The first challenge for General Manager George McPhee will be to determine what he wants in his next coach, the fifth he will have hired in his 14 seasons with the Capitals.
Boudreau was an affable players’ coach who played an uptempo style that helped a number of players set personal records for offense. Hunter was a no-nonsense coach who played a trapping style and hoped to grind out one-goal victories. Both systems had periods of success — in some cases, sustained ones — but neither coach was able to end the team’s postseason frustrations.
“I haven’t processed that enough to give you a good answer,” said McPhee, who found out at 10 a.m. Monday that Hunter was not returning. “Coaches have different systems, and there are different ways to play the game. But the most important thing is to have a team buy into whatever system you're playing.”
Although McPhee did not say so explicitly, McPhee gave some indications he wants the next coach to build upon the foundation Hunter laid. Although Hunter’s record wasn’t remarkable — he had as many wins as losses (37) in the regular season and playoffs — players credited him with teaching them how to play the game the right way.
They blocked opponents’ shots with their bodies. They became more conscious defensively. They appeared to handle success and disappointment with more stability.
Hunter’s harshest edict was that playing time had to be earned, regardless of a player’s status or salary. That applied most prominently to Alex Ovechkin, the face of the franchise since he entered the league in 2005.
Ovechkin, who was once one of the game’s elite goal-scorers, finished with a career-low 65 points, the second consecutive season his point total plummeted. In the playoffs, he led the Capitals with five goals and nine points, but his playing time also declined from more than 23 minutes per game in the 2011 to fewer than 20 this spring. In Game 2 of the second-round series against the New York Rangers, Ovechkin skated 13 minutes 36 seconds, the lowest total of his playoff career and more than six fewer than checking line center Jay Beagle.
Although Hunter never publicly explained the reason for reducing Ovechkin’s ice time, his actions were indicative of a coach who did not trust Ovechkin to play sound defense in a closely contested playoff game.