by Carolina the exact same day Hunter was by Washington. Look what he has done with the Hurricanes. They play a smart, fast hockey game and are led by a former Canadiens assistant — yes, he was there in 2010 when Montreal stunned the Caps in the first round of the playoffs — who paid his dues in the American Hockey League on the way up.
It’s too bad the Hunter experiment will last only a few months, because I believe he sincerely wanted to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup — it’s one of the last jewels left for his Hall of Fame-worthy career.
But the guy who used to work the crowds in Washington and Quebec, he’s not working these Caps up into a frenzy that has Cup run written all over it. A man of few words has become a man of almost no words, and you get the sense his players are still waiting for the old Dale Hunter to emerge.
A hockey coach is like a dad. When he gets mad after a miserable day at work, the whole house feels it. Hunter looks nonchalant; his players don’t know how to react, how to feel.
On nights such as Tuesday, they take on that persona: stone-faced, seemingly ready for an early offseason again.
McPhee’s intentions were good, but the experiment didn’t work. Unless Hunter can work some magic we haven’t seen in these last five games, it’s time for the Caps to cut their losses and move on.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.