After 201 wins, four consecutive Southeast Division titles, and the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award for Coach of the Year, Bruce Boudreau is out as head coach of the Washington Capitals.
Taking over the helm of the floundering Caps is a very familiar face in Washington, D.C. – former Capitals captain Dale Hunter.
“The reason for the change was we weren’t winning, obviously,” said General Manager George McPhee from Kettler Capitals Iceplex Monday morning. “This wasn’t a slump. You can ride out slumps. This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce.”
The organization announced the move at 8 am this morning, days after an embarrassing loss on the road to a depleted Buffalo Sabres squad put an exclamation at the end of a disappointing streak of almost a month in which it became increasingly clear that Boudreau had lost the ears, and the respect, of his team.
While Boudreau took the Caps from the bottom of the league to the top, Hunter is the man tasked with getting Washington past the playoffs roadblock that has stymied them season after season.
Asked what Hunter will bring to the Caps as a coach, McPhee replied, “Hopefully the same things he brought us as a player. Obviously Dale was an intelligent player. He had talent. And he was tough. And he was downright mean sometimes.”
Hunter was an inspired choice by general manager George McPhee. Arguably the most successful coach in Ontario Hockey League history, Hunter recently earned his 450th win as the bench boss for the London Knights. The Ontario Hockey League is one of the premier junior leagues in Canada, and Hunter has coached current NHL stars Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Patrick Kane, and John Tavares, as well as current Caps John Carlson and Dennis Wideman.
Though Hunter has been wildly successful in London, most coaches don’t jump right from the OHL to the NHL. What put Hunter on McPhee’s radar was the 51-year-old Ontario native’s storied history with the Caps.
For 19 seasons, from 1980 to 1999, Hunter was a stalwart grinder in the NHL. He started his career with the Quebec Nordiques and quickly established himself as a pugilist, albeit perhaps the fighter with the softest hands the league had seen. In seven seasons in Quebec, Hunter averaged 20 goals and 220 PIMs a campaign. After the 1986-87 season Hunter was traded to the Caps in a multi-player deal; the first round draft pick Washington sent to Quebec was used to draft Joe Sakic.
As a Capital, Hunter endeared himself to his teammates and the fans, and was the team’s captain from 1994 to 1999, when he was dealt at the trade deadline from the bottom-dwelling Caps back to his first organization, now the Colorado Avalanche, to give him one last shot to win a Stanley Cup. When that didn’t pan out, Hunter retired and bought the London Knights along with his brother Tim, who replaces Dale as the head coach.
On the ice Hunter was known for his fierce, sometimes dirty, play, and the same can be said for his coaching style. Whereas Boudreau was a player’s coach, Hunter is certainly a disciplinarian, and the hope is that he will bring a large measure of accountability to the locker room. He also had disciplinary issues, earning several suspensions during the 2005-06 OHL season when his players left the bench to engage in fights, as well as a 21-game suspension, then the longest in NHL history, when he cross-checked the Islanders’ Pierre Turgeon from behind after Turgeon scored the series-winning goal in overtime in the 1993 Patrick Division semifinals.
Grit, discipline, and the willingness to risk crossing the line are all traits Hunter brings to the Caps bench that were absent under Boudreau, an offensive mastermind.
McPhee, Boudreau’s staunchest supporter in the Caps organization, told ESPN this morning that the former coach’s “performance over the past 10 days” was the cause of the firing, referring specifically to the 5-1 loss in Buffalo and a 7-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs the previous week. McPhee praised Boudreau in his press conference, saying, “Bruce emptied the tank and he’s pushed every button he could. And if it worked for a while it’s not working now.”
After the Buffalo game, Boudreau questioned his team’s mental toughness, saying “it’s got to come from within, I’ve got to believe. I’m hoping it’s got to come from within because if I have to teach them how to be tough I don’t know quite how to do that.” Obviously McPhee agreed that Boudreau wasn’t the one to teach it, but hopes that Hunter has the answer for a listless Caps team that has lost 10 of its past 15 games.