“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.