The Washington Capitals had to fire Bruce Boudreau. After a 7-0-0 start was voided by 10 losses in the team’s next 15 games, the powers that be had to let Boudreau go. Former Cap Dale Hunter was then brought in to ignite some sort of spark to get the current Caps back on track, but almost four months later, the Caps have not been able to catch fire.
Boudreau and Hunter are polar opposites. While Boudreau is affable, yet fiery, Hunter is more even-keeled (even if the same cannot be said about his team’s season). Boudreau – until December 2010, at least – believed in run-and-gun “river hockey,” while Hunter made it clear upon his arrival in late November that he did not believe in such a style.
Yet, despite their personal differences, there really have not been as many discernible changes as were probably expected during the transition from Boudreau to Hunter. Just as they were under Boudreau’s new, more defensively-responsible system, the Caps are being handcuffed by Hunter’s defense-first, man-to-man style (though some argue that Hunter has no system whatsoever), abandoning the high-tempo offensive game that returned them to prominence four years ago when Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon’s own defensive scheme (coincidentally, Hanlon, Boudreau and Hunter all share one commonality in that none of them had NHL head coaching experience upon receiving that position in Washington).
Breaking down Boudreau and Hunter’s respective coaching styles show that nothing has seemingly changed since the former left.
The Power Play
Washington’s power play, once one of its most potent weapons, has been backfiring on them all season. The Caps rank 19th in the NHL at 16.5 percent entering Monday, having scored just 34 power play goals all season, 14 in 22 games under Boudreau and 20 in 43 games under Hunter.
The one constant – other than the overall struggles – between the two coaches in regards to the power play has been Alex Ovechkin’s placement. Ovechkin can usually be found on the point, where he is most comfortable. Boudreau attempted to move Ovechkin to the half-wall earlier this season in an attempt to give Ovechkin more options, but he ultimately ended up back at the point. In preparation for Sunday’s 1-0 loss the Philadelphia Flyers, Hunter said that he also planned on moving Ovechkin to the half-wall in order to thwart the opposition’s shorthanded opportunities; since February 12, the Caps have allowed four shorthanded goals while only scoring two power play goals of their own. Hunter explained that by putting two defensemen on the point, the Caps can limit shorthanded off-man rush opportunities.
Of course, those changes have yet to be seen, considering the fact that Washington did not have a power play opportunity Sunday.
Neither Boudreau nor Hunter are necessarily “goalie people” and that has been proven since October. Once the Caps signed Tomas Vokoun July 2, Boudreau more or less insinuated that Vokoun would be the No. 1 goalie by default during the upcoming season. Michal Neuvirth, however, started the season opener October 8, which did not sit well with Vokoun and started his tenure in Washington on the wrong foot.
Both Boudreau and Hunter tend to “ride the hot hand,” giving the nod to whichever goalie is playing well at the time. Hunter, however, has made more egregious errors, undermining the confidence of both of his goalies unprompted.
The most notable example was February 13, when Hunter decided to start Braden Holtby – whose call-up was officially announced 90 minutes before puck drop – over Neuvirth. Hunter’s reasoning behind the decision after that game – a 5-3 loss to the San Jose Sharks – was that Neuvirth had played the day before and did not want to thrust him into a situation that he had not experienced this season (while forgetting that Holtby also played the night before for AHL Hershey). When asked to gauge Neuvirth’s confidence level the next day, Hunter instead expressed his true opinion of Neuvirth’s play.
“It’s one of those things that if he was standing on his head every night, would Braden be playing? No,” Hunter said February 14. “It’s always judged by how you play.”
Vokoun has not been exempt from such criticism, either. Hunter placed the blame of February 22’s 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators squarely on Vokoun’s shoulders.
“Accountability” has been the buzzword surrounding the Caps all season. Boudreau entered training camp in September with a new self-doctrine that centered around holding his players responsible for their mistakes, a far cry from the coddling method he subscribed to during previous seasons. Over the course of three months, Boudreau’s merit-based initiative saw Vokoun snubbed on Opening Night, Alexander Semin benched for committing too many penalties, Joel Ward scratched for missing a team meeting and a bag skate. Ultimately, it was too little, too late for Boudreau as the players stopped responding to him en route to his dismissal.
Hunter waited about three months to Boudreau’s three years to start holding his players accountable, but much like Boudreau, Hunter’s decisions have been questioned not only by those outside the organization, but also his players. First, Hunter scratched Mike Knuble February 9 due to “bad plus-minus” and then followed that by scratching Roman Hamrlik February 22 for “[taking] a bad penalty” February 20. Both Knuble and Hamrlik have expressed their displeasure over their respective benchings and Hunter’s lack of communication (which extends back to the aforementioned incident regarding Neuvirth February 13, where Neuvirth admitted February 14 that no one told him that he was not starting against the Sharks).
The common denominator between the two coaches is the benching of Ovechkin. Boudreau benched Ovechkin in the waning moments of the Caps’ 5-4 overtime win over the Anaheim Ducks November 1, leading Ovechkin to mutter obscenities under his breath before assisting on the game-winning goal in overtime. Meanwhile, Hunter benched Ovechkin during the second period Sunday. Ovechkin responded with an admirable effort in the third period.
Both coaches also have similar records since joining their new franchises – Boudreau has 21 wins with the Ducks, while Hunter has 20 with the Caps – but where the two diverge is how the wins are being utilized. Boudreau, as he did in 2007-08 with the Caps, is leading the Ducks on a push towards the playoffs while Hunter and the Caps are just hoping to stay afloat.
With that being said, despite all of the similarities between the two coaches, the glaring difference could ultimately decide Washington’s fate.