October 22, 2019

Alex Ovechkin is a lot of things, but is he a coach killer?

There is perhaps no more polarizing player in the NHL than Alex Ovechkin.

To some, he is the best scorer in the world, a dynamic playmaker not afraid to throw his body around and carry the team on his back offensively when they need it the most. To others, he is a lazy, selfish player whose style of play and large contract are more of a detriment to the Washington Capitals than anything else.

Barry Trotz is now set to be the fifth head coach of the Caps in the past seven years and fifth of Ovechkin’s career causing some to declare Ovechkin a coach killer.

When a team’s star player and the coach don’t see eye to eye, it can cause problems within a locker room. When the team starts to struggle, owners will frequently can the coach rather than ship off the superstar. These players are thus labeled “coach killers.”

If a new coach comes in and proves to be more successful than the last, everyone forgets about it. If the problems persist, however, then people start to wonder if a player is “coachable.” In terms of Ovechkin, since he has such a large contract and is the face of the franchise, if he cannot be coached then the team essentially cannot win with him.

Determining if Ovechkin is a coach killer therefore is not just a shameless attempt to pull in web traffic, but is actually important for the future of the Caps. If he can’t be coached, then at some point, the team will have to move on from him.

So let’s look at which coach firings you can lay at the feet of Ovechkin.

First, you can throw Glen Hanlon out of this discussion. He was Ovechkin’s first coach, but was fired November 22, 2007 in Ovechkin’s third season. When the fans are chanting for the head coach to be fired, that’s usually a bad sign.

Hanlon was in over his head and everyone knew it.

Bruce Boudreau took over in 2007, but was fired 22 games into the 2011-12 season. After a strong 7-0 start, things went downhill as the Caps limped to a 5-9-1 record in their next 14 games. A 5-1 loss to a struggling Buffalo team was the final straw.

“This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce,” said George McPhee. “When you see that, as much as you don’t want to make a change, you have to make a change.”

Would Boudreau have been fired if John Erskine was tuning him out? Probably not. It would be fair to assume then that McPhee was concerned that Ovechkin and Boudreau were no longer on the same page and the numbers bear that out.

Ovechkin had only one goal in the eight games leading up to Boudreau’s dismissal and only 17 points in the season’s first 22 games. The tension between him and the coach was clearly growing as Ovechkin showed in the team’s November 1 matchup against Anaheim. After learning he was benched for the end of the game, Ovechkin appeared to voice his displeasure. 

To say Ovechkin quit on Boudreau is an easy narrative, but in many ways it does not make sense. Dale Hunter, a defense-first, no-nonsense coach was selected to replace Boudreau; not at all the sort of coach you would expect from a team trying to appease their offensive star.

Let’s not forget Boudreau’s history prior to the firing. The Caps were only one offseason removed from being swept in the playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning and two seasons from a stunning upset at the hands of Montreal in the first round.

Boudreau also dismissed the rumor that there was any rift between him and Ovechkin after being fired.

Let me give you two hypotheticals and you can decide for yourself which is more plausible: a player swore in frustration in the heat of the moment in a single game and a general manager saw his team struggling and decided to make a coaching change after two years of disappointing playoff performances OR McPhee fired Boudreau and replaced him with a defensive coach all in an effort to placate his dynamic offensive playmaker.

While many people seem to be running with the latter narrative, it doesn’t really make much sense, does it?

Professional athletes are the most competitive people on the planet. When the team needs a goal, every player wants to be on the ice, especially someone as good as Ovechkin. His outburst may be regrettable, but his frustration is understandable. People are reading far too much into one specific incident.

Boudreau still has yet to make it past the second round of the playoffs even with two chances in Anaheim. That has more to do with why he was fired than a single outburst from Ovechkin.

Under Hunter, the Caps were a very different team as he stressed defense. As you would imagine, Ovechkin clashed more with Hunter than he did with any of his coaches. Hunter was not afraid to bench Ovechkin and he did, frequently.

“Sometimes I felt trapped,” said Ovechkin.

But, regardless of how much Hunter and Ovechkin struggled to coexist, you can’t blame Ovechkin for getting Hunter fired because Hunter was never fired.

After the end of the season, Hunter informed the team he was stepping down as head coach to return to the London Knights in Ontario, an OHL team he owns and coaches.

The conspiracy theorists out there will say that Hunter was forced out or that his relationship with Ovechkin made him want to leave, but Hunter did not leave for another NHL team, he’s not an assistant somewhere or the head coach of an AHL team; he’s still in Ontario coaching the London Knights.

Cleary, that is where he is the most comfortable. You can’t blame Ovechkin for that.

Hunter was followed by Adam Oates. Despite some early success in the lockout shortened season in which the Caps reached the playoffs, Oates was a complete disaster in his first full season as a head coach. His faults have been well documented by this point and frankly if you blame Ovechkin for Oates getting fired, then you just weren’t paying attention.

So let’s recap. Of Ovechkin’s four previous coaches, the first was let go because the team was awful under his tutelage, the second underachieved in the playoffs, the third left voluntarily and the fourth was a terrible coach.

Ovechkin meanwhile has won multiple MVPs, been benched, switched positions at a coach’s behest and went so far as to say he wanted Oates to return as coach even after Oates publicly called him out for his defense in the now infamous Dallas game.

That doesn’t sound like a coach killer.

Ovechkin absolutely has his faults as a player. His defense is atrocious and as the captain of the team, giving less than 100% effort in the defensive zone is inexcusable. His lack of playoff success is also something he will have to live with until he can get over the hump and make a deep run. It is absolutely fair to criticize him for that.

But if we’re being fair, it also should be pointed out that Ovechkin has never had a coach with prior NHL experience or a championship caliber defense to work with. There are several reasons why the Caps have failed to win a Stanley Cup in the past few years, Ovechkin is only a piece of the puzzle.

Giving him the label of “coach killer” is easy to do, but it ignores a lot of the facts that suggest otherwise.
_____________________

JJ Regan is a Contributor to District Sports Page. He is an aspiring sports journalist currently earning his master’s degree in interactive journalism from American University and has his own website at regansports.com. He is also a digital freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Washington and Baltimore. JJ follows all D.C. sports but specializes in the Capitals. You can follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

Washington Capitals End-of-Season Roundtable, Part II: How did Hunter do?

In the second part of our on-going season-ending roundtable discussing the Washington Capitals 2011-12 season, our panelists rated how they thought Dale Hunter did in his tenure as coach of the team and what the Caps might be looking for in a new coach.

Once again, our panelists are Dave Nichols (DSP Editor-in-Chief), Abram Fox (DSP Caps Page Editor), Erika Schnure (Ravings of a Rink Rebel and DSP’s Caps minor league contributor), Andrew Tomlinson (DSP Caps contributor) and respected Caps media Ted Starkey (author of Transition Game and Red Rising), Peter Hassett (Russian Machine Never Breaks) and Adam Vingan (NBCWashington.com and Kings of Leonsis).

Click here to see Part I, “Disappointed or encouraged?” [Read more…]

Washington Capitals End-of-Season Roundtable Part I: Disappointed or encouraged?

When the Washington Capitals lost Game 7 of their second round matchup with the New York Rangers, another chapter in this franchise’s history came to a close. With the uncertainty of a new head coach entering the organization, a bevy of free agents — both unrestricted and restricted, and the decline of Alex Ovechkin’s scoring dominance, the Caps could very well have also closed the book on an entire era.

The “Young Guns” (Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green) grew up playing NHL hockey in D.C., bringing an offensive excitement to the game rarely seen in the league. For several seasons, they were the fastest, most prolific offense in North America. Now, with Semin a UFA, Green an RFA, Ovechkin a shell of the happy-go-lucky player he once was, and Backstrom still not completely back on his game after missing half of last season with concussion symptoms, one has to wonder if this group have achieved all they will together.

Over the next several days, District Sports Page will take a look at the 2011-2012 Capitals season. We’ll assess their achievements, analyze the shortcomings, and do a bit of projection. Our panelists are Dave Nichols (DSP Editor-in-Chief), Abram Fox (DSP Caps Page Editor), Erika Schnure (Ravings of a Rink Rebel and DSP’s Caps minor league contributor), Andrew Tomlinson (DSP Caps contributor) and respected Caps media Ted Starkey (author of Transition Game and Red Rising), Peter Hassett (Russian Machine Never Breaks) and Adam Vingan (NBCWashington.com and Kings of Leonsis). [Read more…]

Washington Capitals start over again as Hunter goes home

As Dale Hunter left Kettler Capitals Iceplex today, wearing his London Knights coaching jacket, it’s easy to realize that he never really was that far away from home during his short tenure as head coach of the Washington Capitals, the organization where he spent the bulk of his playing career and is immortalized as one of its “Rushmores”.

But Hunter’s announcement Monday morning — that he would not return next season as coach of the team — took some by surprise regardless. Citing his desire to “go home,” back to his family, his farm, and his highly successful and highly profitable major juniors team, Hunter was as resolved as the day he took the job, presumably out of respect and as a favor to Caps GM George McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis.

In a sense, he never really left home to begin with. [Read more…]

Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter resigns citing family concerns

Dale Hunter addressing media after practice April 27 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

At today’s breakdown news conference, Washington Capitals GM George McPhee announced that Dale Hunter resigned as coach of the team, citing family concerns. McPhee said that Hunter informed him that he would not return, choosing to return to his home in Ontario and his responsibilities with the London Knights, a major juniors franchise he owns with this brother Mark.

“I don’t think winning would have changed his mind,” McPhee said. [Read more…]

Opinion: Stop blaming sins of the past on the current Washington Capitals

I’m sorry, I’ve had enough.

The reaction in some circles to the Washington Capitals loss in the final 6.6 seconds of Monday’s night’s Game 5 has pushed me over the edge. Look, I get it. Curses sell copy. It’s far, far easier to blame losing on something intangible, something imagined, something conceived rather than taking a hard, analytical look at the real reasons for the loss.

But frankly, I’m tired of any current team, but this Capitals team in particular, suffering the fates of previous incarnations. What has happened in the past has nothing to do with the current team. Nothing.

There’s no correlation between Pat LaFontaine and Petr Nedved and Esa Tikkanen and Joel Ward, other than pure circumstance. This organization IS NOT CURSED! [Read more…]

Washington Capitals even series; Alex Ovechkin adjusts to reduced playing time

Under Dale Hunter, the Washington Capitals are in the business of winning one-goal hockey games. They have been completely transformed from the high-flying, exciting, offensive-oriented style of play under Bruce Boudreau to the conservative, grinding, defense-first mantra of Hunter and Jim Johnson. So far, it’s worked.

The Caps escaped the first round, winning the closest series in NHL history (every game decided by one goal) and are tied with the New York Rangers at one game each heading back to D.C. for two games at Verizon Center. Obviously, Hunter’s goal is to win the Stanley Cup. He doesn’t care how he does it. He, and his coaching staff, have decided that the best way to win is to keep the games close and low scoring. Every minute of a tie game is victory. But are the methods they are employing good for the team, organization, and the players? [Read more…]

Washington Capitals Game 2 Re-Cap: Ovechkin silences Garden crowd with game-winner

Alex Ovechkin’s ice time has dwindled to the point that in Game 2 of the Washington Capitals second round matchup against the New York Rangers, he played just 13:36 (with 3:00 of power play time), the lowest total of his career in the playoffs and not too far from the lowest total of his career, period.

But in the third period Ovechkin was on the ice at the right time, sending a wrist shot past a screened Henrik Lundqvist for the game-winner, as the Caps evened the best-of-seven series at one game apiece, 3-2.

With Rangers forward Brad Richards in the box for holding John Carlson on the previous play, Nick Backstrom won a draw in the offensive left wing circle, drawing back to Ovechkin at the point. The Great Eight corralled the puck, wheeled and drifted to the center of the ice as Backstrom did a nice job tying up Rangers forward Brian Boyle from trying to get out to Ovechkin. [Read more…]

Washington Capitals Game Seven Re-Cap: Caps Survive, Advance; Joel Ward Hero

Incredible.

There’s no other way to describe the feeling of the Washington Capitals knocking off the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, in overtime of Game Seven, on their home ice.

Joel Ward? He’ll never have to pay for a drink in the city again, living up to his reputation earned last season as a playoff hero. He joins his coach, Dale Hunter, and Sergei Fedorov as the only players to score a Game Seven game-winning goal in Washington Capitals history.

Hunter becomes the only man in NHL history to score an overtime Game Seven winner and coach one. [Read more…]

Washington Capitals hope defense-first takes them to Holy Grail

The Washington Capitals have been getting rave reviews from various corners of the hockey media world on their transformation from Bruce Boudreau’s exciting, offensive-minded approach to the stifling, sit-on-a-lead defensive approach implemented by Dale Hunter.

In fact, the opening two paragraphs from Scott Burnside’s column on ESPN.com today pretty much sums up the feelings of much of the Canadian media on the topic.

“It’s still a bit difficult to reconcile this grinding, hard-nosed version of the Washington Capitals to earlier, high-flying, playoff-crashing versions.

But the fact this current, albeit less flashy, model is still around and preparing for a seventh game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins suggests change isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

[Read more…]

%d bloggers like this: