For the second time in three days, the Washington Capitals are reeling from a punch to the gut. Dale Hunter resigned as coach Monday after just six months on the job, leaving the team searching for a replacement two days after getting eliminated in the second round of the playoffs.
Hunter’s departure, while sudden, was not completely unexpected; the contract he signed when he replaced Bruce Boudreau on Nov. 28 expired at season’s end. However, it gives the Capitals one more question to answer as they enter another offseason wondering why they haven’t advanced beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs since 1998, despite spending to the salary cap limit in recent years and boasting some of the NHL’s top talent.
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.
“For me personally, it was pretty hard to be honest with you,” Ovechkin, 26, said of the transition to Hunter’s defense-first system. “But I have to do it because I have to do it for the team.
“It doesn’t matter if I like it or not, because he’s my coach and I have to listen. How he said, you have to be a plumber, so I was a plumber.”
Late Monday, Ovechkin left Washington for the world championships, where he will represent Russia. McPhee declined to get specific when asked about Hunter’s impact on Ovechkin, who is owed an average of $9.5 million per season through 2020-21.
“I don’t know if I want to get into talking about how he affected certain individuals,” McPhee said. “The most important thing is he made it a team and got them to play the right way. And Ovi changed some things in his game that made him a more well-rounded player, actually, but I don’t want to get into his impact on individuals, because since he’s been here, it's been all about ‘team,’ which is the way it should be.”
Ovechkin’s teammates gushed over Hunter’s contributions. Nicklas Backstrom and Karl Alzner sounded disappointed about Hunter’s resignation. Brooks Laich joked that he hoped to talk Hunter into changing his mind.
“It’s a stupid saying, but it’s perfect: You have to crack a couple of eggs to make an omelet,” Alzner said. “He kind of broke things down, and he slowly started to build it up. He morphed this team into a very respectable team. Other teams give us a little bit more credit than they had in the last few years. That’s pretty much all that needs to be said.”
Laich said the ending to this season feels different than last season, even though both concluded in the conference semifinals.
“Look at the identity of the teams left,” Laich said. “I mean, L.A., they were 29th in goals-for in the regular season. They don’t give anything up. The Rangers don’t give anything up. Jersey doesn’t give anything up. Phoenix, the same way. That’s the identity of winning hockey teams. Teams that succeed, you have to play that way to win Stanley Cups. We learned a lot about what it takes to win. I believe we took a step in the right direction.”
Early Monday afternoon, Hunter met with the players as a group. A man of few words, he didn’t speak long. But Laich recalled the coach leaving them with a message that will resonate throughout this offseason of uncertainty: “It’s in your hands now.”