General Manager George McPhee attributed the need for a coaching change to the Capitals’ recent struggles — they are 3-7-1 in the last 11 games and fresh off a humbling loss to a depleted Buffalo Sabres squad heading into Tuesday’s matchup with St. Louis — and because “players were no longer responding to Bruce.”
So for his first-ever NHL coaching job, Hunter inherits the task of elevating the Capitals, individually and collectively, to a performance level fitting of a team that can be a serious contender for the Stanley Cup come spring. It’s a position that includes hurdles such as buttoning down Washington’s defense, which is second worst in the NHL, giving up an average of 3.27 goals per game, and igniting the play of struggling captain Alex Ovechkin to his former MVP self.
But Hunter, although a decorated NHL player and established coach at the junior level, has no previous professional coaching experience on his resume. His hiring marks the fourth consecutive coach the Capitals have brought in who had never been an NHL head coach before arriving in Washington.
“Coaching is coaching,” McPhee said, “and he’s been coaching at a good level and at a high level. The same questions were asked of Bruce when he came here and he had an outstanding record here. The man played in the league for 19 years. He’s played for a lot of coaches. Dale really understands this game. He knows two things — farming and hockey. He’s really good at both.”
McPhee added that he’s been in constant contact with Hunter for 12 years and that he always hoped that the timing would eventually work out so that the former Washington captain would return as coach of his former team.
Hunter was in the midst of his 11th season as coach of the Ontario Hockey League franchise he owns, the London Knights, when he accepted McPhee’s offer. He became the fastest coach in OHL history to reach 450 wins on Saturday, along the way helping to mold NHL stars such as Corey Perry, Patrick Kane, Rick Nash and Dan Girardi along with Capitals defensemen John Carlson and Dennis Wideman.
The Petrolia, Ontario, native is identified with the hard-working, borderline-nasty style of play that made him endearing to fans and aggravating to opponents during his NHL career. As a coach with the Knights, he established a no-nonsense reputation that demands commitment from the entire lineup.
“I’m a players’ coach, and also the players will know when I’m mad at them,” Hunter said Monday. “I’m stern on them. That’s the way you have to be to win games. Mistakes — everybody makes mistakes out there. But if they continue making mistakes, then there’s repercussions.”