October 2, 2014

Hunter in tough spot as new Capitals head coach

Caps New Head Coach Dale Hunter behind the bench for his first NHL game (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

The beginning of Dale Hunter’s NHL coaching career has not gone as well as he had hoped and the team’s poor response is concerning for his potential long-term success.

Hunter replaced former Jack Adams award winner and former darling of the Washington D.C. coaching scene Bruce Boudreau. The former captain-turned-coach has several clear goals. The biggest of them all may be getting Washington over the hump and past the second round of the NHL playoffs. Getting to the Eastern Conference finals was something Boudreau was not able to do in his four-plus years in Washington and it ultimately cost him his job.

General Manager George McPhee has chosen to look forward to what Hunter can do, instead of focusing on the past of what the Caps weren’t able to accomplish under Boudreau. Who could blame him?  Hunter is probably coaching for McPhee’s job too. The major problem with looking forward though is the fact the team looks worse off now than it did with Boudreau. Not only has this team struggled to score goals (and get quality scoring chances) under Hunter, but there’s been a  lack of defensive discipline — especially among a few veterans brought in for stability.  The goaltending, which should be a strong suit, has been suspect as well. All of these things are steps back for a team who was supposed to be just a few tweaks from success. Not all of these things can — or should — be attributed to Hunter, but he’s got the reigns now and his “adjustment period” is rapidly dwindling.

Hunter was supposed to be a coach who jolted this team back to the reality of what they think they should be. The strategy of changing coaches mid-season can work well and on some nights Washington still looks like a contending team. Tuesday’s debacle against the Philadelphia Flyers, though, may be the worst loss of the season, and the biggest indictment of Hunter thus far. The loss was worse than the score sheet indicated and it may be the biggest sign Hunter might not be ready for the big time.

Coaching in the OHL is much different than the NHL. Most defensive systems are simplistic in nature in junior hockey, if not thrown out all together, and because of it Hunter is immediately at a disadvantage. The Ontario Hockey League is rife with some of the youngest and most talented hockey players on the face of the planet, but have at the same time has some of the rawest and just down-right bad players in North America. A major strategy of many OHL teams is to have their best player go coast-to-coast and score whenever possible.

The scoring strategy just outlined shows just why jumping from the OHL to the NHL is so difficult, and it simply is because the NHL doesn’t have the talent gap junior hockey does. Putting your best player out against a fourth line in the OHL might be a guaranteed scoring chance and most likely a goal in the OHL, but it is anything but in the NHL. Matchups must be more thought out and several times in his short stint with the Caps it looks as if Hunter has not learned that yet.

Being outplayed on the ice is one thing, but being out-coached is another. Hunter’s has struggled occasionally so far creating the best matchups in game situations for the Caps. He’s tried the same old song of putting Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin on the same line, and shockingly it has not worked yet. If he truly wants to leave a mark on this team his coaching has to be better and it has to start with his line combinations.

Loading up your top line with your top talent is a solid strategy in Ontario, but it is not that easy in the NHL. Lines should be more balanced, taking into consideration the need for speed, defense and grit all on the same line. Semin and Ovechkin have been some of the most lackluster players on this team and if anything should be demoted from at least the top line. Guys like Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera and Marcus Johansson have played not only above their talent level, but above the effort level of the entire team. If he really wants to send a message to his team he needs to do it by applauding effort and output, not raw skill and dollar signs.

It’s no secret Hunter was thrust into a tough situation, but he knew the cards he was going to be dealt before he took the job. Washington has a lot of big egos, bad output and bloated contacts on its roster, but it should still be able to succeed talent-wise at least against the worst teams in the league. The problem is, the Caps are playing like one of the worst teams in the division and the Eastern Conference. Knowing what he did before, if Hunter thought he could walk in and turn the team around, it is time he starts showing he can.

The worst part of Tuesday’s loss is not the fact it happened to the Flyers, but the fact the Winnipeg Jets won on the same night. Winnipeg squeaked out a win against the Minnesota Wild and pushed one point in front of the Caps in the standings. It moved Washington from second in the division to third, not the position a supposed Cup team should be in.

Everyone from fans to analysts have broken down the problems facing the Caps. Sure, you could look at defensive zone play, power play output and the play of the goaltending to find out how to fix the team. Truth is though, even if you could fix those problems the team still wouldn’t pass the eye test.

Too often does the team not come out to play in the first or can’t close out the third. Their inability to play disciplined hockey and constant mental lapses leave guys open in front of the net and lead to wasted scoring chances. On top of of those problems, Washington’s franchise player, the supposed No. 2 player in the world, can’t score consistently. These sure don’t sound like system issues, but instead sound like team-wide issues.

When you look at just a few of those problems, it is hard not to see a rebuilding team instead of a retooling one. If the team-wide issues are holding the Caps back there may not be any remedy to the problems coming this season. Hunter has time to right the ship, but he is running out of it. McPhee probably deserves some blame but at this point it falls on Hunter’s shoulders to win this year. If he can’t fix it now, there is a chance no one will ever be able to fix the Caps.

Hunter has to get in his guys’ heads, has to get them to play disciplined and simple hockey for a full 60 minutes every night. He can’t bank on a series of big plays to pull out a win night-after-night like he did in the OHL. As mentioned, Washington’s problems may be in the personnel department, but for those to become apparent, Hunter has to get all his guys to play hard first. Until then, any talent evaluation is secondary.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

Comments

  1. Is it too early to start saying that firing Bruce was not the right decision?

    • Dave Nichols says:

      My personal opinion was that it wasn’t coaching that has been the problem, but the players. Most Caps fans will tell you the coach needed to be changed, that the team stopped listening. I think they expected that a new coach would come in an immediately turn things around like what happened in Pittsburgh and Philly. But it’s not that easy, and we’ve seen that many of the same problems under Boudreau have lingered under Hunter’s early watch.

  2. Scott Gater says:

    I think Andrew hit it right on the head- going from coaching in the OHL to the NHL is not something many/if any have done with any success (I’m sure someone with more time then I could determine if it has even been done). The systems in play, the ego’s etc are I think far beyond what Dale dealt with at the OHL. Dale may well end up being a great coach at the NHL level, but I think he got thrown in the deep end without the “customary” apprenticeship in the ECHL or AHL.
    I think trying to shake up the players by putting in a coach untried at the NHL level and without any rep other then “hard work, lunch bucket style”, was a mistake George will regret.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      Scott, I agree it was a risk. But I also think Dale Hunter was going to be the next coach of this team regardless how long Bruce Boudreau was here. McPhee has taken Hunter’s counsel for years on personnel matters and it’s just been a matter of timing for Hunter being the head guy in D.C.

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