In five months, former Caps coach changed the culture
Braden Holtby noticed right away. As the Capitals' rookie goalie undressed after a frustrating Feb. 13 home loss to the San Jose Sharks, the pressures and tensions of a difficult season were palpable in the locker room. The aura that night at Verizon Center was pure negativity.
Washington had just lost its third game in a row and was sitting one point out of a Stanley Cup playoff spot. A team with championship aspirations entering training camp was floundering. One coach, Bruce Boudreau, had already been fired and new coach Dale Hunter, after 11 weeks on the job, was still fighting to get his players to accept his style of hockey.
Holtby, freshly arrived from American Hockey League affiliate Hershey just that afternoon, made the one spot start and immediately returned to the minors, puzzled and unsure what exactly was wrong. But when he arrived back in the NHL on March 19, Holtby found the dynamic had completely changed. In the previous five weeks, the Caps had finally begun to play like their coach -- a direct, honest, consistent game they would rely upon until the season finally came to an end Saturday in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Critics will argue with the tactics that Hunter employed. He emphasized tight, defensive hockey and was a fanatic about blocking shots. That style cedes puck possession to the opponent and limits the offensive ceiling of even the most skilled players. But those same critics also can't dispute that Hunter sold the players on his system and got them to execute it. Washington played 50-50 hockey for a full month against the Boston Bruins, last year's Stanley Cup champion and the No. 2 seed in this year's playoffs, and the New York Rangers, the best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season. There were 14 playoff games and 13 of them were decided by a single goal. It wasn't pretty hockey to watch, but it did work.
Now, Hunter is gone. It took him less than 48 hours to tell general manager George McPhee that life in the NHL wasn't for him. He is already back in Canada watching the London Knights, the junior team he co-owns with his brother, Mark, play for the prestigious Memorial Cup. That is where he will stay. So were these five-and-a-half months simply a mirage that will have no impact on Washington going forward? Or did Hunter leave an impression on his team that will carry on under a new coach?
"Whoever comes in next is going to have something else to run, but those players can still take some things from Dale, the way he did things," veteran winger Mike Knuble said. "And people may say that it's too laid back or it's too defensive. But there are still a lot of little parts that you can take from his system that will help you win games down the line."
Hunter made his concepts clear from the start in those initial days after taking over for Boudreau on Nov. 28. Knuble joked last month that it simply took some longer than others to begin "drinking the Kool-Aid." Star forward Alex Ovechkin admitted during the team's playoff run that he wasn't always happy about his lessened ice time or how Hunter employed his skills. But he also consistently told reporters that he had accepted it and would do what his coach asked. In large part, that was because Hunter never deviated from his philosophy. What he told the players to expect in late November held true months later.
"He made everybody open and really, really understand what his vision was," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "When everybody is clear on the ice you're usually clear off the ice, too."
"Right away when he get into locker room he just said we're not going to play 5-4 game, we're going to play 2-1 game or 1-0 and it's going to be better for us," Ovechkin added. "He just said right away we're going to put the puck through walls like grinders."
Hunter's departure does leave the Caps in an odd position, however. The team has six unrestricted free agents who can leave on July 1, including explosive forward Alexander Semin. McPhee said this week he could wait until August to hire a coach. So will he construct a roster more suitable to Hunter's style and hire a replacement with a similar outlook? Or will he make minor tweaks and let the new coach fit the pieces together as best he can? Either way, multiple players echoed Knuble's notion that next year's team can make use of Hunter's lessons.
"I think every coach and every player in an organization leaves a certain mark on a team," said veteran center Jeff Halpern, one of those six free agents. "I played in [Los Angeles] and Terry Murray, I thought, was a great coach. And I think when [Darryl] Sutter came in there he's done a tremendous job, too. But a lot of those [Murray] teachings you can still see in that team. I would expect nothing different for these guys next year to carry a lot of that stuff over and to have those expectations."
Los Angeles, of course, is the story of this year's Stanley Cup playoffs. The Kings fired Murray on Dec. 12. Sutter also struggled for months to install his own ideas before the Kings finally took off late in the season. They entered the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference and yet have won 10 of their first 11 playoff games and are now a legitimate threat to win a title.
Several Caps insisted that Hunter helped change things beyond basic Xs and Os. Alzner has talked repeatedly about shouting sessions where players would insist to teammates that they play the way the coaching staff asked. There was also plenty of advice on leadership, developing respect amongst teammates and learning to trust them, according to forward Brooks Laich.
"There's stuff behind in the locker room that we want to leave there. But [Hunter] had such a great influence," Laich said. "There were some things culture-wise that had to be adjusted a little bit in order for our team to succeed, and I thought he did a great job doing that. He put it in a step in the right direction. We still have areas that we have to improve on, but I just have a lot of respect for what he did."
On the ice, Hunter believes those necessary changes took hold for good in a 3-2 overtime win against Tampa Bay on March 8. Against a team renowned for its 1-3-1 neutral-zone trap, Washington had to either chip-and-chase the puck into the offensive end or spend the night fending off counter-attacks from the Lightning's skilled, speedy forwards. It was the same system Tampa Bay had used the previous spring to sweep the Caps right out of the playoffs in the second round.
Hunter is far from Knute Rockne in the locker room. His speeches tend to be short and to the point. But with his team down a goal entering the third period, Hunter told his players, in no uncertain terms, that they had quit relying solely on their skill to win games. It wasn't working. There were four years of playoff failures behind them to emphasize that message. A late goal by Marcus Johansson tied it, and Ovechkin eventually won it with an overtime score. From there, the Caps finished 10-4-2 against a difficult schedule littered with road games, qualifying for the playoffs on the second-to-last day of the season.
"I think there was a feeling out process," forward Matt Hendricks said. "The players go through it feeling out a new coach, the coach is also going through it, feeling out the players and testing them and seeing how they react to different things. It took a little bit of time, but eventually both sides came together and made it work."