(Photo credit: John Keeley/On Frozen Blog)
By Adam Vingan
While Monday’s practice may have been the first time that new Washington Capitals head coach Dale Hunter took the ice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, it certainly wasn’t the first time that his players had seen him. At the far end of the rink on the far left hangs Hunter’s visage, a symbol of his dedication and importance to the franchise that retired his No. 32 over 11 years ago.
After a dozen seasons that saw him score almost 200 goals, amass over 2,100 penatly minutes and lead as team captain, Hunter will now look to add to that importance as coach. A 7-0-0 start juxtaposed by a 5-9-1 tailspin ultimately led to Bruce Boudreau’s demise after four seasons and 201 regular season wins, but it was obvious – especially after confirmation from general manager George McPhee – that he had lost control of his locker room.
When Boudreau inherited the Caps from Glen Hanlon in November 2007, he freed a team constricted by Hanlon’s style of play, turning them into an offensive juggernaut that captivated fans across the region, country and world. The team marketing motto entering the 2007-08 season was “New Look. New Season. New Attitude.” and Boudreau epitomized the “Rock The Red” era that saw the Caps transform into Washington’s favorite sons.
Yet, when the well was tapped out, Boudreau attempted to turn his team into a defensive-minded outfit. Record-wise, it worked; the Caps overcame a 0-6-2 skid last December and earned the Eastern Conference’s top seed for the second straight season. Where it didn’t work, however, was with the mental constitution of the team. The Caps entered this season as some sort of hybrid that attempted to balance defensive responsibility with scoring at will, but as evidenced by Boudreau’s departure, that wasn’t possible.
Also, four years of coddling his superstars did not lend itself well to Boudreau’s newfound sense of accountability. Benching Alex Ovechkin during the end of the Caps’ 5-4 overtime win over the Anaheim Ducks November 1 led the captain and face of the franchise to mutter obscenities towards his coach under his breath. Benching Alex Semin for committing too many penalties last Monday and Joel Ward for missing a team meeting Wednesday seemed like the last acts of a desperate man. When the players stopped responding, there was no other choice but to start fresh.
Boudreau was definitely a “players’ coach,” someone seen as more of a friend than a boss. When asked before practice if Hunter could be classified as a “players’ coach,” McPhee was candid in response.
“The players will probably say he is a players’ coach because they’d be too afraid not to say that,” he said.
While McPhee may have been joking, he touched on a great point. Hunter was one of the toughest, most intimidating men to ever play in the NHL, “downright mean sometimes” as McPhee said. His no-nonsense style drew the ire of his opposition, but the adoration and respect of his teammates. According to John Carlson, who played one season under Hunter for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, his coaching style is no different.
“I think I was one of the better players on my team there and I certainly didn’t get a free pass, so I can’t see much changing there,” he said.
Hunter himself addressed accountability after practice and did not mince words when it came to the topic.
“I’m a players’ coach, but also, the players will know when I’m mad at them,” he said. “I’m stern on them because that’s the way you have to be to win games. Mistakes, everybody makes mistakes out there, but if you continuously make mistakes, there will be repercussions.”
That approach from the beginning of his tenure will pay dividends. By setting the tone right away, the Caps will be on notice and take Hunter’s style of coaching seriously.
Hunter spent the beginning of Monday’s practice watching and building a rapport with his players while assistant coach Dean Evason, a familiar voice, ran the opening drills. It was halfway through practice when the Caps starting running drills in the corner that Hunter took command. Dropping expletives like his predecessor, Hunter worked his new players hard in the area where he felt most comfortable throughout his career – along the boards – and preached the importance of winning one-on-one battles.
What people seem to forget about Hunter as a player is that he was not only an agitating grinder. He also possessed a scoring touch, having eclipsed the 20-goal marker nine times during his career, five of which came with Washington. There are plenty of parallels between Hunter, a former captain, and Ovechkin, his current captain: both had/have the ability to score in bunches, but can also create space to do so by getting into the dirty areas and using their body as well as their stick. Hunter’s arrival could be the jump start that Ovechkin needs to find his game and lead by example.
During his playing days, Boudreau was a high-scoring skill player, so teaching Ovechkin and his teammates to be defensively responsible was not something he was necessarily an expert at. Meanwhile, Hunter can harness the aggression he had as a player and teach Ovechkin and others – primarily Brooks Laich – to be that hybrid player. Hunter said after practice that he doesn’t play the “run and gun” hockey that Boudreau installed upon his arrival (he also admitted that his team can’t play like he did personally because “there’s too many referees out there now”) and that while he likes an up-tempo offensive game, there will be an emphasis on defensive responsibility and establishing the forecheck. Planting the seed of his former self within his players will allow that game plan to blossom.
At what ultimately became Boudreau’s final press conference as head coach after Saturday’s 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, he said that “if I have to teach them how to be tough, then I don’t know quite how to do that.” Hunter will. If the Caps become anything like their new coach, they will evolve into a mean, gritty team the likes of which this city hasn’t seen since Hunter left.
In praise of Hunter, McPhee said that “whether the game was at home or away, if he was injured or healthy, whether we were winning or losing, that guy played the same way every night,” something that can’t be said about the current, schizophrenic Caps. With Hunter at the helm, the Caps will have something that they didn’t have during Boudreau’s final days: an identity.