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?”
Dave: As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I was hopeful that Hunter would be able to re-focus the Caps on the game and the team. Though the results were spotty during the regular season, it was apparent everyone “bought in” for the playoffs, whether that was a direct result of Hunter’s influence or out of a sense of self-preservation. We saw Hunter mete out playing time on a reward basis throughout the season and playoffs, and while that might be the best way to motivate an 18-year old juniors player, I’m not sure NHL veterans would agree with the sentiment.
Hunter’s insistence in clinging to Keith Aucoin in the playoffs over Jeff Halpern and other veterans was downright puzzling, considering Hunter’s philosophy in benching Dmitry Orlov for the same period was due to lack of NHL experience. Hunter’s handling of Halpern, Mike Knuble, Roman Hamrlik, John Erskine and the goalies in the regular season at times also was head-scratching in light of the “experience” factor.
Playing time issues aside, Hunter’s enduring game management style was to get a one-goal lead and try to sit on it, practically ensuring close, tense, dull one-goal games. In the playoffs, it was “Mission Accomplished.” The Caps were regularly at a disadvantage in puck possession, evidenced by their paltry shot totals and gratuitous blocked shot totals. To say it was a departure from what the best players on this team do best is an understatement. “Hunter Hockey” reduced his best players, for the most part, to decoys or afterthoughts.
Ultimately, Hunter decided that his family, farm and junior league team in London, Ontario was where he needed to be. I got the sense he came to D.C. as a favor to GM George McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis when they were in a critical transition phase last winter and that he never really planned to take the job long-time. In his post-season press conference, my lingering vision of Hunter will be that he is a man committed to his principles and wholeheartedly dedicated to his pursuits “back home.” I’m happy for him that’s where he’s taking his undivided attention.
As for the new boss, I’d like to see someone with an idea of playing balanced hockey, someone who is a technician on the power play and preferably, someone with an extensive NHL resume. But I’m not picky.
Abram: If Dale Hunter were one of my students, I would give him a B. The Caps were 30-23-7 in the regular season under Hunter: .500 in terms of Ws and Ls, earning 67 of 120 possible points in the standings. He turned marginal NHLers like Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks into role-playing machines, and transformed the team into a defensive stalwart. However, he failed to utilize all-world superstar Alex Ovechkin to his full offensive potential and was never able to successfully turn the star into a cog in the new system…clearly Hunter missed that bullet point on the grading rubric. Nonetheless the Caps unquestionably overachieved in the playoffs, and as everyone knows, the final exam is worth more than any other element of the season, and that brings Hunter’s grade up.
Erika: At first, much like the players, I wasn’t totally convinced. When he first came in and players were just learning the systems, it was really frustrating to watch them. They were scattered, lost, and just plain bad. Once they really got it, particularly in the postseason, I myself started to buy into what Hunter was selling. I only wish that the team could have incorporated a little more of what the Kings are riding on right now, which is a defensive system, but with scoring included. I’d rate Hunter’s regular season as “fair” and his postseason as “good, with room for improvement.”
Andrew: I would probably give Dale a solid six or seven rating as a coach. Sure, he got guys to block shots and what not, but a team with the offensive firepower of the Caps should never have to struggle to score as much as they did. Ultimately it was a system issue and it wasn’t anything that was ultimately rectified as the season went on. Hunter’s lack of defensive development for many players like John Carlson and often times absolutely puzzling lineup decisions held me back from being able to say his first year was a good one.
Ted: While Dale Hunter certainly took some heat for his lineup choices – and in several cases, deservedly so – his biggest contribution to the club was getting them to work hard and play on the same page. I’m not so sure playing a strictly defensive style with his roster was the right choice, but the overriding contribution seems to be the players were all playing the style in the postseason – and most expressed that they liked playing that way.
I’d definitely give Hunter a B, he came into a tough situation – and a team that seemingly was on the verge of teetering on an ugly collapse at times – and put the players back on the same page.
I would suspect the Capitals will either go in-house for Hunter’s replacement – Jim Johnson was named by several players on breakdown day and has certainly a connection with the players, or perhaps Dean Evason. Externally, the Caps might opt to look at the Rangers’ assistant Mike Sullivan, who coached the Bruins for two seasons.
It’s important to remember George McPhee hasn’t hired a coach with previous NHL head coaching experience since tabbing Ron Wilson when he was hired in 1997, Bruce Cassidy, Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter all got their first head coaching job with the Caps. I would think that the Capitals might opt to continue to operate in that fashion.
Peter: I’m a big fan of Dale Hunter the player and Dale Hunter the human being. While Dale Hunter the coach put executed a style of play that I didn’t like and do not think can win, I can’t say that makes him a bad coach– just one with whom I don’t agree. Time will tell, but he may have effected more changes off-ice than on, and that contribution could become invaluable. His replacement needs to have what the last few Caps coaches didn’t have: Experience. We need a former NHL coach like Craig MacTavish. A polite no-thanks to Ron Wilson.
Adam: I’d give Hunter a solid B. The beginning of his tenure lowered his score dramatically, but as the season wore on, he redeemed himself.
Hunter may not have been the most eloquent speaker, but whatever he did to motivate his players definitely worked. People will discuss his defensive style and Alex Ovechkin’s role in it, but I noticed something much more poignant near the end of Hunter’s stint as head coach. From a personal standpoint, there was a sense of camaraderie that I had not seen all season. These guys really played for each other and Hunter was the catalyst for that change. Hopefully, the next coach can continue to foster that kind of brotherhood.
Speaking of a new coach, I think the Caps either hire from within or find a coach with NHL experience (which, for George McPhee, is a novel concept). I would not be surprised to see Dean Evason finally get a chance at head coaching, but I could see someone like Craig Berube or Mike Sullivan being solid choices for head coaches.
Thursday: Part III of our series, where our panelists will reveal which player exceeded their expectation and which player disappointed the most.
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.