October 19, 2021

Is Dale Hunter’s mantra of “play well and you’re in” effective at the NHL level?

The mantra ever since Dale Hunter became coach of the Washington Capitals has been “play well and you’re in.” It’s been that way for the goalies, veteran net-crashing right wingers and Czech defenseman. Jeff Schultz and John Erskine too. But we have to wonder, is it the right way to do things on the NHL level, especially with more veteran players?

Negative reinforcement can be a powerful thing. So too is a fear of failure. Different personalities are motivated in different ways, and we’ve seen this play out with the Caps over the last few weeks.

Michal Neuvirth and Jeff Schultz seem to be playing better after their stints on the bench. Of course, that might be anecdotal. Schultz has always had his strengths and weaknesses, and riding the pine for 20 games hasn’t — and wasn’t — going to turn him into Chris Pronger. With Neuvirth, it might simply be a case of getting the opportunity to play after becoming an afterthought while Tomas Vokoun played so well for that stretch.

But the impression we’ve been led to believe is that these two players kept their mouths shut (at least in the press), worked hard in practice, and took advantage of the ice time when someone else on the roster failed.

Hunter said as much after practice Tuesday morning. “[Schultz] didn’t say anything, he just went out, worked hard in practice and it proves a point….When you do get in and you play well, like Schultzie has, he deserves to be in the lineup and that’s what bumps out another guy.”

Of course, we’ve also seen the opposite. Mike Knuble has been openly disappointed about being a healthy scratch. Same with Roman Hamrlik, and he’s even taken the benching personally, calling Hunter out for benching him for a “bad penalty” with a snide remark about Hunter’s, ahem, experience in that realm.

Hunter mentioned that he hadn’t spoken with either player other than they weren’t playing Tuesday against the New York Islanders and to “get ready to play; you never know when you get in.”

The coach continued: “If Hammer or Knubes get in and they play well, they’ll bump out another guy. That’s the way it is.”

But this should come as no surprise. Hunter has been meting out playing time in this fashion his entire OHL career in London. He said this is the way he would coach when he took over. Caps Radio Network’s Ben Raby caught up with the Islanders’ John Tavares, one of Hunter’s players in London, before Tuesday night’s game and Tavares reinforced the idea.

It’s one thing to threaten 18-year old Juniors with a reduction in ice time. Maybe it worked in the case of Neuvirth and Schultz, two still relatively young NHLers. But with Vokoun, Knuble, Hamrlik and Erskine, maybe that tactic is less effective.  Maybe all it reinforces is a negative attitude toward the disciplinarian.

Of course, Brooks Laich has a mere nine points in 25 games since New Year’s Day and is playing on one leg, so it appears that at least in one occasion the “play well” mantra has been overlooked.

I don’t claim to know the answer. I’m certainly not a psychologist. If you’re adjusting playing time according to skill, history, speed, age, match-ups, etc., that’s one thing. I don’t think anyone would argue with a coach that is trying to make his team better. And if that’s what’s going on, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’m just trying to play the players I think will give us a better chance to win.”

But admitting that you’ve benched a guy — and keeping him there for several games now — for taking a bad penalty seems overboard to me, unless there are mitigating circumstances we don’t know about.


Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.

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 and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. 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


  1. Preston Calvert says:

    I’m not sure I caught your alternative to Hunter’s idea of holding players accountable. ;<) Do you really think he has benched Hamrlik for one bad penalty? Have you actually been watching the games? Hamrlik frequently has been out of position, slow, and makes bad decisions with the puck. Sort of like Schultz before he quietly retooled his game during his stint out of the lineup. I think the main problem for Hunter will be the same as for Boudreau: how to impose the same accountability on the highly skilled players like Ovie and Semin. I've had the same reservations about Hunter's personal style that you apparently had, but I cannot see an alternative for this team at this moment, and at least he has the advantage of perceived consistency of his approach. Boudreau's undoing was the contrast of his coaching styles over the last 2 seasons as the players perceived it, which was inevitable as he tried to impose basically the same accountability regime that Hunter has continued. We'll see whether Hunter can gradually achieve consistent success on the ice, and thereby some (grudging?) acceptance from the players of his motivational approach.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      Thanks for the comment Preston. I left open the idea that there’s more to Hamrlik’s benching than the “one bad penalty”, but right now that’s all that’s been admitted to publicly. Hamrlik’s defensive play has been spotty, but I don’t think much more than Carlosn or Wideman, frankly. It’s just the other two provide offense to mitigate the defensive blunders where Hamrlik cannot anymore.

      • Preston Calvert says:

        I totally agree that John Carlson has had a tough season, as has Wideman since the All-Star break. For Real American Hero JC74, who I really like for the long haul (I actually have the jersey he wore for the GWG in the WJC tourney, my most prized sports memorabilia item), it comes down to possible over-confidence, and trying to live up to what he thinks are the demands of the public hype of his abilities. He needs to simplify his game, and concentrate on making good decisions, and he’ll be fine. Wideman has been inconsistent his whole career, as best I can tell, and we are seeing that now. Hopefully he pulls it back together going into the season stretch, and the playoffs if we are so fortunate. Wideman’s upside when he is playing well is pretty good ;<). Best,

  2. Hunter said that according to the coaching staff’s tally of scoring chances the Capitals allow, the 37-year-old Hamrlik has been on the ice for more than his fair share of them.

    “He’s backing in way too much, letting the wave come through and they’re hitting the second tier,” Hunter explained. “He’s making a few mistakes. Video, sitting out, it’s a humbling experiencing. We’ve all went through it…you’ve just got to go to practice and work hard like he did today and watch video and learn from it.”


    It was more than one bad penalty that got Hamr healthy scratched.

    Brooks may only have 9 pts recently, but Knuble has 12 all season. Also Laich is younger, faster, and on the roster for his versatility.

  3. It’s almost less about why he’s sitting people and more about what he’s telling he pres about why he’s sitting people.

    It’s one thing to quietly tell the guy “Hey there are some areas where I think you can improve to better help out the team” and another go to the press and say “Well if he were playing well he’d be in”. There’s a reason why coaches tell white lies like “I was just looking for the best matchups” or “I just wanted to rest him”. It shows respect for the guy. Hunter seems to be slamming some of his most experienced players in public.

    As an “old” guy myself I can tell you that if my boss called me out publicly I’d be more likely to say “screw you” and have a bad attitude than to re-evaluate and improve.

    Don’t treat grown men like children.

    • Preston Calvert says:

      Well, of course, the best plan would generally be to deal with these issues privately, to allow players to save face. However, how to handle an experienced guy like Knuble or Hamrlik, who may go through the season with their own agenda, based on trying to stay healthy to play another year, and get another contract payday, versus showing the commitment needed to play hard every night, and possibly get injured, which the team might prefer at a particular crunch point in the season. The coach only has one lever to pull to influence the behavior of players who are often earning much more than he is. He can control their ice time. They control everything else during a game. Hunter is exercising the only control he has over the players, and chooses to maximize the impact by being willing to own up to it in public, which, as you point out, few coaches are willing to do. I agree it is painful to watch, and while I generally sympathize with the players, when veterans and prima-donnas (like our young Master Ovechkin) choose to follow their own agendas instead of the coach’s system, the coach has to git ‘er done.

      Have you noticed Ovie’s renewed floating and just sort of waving his stick in the direction of the opposition on his backchecks after a turnover this year? Pretty poor commitment to team defense. What’s a coach to do with a hard case like that? That’s Dale Hunter’s problem, as it was Bruce Boudreau’s problem before. The coach’s success depends completely on the players’ motivation and willingness to comply with the system. We’ve seen this movie before here, during the Jagr years, if you recall. I hope this movie has a happier ending ;<).


  1. […] 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 […]

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