Washington Capitals’ offseason uncertainty begins with Dale Hunter, Alexander Semin

May 13, 2012

As the Washington Capitals scatter across the globe in the coming days, a series of tough questions will confront the team’s decision makers in the aftermath of another second-round playoff exit.

The most pressing issue is the future of Coach Dale Hunter. If the former Capitals great has decided whether to return to Washington or go back to London, Ontario, he wasn’t tipping his hand after Saturday’s season-ending Game 7 defeat in New York.

“That’s not the time right now,” is all Hunter would say. The Capitals chose to delay breakdown day, so the lights in the headquarters remained off Sunday, the parking lot mostly empty.

Regardless of whether Hunter can be talked into staying, significant changes are anticipated in the coming months. Can you envision a roster without Alexander Semin or Dennis Wideman? How about a second line without a veteran playmaking center? It’s all possible.

But the team’s offseason must begin with sorting out its coaching conundrum.

Hunter, it seems, has as many reasons to stay as he’s got to leave. But, as it has been all along, the decision appears to be Hunter’s to make, not the other way around.

In six months, he accomplished something his predecessor could not: transform the Capitals into an accountable, resilient, defensively conscious team that, in theory, plays the perfect brand of hockey to succeed in the tight-checking playoffs, even if the low-scoring style is nerve-racking and unfulfilling to some.

After some initial resistance, the majority of the players bought into Hunter’s philosophy and, in recent weeks, the dressing room and the coach seemed to be pulling in the same direction. On Thursday, locker room leader Brooks Laich responded, “Absolutely,” when asked if he wanted Hunter to return. “He’s been great,” Laich added.

But, like Bruce Boudreau before him, Hunter couldn’t spur Alex Ovechkin, and the considerable talent that surrounds him, beyond the second round. Hunter’s overall record, meantime, says he lost as many games as he won — 37 — when overtime and shootout losses are calculated. There’s also the matter of the relationship between the coach and star captain.

In 14 playoff games, Ovechkin had a respectable showing overall, finishing with five goals and a team-leading nine points. In Saturday’s decisive contest, though, he failed to record a point, had twice as many hits as shots on goal and was knocked off the puck on Michael Del Zotto’s game winner.

The most noteworthy statistic this postseason, however, was Ovechkin’s reduced ice time, which ranked third among Capitals’ forwards and plummeted from 23 minutes 30 seconds per game in the 2011 playoffs to 19:51. Six times, Ovechkin skated 17:34 or less, including three games in which he played less than 6 minutes – stunningly low totals for a franchise player who counts more than $9.5 million against the salary cap.

The lack of playing time wasn’t a punishment as much as it was Hunter doing things his way. There simply were other players, such as grinder Jay Beagle, whom Hunter trusted more in one-goal games. In Game 2 of the Rangers’ series, in fact, Beagle played about six minutes more than Ovechkin, who entered the game with 27 playoff goals to Beagle’s zero.

Hunter did not publicly criticize Ovechkin’s freelancing on the defensive side of the puck. And Ovechkin did not protest too loudly about his dip in ice time. But the question remains: Can the two coexist? Or better yet, does Hunter have any interest in coexisting? Hunter, of course, can resume coaching and operating the lucrative and successful London Knights junior hockey team if he so chooses. Last week, the Knights claimed the Ontario Hockey League championship.

Among the other items on General Manager George McPhee’s lengthy to-do list:

Semin’s $6.7 million-per-season contract expires and he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. In each of the past two seasons, he already had signed a one-year contract extension long before now.

This time figures to be more complex. The 28-year-old scored 21 goals, his lowest total since his rookie season in 2003-04, and had a typically uneven postseason performance, notching three goals against Boston and none against New York. But, for the first time, Semin can dictate where he plays and there’s no guarantee that it will be Washington.

McPhee could find himself in a difficult position in negotiations because he’s faced with a shallow free agent pool in which to find a replacement for Semin. Prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, meantime, has said he intends to spend another two seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League.

And if the Capitals are planning to keep Semin, would it be worth McPhee’s time to sign a top-six center to set him up?

●McPhee also must make decisions on pending unrestricted free agents Mike Knuble, Tomas Vokoun, Jeff Halpern, Keith Aucoin and Wideman.

Wideman is the biggest question. Although he was named to the all-star team after a strong first half, the 29-year-old, at times, struggled in the second half and finished the postseason tied with defensive partner Jeff Schultz at minus-7, the second-worst mark in the playoffs.

Wideman figures to command a raise on the $4.5 million he earned this season. But will the Capitals be interested at that price?

Mike Green, John Carlson, Beagle and Mathieu Perreault, all restricted free agents, also need contracts.

While Green missed the majority of a second consecutive season due to injuries, it would be hard to imagine a scenario, barring a trade, in which he is not retained and on the roster next season. The same is true for Carlson, Beagle and Perreault.

● One position that seems to have some clarity, at long last, is goaltender. With Vokoun finishing the season on injured reserve and likely out of the picture, rookie Braden Holtby proved he’s ready for the big leagues by carrying the Capitals to within a game of the franchise’s first conference finals berth in 14 years.

The 22-year-old posted a 1.95 goals against average and a .935 save percentage (tied for fifth best) against the Bruins and Rangers, endeared himself to his teammates with his competitive fire and, as result, would seem to have the edge on Michal Neuvirth entering training camp.

“Braden certainly helped his cause and put his name on the map,” Knuble said. “He really helped himself. We’re all very proud of the way he played.”

“He was juggling a lot,” Knuble added.

Now it’s time for McPhee to do the same.

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