Tuesday, 29 November 2011

From Hunted To Hunter

The changes that happened swiftly in the NHL's coaching ranks yesterday had a lot of people going through a myriad of emotions. Gone from Washington was Bruce Boudreau, he of the cussing on HBO and coddling of Ovechkin, Semin, and Green. Replacing him was former Capital Dale Hunter, fresh from behind the bench in London, Ontario. Kirk Muller got the call in Milwaukee to join the Carolina Hurricanes while Paul Maurice cleaned out his desk. The change in Carolina isn't so surprising with the way that Carolina has played thus far this season, but the move to replace Boudreau with Hunter could prove very interesting. If Boudreau's push for accountability wore thin with the stars in Washington, Hunter - a man who made everyone accountable when he played - will either change the mentality of the Capitals franchise or will die trying.

There's no doubt that the Capitals players had tuned Boudreau out. Ovechkin looks like a shadow of his once great self. Semin is absolutely invisible on most nights. The Capitals, as a team, would either show up in gangbusters or wander aimlessly on the ice. They gave up goals in bunches. They played horrific defence in their own zone. To be honest, accountability was the last thing that the Capitals should have been preaching when they simply weren't even accountable to themselves individually.

Unfortunately, you can't trade away twenty players, so the man who was steering this ship was given his walking papers. Bruce Boudreau did a phenomenal job in allowing the Capitals to run-and-gun their way back to respectability and into the hearts of people in the DC-Maryland area. While the Stanley Cup still eludes the franchise, there's no doubt that Bruce Boudreau's efforts were vital in taking this franchise from an afterthought to the forefront in fans' minds in the Washington market.

And so the page turns to Dale Hunter to take the Washington Capitals to heights not seen in the Boudreau era. Hunter has proven that he can manage younger players as Hunter's London Knights posted 49 wins or more in each of the six seasons he was behind the bench. He has a Memorial Cup win to his name, so his credentials speak loudly that his players respond to coaching and his system. However, junior players taking home a per diem are far different than multimillion dollar athletes who can make or break a coach.

Hunter will have to have his captain's ear almost immediately. Alexander Ovechkin will need to buy into Hunter's system quickly, and there's no reason why he shouldn't. Hunter's system has made the London Knights into one of the best teams in the OHL and CHL, so there shouldn't be much to differ over in terms of strategy. The Knights had big-time scoring threats in Hunter's system, and this should bring Ovechkin, Semin, and Backstrom around if they can pick up the system quickly.

But it once again comes back to accountability, and that's one thing that Hunter instilled in his teams in London. His teams took no shortcuts and no one ever took a night off if they wanted to remain as a part of the London Knights. If Semin disappears, you'll probably find him in the press box because Dale Hunter will not stand for players that float or avoid scrums. He will stress that good players have to go to the high-traffic areas to win, and that battling through checks will be a way of life. Again, no one takes a shift off, and no one ever gives up.

If there's one thing that Hunter is very good with, it's managing the ice-time of his star players. John Tavares, Corey Perry, Sam Gagner, Patrick Kane, and Rick Nash all saw lots of ice while playing under Dale Hunter. There's a good chance that the 18+ minutes of hockey Ovechkin was logging under Boudreau this season will increase dramatically, and that will start tonight. Hunter won't be afraid to use Ovechkin to score, but Ovechkin will have to show hustle and determination to win the coach's trust.

The new era starts tonight at home against the St. Louis Blues. The Capitals haven't had much time to work on anything in Hunter's system, so it may be hard to see any differences over the next few days, but the Capitals will be a different team by the end of the season. And if Dale Hunter is successful, the Capitals will be a far more dangerous team by the time the Stanley Cup Playoffs roll around.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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