Back to Basics
The George McPhee era is over in Washington D.C., and Adam Oates tenure as head coach is up after just 130 regular season and 7 playoff games. Disappointment ran abound in the Capitals’ organization towards the end of this season as the team’s playoff hopes painfully slipped away, and owner Ted Leonsis has decided to make a change at both important positions. These moves have been done to change the culture surrounding a team often described as one-dimensional and ensure that this is the last time for a while that the Stanley Cup Playoffs are without the team representing America’s capital city. With that in mind, the best approach may include bringing back a name still fresh in Caps fans’ minds.
Legendary former Caps forward Dale Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau as the head coach on November 28, 2011, 25 games into a season that saw the prior season’s Presidents’ Trophy winners middling with only 26 points, good for 8th place in the Eastern Conference. The transition from the OHL’s London Knights did not come easily for Hunter, as he quickly clashed with Alex Ovechkin when the superstar forward did not take kindly to his new coach’s defensive system that strongly emphasized shot blocking. However, Ovi and his teammates eventually responded, and the Capitals jumped right back into the Southeast Division race, one they would lose to the Florida Panthers by two points on the regular season’s final day. The Caps were forced to settle for seventh place in the conference, but they were far from done. Not only did they score like the Bruce Boudreau Washington Capitals, but they also shored up their goals against numbers immediately and became a much more complete team down the stretch. After upsetting the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins in seven games, they took the top-seeded New York Rangers to the limit before bowing out in a series that could have very well been theirs were it not for a Brad Richards game tying goal with 6.6 seconds remaining in Game 5.
Though that 2012 playoff run ended earlier than fans hoped considering what could have been against the Rangers, everything seemed set for the Capitals to improve the next season. They still had an elite offense led by Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, young defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzer had come into their own and it seemed as if they had found their new franchise goaltender in Braden Holtby, whose .935 save percentage in the playoffs reflected all that he did in order to keep his team alive after becoming the starter due to injuries down the stretch. The only key cog that did not come back was Hunter, who decided to return to his post with the Knights immediately after being eliminated from the playoffs. This caused McPhee to hire another Capitals fan-favorite in Oates, then a Devils assistant, who brought his expertise in running the power play and an offensive system similar to the way he played in Washington. Ever since, the Capitals have failed to play defensive hockey in any way similar to how they excelled in this facet under Hunter, and it was likely for this reason that Oates was let go.
Certainly, it must be taken into consideration that when the new general manager is hired, he has a particular name in mind to become the organization’s next bench boss. However, Leonsis will realize that whoever he hires to be the GM will immediately inherit McPhee’s roster, one that does not require very much turnover to contend and one Hunter himself succeeded with. Because of this, he could make it a point that his new hiring must bring on Hunter to be the head coach. In my opinion, the Washington Capitals of the 2012 playoffs were the best team of the Alex Ovechkin era, and it’s no coincidence that they were also the closest to making the Conference Finals, a round the Capitals have not reached since making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998. Leonisis likely realizes this as well, and if I were him I would be on the phone with Hunter today gauging his interest in making the jump from the OHL to the NHL once again.
For a Washington team that will need to improve defensively regardless of who they hire, bringing back Hunter would seem to be the one move that could expedite this process. After just 57 games, he had his team playing exactly the way they had to by the time the playoffs came about, they proved that anyone who took them lightly because of their seeding was in for a much tougher battle than they were expecting. With even more time to mold this team, he could to make them both a regular season and playoff force, something Caps fans haven’t been very accustomed to seeing in recent years. Braden Holtby never seemed more comfortable in goal than he did with everyone collapsing in to prevent shots from getting to him, and with unrest surround the goalie position, knowing Holtby is confident playing in this system and bringing it back can immediately shore up this big problem. The old saying is that defense wins championships, and the past few Stanley Cup champions have made this ring true. Making Dale Hunter the head coach again would give the Washington Capitals a talented group of players that will inevitably score along with an emphasis on goal prevention that could best position them for their first ever trip to the Promised Land since being founded 40 years ago.