Dale Hunter will be forever immortalized as the grittiest winner in Washington Capitals history. The decision to have him replace Bruce Boudreau and right a tilting ship in late November had all the best intentions. Hunter’s fight-to-win aura, his pedigree as a respected, successful leader of a championship junior program in Ontario . . . it all made sense.
But now the Capitals are a mere five games away from not just the end of a lost season but the end of a five-year plan that has come woefully short of the franchise’s Stanley Cup goals.
And Dale Hunter makes no sense.
General Manager George McPhee’s decision to tap into tough-guy nostalgia, have Hunter be the taskmaster to replace Boudreau, the players’ coach whom the locker room allegedly tuned out, was absolutely the wrong move.
Half of the Verizon Center crowd shuffled dejectedly out of the building Tuesday night after Buffalo scored its fifth goal. In a scrap Hunter touted as “Game 7” of the regular season between two underachieving teams fighting for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Washington wasn’t ready to play or compete at the Sabres’ level.
Whatever motivational buttons Hunter was supposed to push, he has missed virtually all of them. It’s impossible to know, night to night, which Caps team will show up.
Heck, it’s impossible to know which Alex Ovechkin will show up — the guy who awoke from his most disappointing season to score 10 goals in the past 10 games or the sleepwalking player who turned the puck over at his own blue line and was directly responsible for a short-handed goal Tuesday night that left the red-clad masses cringing.
Did you notice Hunter’s reaction in the television cut-away angle after that goal and the gift goalie Braden Holtby gave up in the first period? None. He stood there, barrel-chested in his black-sheen suit and red tie, arms folded, chomping his gum — as if a line change had just happened.
I don’t know what happens behind closed doors in Capsville, but I feel like the Caps’ players have the same reaction fans do when they see Hunter’s utter stoicism:
Do something! Show emotion. Throw a water bottle. Swear under your breath. Threaten to get on the ice yourself and drop the gloves. Anything.
The Most Masculine Man in the World is Chuck Norris, all right — on Zoloft.
Days after he was hired, I asked this question about Hunter in a Dec. 1 column: Can a rugged scrapper and great leader from another NHL era impart physical courage and mental toughness on what has thus far been a cupcake of a Stanley Cup playoff team?
The answer nearly four months later: No.
It’s not all Hunter’s fault. He inherited McPhee’s non-defensive-minded roster. The injury to Mike Green that helped do in Boudreau and erase a 7-0 start to the season ended up carrying over to Hunter. Nicklas Backstrom’s concussion hurt him even more, taking the team’s best player off the ice for 39 games and counting. And his captain awoke from his slumber way too late. (Though it was nice of Ovechkin, via Lindsay Czarniak’s personal piece on ESPN, to give credit to The Post’s “What’s Wrong with Ovi” story for motivating him to become a special player again. Usually coaches get credit for that.)
In changing coaches for the fourth time in his tenure, McPhee pulled the usual switch in pro sports: from good-guy Gabby — the likable hockey lifer who asked his players about their kids — to the all-business sergeant, making hardened soldiers out of soft civilians in basic training.
But along the way, McPhee and everyone else who approved the hire missed a key ingredient: communication. You have to let the modern-day player know where he stands.
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.