November 28, 2011
Can Dale Hunter lead the Washington Capitals deeper into the playoffs than Bruce Boudreau?
That's the essential, and frankly the only, question that needs to be asked as Bruce Boudreau was fired Monday morning, about 12 hours after Sportsnet speculated this move could happen. Can Dale Hunter, who has coached the London Knights of the OHL since 2002 and is one of the most successful coaches in junior hockey, enter this mess and make the Capitals a more prosperous team when it counts the most?
[Twenty-two] games into the 2011-12 season, the Caps are replacing Boudreau behind the bench with former Caps captain Dale Hunter. Hunter, whose No. 32 sweater hangs from the Verizon Center rafters, becomes the 15th head coach in franchise history and the third to have worn the team's sweater on the ice.
Boudreau's assistant coaches, Dean Evason, Bob Woods and Blaine Forsythe, will remain in their posts under Hunter.
Hunter has coached the OHL's London Knights for more than a decade. He was the fastest OHL coach in league history to reach 300 and 400 career wins, and he notched victory No. 450 this past Saturday night against Erie.
He replaces a coach who was the fastest to win 200 games in the NHL, and leaves with a regular-season record of 201-88-40. Something tells me he'll land on his feet.
But Boudreau lost the team. Can Dale Hunter find it?
Boudreau lost Alex Ovechkin(notes), meandering in a below average season. He lost Alex Semin, whose minor penalties in seven straight games led to healthy scratch. He lost the room, because the men who populate it looked like hockey zombies in their last two losses to the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres. In the latter game, they laid down for a team peppered with AHL talent. They were begging for this to happen.
But Boudreau also lost his confidence. He took a brand of firewagon hockey that filled the seats in D.C. and padded the stats of his star players, trashed it and tried to remake this team as a defensively responsible contender. Why? Because we asked him to. Because the team couldn't win a few Games 7s in the playoffs, so the system had to change. Not the core; the system.
The heart transplant didn't take. The Capitals were schizophrenic last postseason, and that continued into this regular season: Seven wins to open the season, five losses in seven games to close Boudreau's coaching stint in D.C.
By the end, Boudreau was trying to be something he never was: a disciplinarian. Scratching Semin. Scratching Joel Ward(notes) for missing a meeting. Benching Ovechkin and Semin. It was as if everyone's favorite high-school teacher stopped letting kids eat pizza in class and started showing up everyday with a jacket and tie when the grades slipped. It rang desperate and hollow.
He was close to being fired last December during the team's epic "24/7" losing streak. He probably should have been fired when the Capitals were embarrassed in a sweep by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
He was a coach without any more solutions, having frantically pushed more buttons than an over-caffeinated geek playing Tekken in a darkened arcade. So GM George McPhee pushed a button of his own: EJECT.
Hunter has coached temperamental egos for the last 10 years in junior. He'll find a few more in D.C.
If the playoffs are the essential question, then Ovechkin is the second part of it. This team feeds off his energy — it did when he was a streaking comet in the offensive zone and scoring 65 goals, and it does know when he quits on defensive assignments and hangs his head after blown chances.
Now, you can add "coach killer" is his accomplishments, giving him something in common with countryman Ilya Kovalchuk(notes). Ovechkin has blood on his hands here, and the only way to get the damn spots out is if he reclaims his throne as one of the League's greatest players; thus proving that Boudreau had to go in order for him to ascend again.
If not … well, good luck, Dale Hunter. And he'll be wished that sentiment from every corner of D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia.
Hunter is a legend, his number hanging from the arena rafters. He's the dream coach for every Capitals fan that wanted someone to break down the locker room door, put boots to asses and have the players respect the sweater. He'll get support, leeway and the benefit of the doubt in a way someone like Kirk Muller or Michel Therrien couldn't.
Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon in Thanksgiving 2007. The Capitals have never been the same, as he elevated to them to elite status in the NHL.
Hunter replaces Boudreau right after Thanksgiving 2011. Will they respond?
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