Wrote a feature for our web site on the long-term impact that Dale Hunter’s tenure will have on the Caps. Check it out here. Most players thought the cultural changes Hunter tried to bring will have a lasting effect even under a new head coach next season.
You can argue that logic, obviously. There are six unrestricted free agents on the team and it’s possible none will return. That would leave six new arrivals who weren’t here for the Hunter “era”. But Jeff Halpern – one of the six free agents on the final NHL roster - noted that you still see elements of Terry Murray in the Los Angeles Kings’ play five months after he was fired. So maybe it’s possible.
“[Hunter] really transformed this team into a team that works extremely hard, one that is honest, one that I think other teams don’t like playing against,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “That’s something we can definitely build off of. We’re all very happy with that. It’s good to go out there and put forth an honest effort and the ability to go home and tell yourself that was an honest effort. Instead of some of the games we were having at the beginning of the year where we’d come back and you’d kind of second guess yourself - ‘Was that all that we had?’”
Hunter never really adapted to the day-to-day grind of dealing with the media at the NHL level. He jokingly said “I love you guys” when asked on Monday what aspects of the job he would miss the least. But by the end, there was a sense that he had found his way. Multiple players said Monday that Hunter’s love for teaching the game shined through. It just took some time for everyone to get on the same page.
“There’s a lot to learn, but I think that the one that sticks out in my mind is that [Hunter] gave everyone the chance to figure things out on their own- to really look inside yourselves as a group and as individuals to find out what you need to do to be successful," rookie goalie Braden Holtby said. “There’s usually a lot of pressure on guys from coaches and whatnot to figure things out quick, but I think he was very patient and that attributes to his playing career and how he was able to figure things out along the way. And that’s what we needed as a group.”
Off the top of my head, the players whose public comments clearly showed some disappointment that Hunter wouldn’t return were Alzner, Brooks Laich, Matt Hendricks, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson. All understood why he wanted to return to home to London and his junior team there. And that doesn’t mean the others wanted him gone, either. Well, maybe the guys who spent the second half of the season as healthy scratches aren’t all that broken up about it. But that’s par for the course in the NHL.
“He brought a system that I think really worked. We played good hockey in the playoff,” Backstrom said. “I think he's been doing so many good things to this team. I really wanted to see him back next year, but unfortunately he's not. So it's not good.”
Halpern – a guy who didn’t get to play much late in the season until Jay Beagle was hurt for the final two games – said Hunter did well to get that message across to the entire team. Where they needed to be better, especially in the defensive zone, they became better. By the end of the year you kind of knew what to expect from the Caps and you couldn’t always say that about past teams. Now – will that carry over? Or will Hunter’s departure mean a return to the old ways, which were entertaining, but apparently unsustainable in the postseason.
“That’s a good question, really. Hopefully it doesn’t. You definitely hope guys have kind of learned a lot over the course of the year,” forward Joel Ward said. “Obviously, not having [Hunter] day-in and day-out is going to be definitely different. Whoever’s going to come in, I guess, is going to definitely preach defensively awareness, that’s for sure. I’m sure a lot of guys are big boys and they understood what to do. It’s just a matter of actually executing and doing it.”
But let’s say general manager George McPhee brings in a coach with a similar philosophy to Hunter’s. Is this style sustainable for an entire 82-game season – or whatever it would be if there’s a lockout? Ward and Laich both argued yes and cited specific examples: The Rangers, Phoenix, New Jersey and even Los Angeles, which was 29th in scoring during the regular season before finding a nice balance in the playoffs. They don’t all play this exact same style of Hunter hockey, but the four Stanley Cup semifinalists all ranked in the top nine in goals allowed per game this season.
“To win [that way] is taxing, but the way we played wasn’t harder mentally or physically- I mean, it was a lot of fun,” Laich said. He later added “That’s the identity of winning hockey teams. Teams that succeed, you have to play that way to win the Stanley Cup. We’ve learned a lot about what it takes to win and I believe we took a step in the right direction.”
They just won’t take the next step with Hunter. McPhee said he might not make a hire until August so it seems likely that any roster additions and subtractions will take place without knowing who will be behind the bench. He is comfortable with that. A team doesn’t have to adapt to a new coach immediately. All that matters is that everyone comes together by mid-April. Maybe that is Hunter’s ultimately legacy to this group.
“The one thing about Dale is he’s always been the same from the first day I met him when I was 17, 16 years old,” said defenseman Dennis Wideman, who played junior hockey for Hunter in London. “He’s always been exactly the same. He came in here and was exactly like he was. He obviously was a little bit better coaching now than he was. He’s got 10 years under his belt or whatever it is. But, no, Dale’s one of those guys that’s a good farm boy. He stays true to what he thinks and the way he is and I think he’ll always be that way.”
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