Dale Hunter has informed George McPhee and the rest of the Washington Capitals organization that he won’t return to coach the team. He wants to head back to Ontario to spend more time with his family and help run the London Knights, or as it was phrased today, “the family business.”

I find this incredibly interesting for some reason. Probably because I suspect it wasn’t his call.

First, credit where credit is due: podcast co-host Rob Pizzo called this. He said right when the contract was signed that a one-year deal seemed off, that Hunter was just “dipping his toe in the water” to test the gig out, and that if he didn’t love the situation in Washington he’d run back to his head coaching position with the Knights, being that it’s a cushy gig with zero percent chance of getting canned. That’s a luxury of owning a team, of course.

Rob may have been right. (…That hurt to type.)

The thing is, I just didn’t see it then, and I don’t see it now. Moving to a new city and taking up a position coaching an NHL hockey team is no small committment in my mind. I figured the one year deal would allow Hunter and the Caps the chance to see how things go before deciding how long to really commit to each other, and for how much. It made no sense to me that they’d hire a guy to be a lame duck coach without some long-term handshake deal agreed upon in the backroom. Or as Barry Petchesky of Deadspin put it:

“It is unfathomable to me that the Caps braintrust would selct someone who would overhaul the entire system as a caretaker coach.”

Great point. Completely bizarre.

All of this has led me to a theory: I think that “handshake deal” had to exist, but after seeing the results, the Caps just didn’t want him back. While Pizzo’s theory seems bang on at face value, I have trouble getting my head around a coach “sampling the big league.” There are thousands of people who covet those well-paying NHL head coaching gigs – is it possible a team would want a guy so bad they’d let him simply dip his toe in? It’s not like he’s Scotty Bowman. Not to mention that this is a competitive former-athlete who you’d assume would aspire to succeed on the sport’s grandest scale. And he wants to leave for comfort’s sake?

While the players said all the right things this season, there’s no way the big guns didn’t want to strangle Hunter. The Capitals paid Alexander Semin 6.7 million dollars this season, and Hunter used him for 12-13 minutes a night. Who did that piss off more, McPhee or Semin? Team captain Alexander Ovechkin was used less than Jay Beagle in playoffs. And though the Caps completed a first-round upset, they ended up achieving roughly what we expected them to before the season: they made playoffs, didn’t make the Finals.

Dale Hunter didn’t do anything more with the Capitals than Bruce Boudreau did, aside from further neuter an offensive juggernaut and void their status as a team that’s fun to watch. So if you’re the Vice President and GM George McPhee, why have him back? Why not let him keep his dignity, allow him to say “I’m stepping down to spend more time with my family and work on the family business,” and go about replacing him with a coach that can help this team win more than 50% of their games in the Southeast division?

The fun part about being a blogger is getting to completely speculate on stuff like this, which I’ve taken the liberty to do here in a major way.

I think the Caps told Hunter they’d seen enough. I’ve been wrong before, but I don’t want it to be the first time this season that Pizzo’s been right.

Comments (15)

  1. It’s not uncommon for a struggling business to bring in a “turnaround” guy – generally a miserable, bottom-line hard-ass who will jettison dead weight, throw some fear into the people still around and completely shake up the culture of an organization. The turnaround guy never sticks around long, but does the dirty work and lets the next person in start with a clean slate.

    I’ve always assumed that was Hunter’s role in Wash – use the second half of this season to clean up the softness that had defined the Caps over the past couple of years. I thought he was an old-school Caps loyalist who agreed to come in, be the bad guy and speed the transition toward a team/attitude that could be more successful in the playoffs. Given the success they had, I thought Hunter might get caught up enough to want to stick around.

    To be honest, I expected he would be a disaster. He proved me wrong. I think the Caps will be a better team again next season for Hunter’s time there.

    • This was the theory I subscribed to as well. His job was to come in and teach the team the “hard” aspects of the game.

      Now, if he turned out to, you know, actually be a good coach, then hey, keep him around. He didn’t, so jettison him and now bring in a coach who will be “better than the last guy.”

    • I think you’re spot on here. A Company-man called in to do the dirty work. McPhee forced Bruce to make the same kind of change, but Ovie and co. rejected the approach. So McPhee said, “You think Bruce came down on you tough, you haven’t seen anything.”

      I think the end game here is a balance between Bruce and Dale (like I’m on a first name basis with them…) How about Guy Carbonneau?

    • Dale Hunter coached this team the way all pro sports teams should be coached which is complete disregard for contracts and egos. If you can’t check your hat then your not going to see too much ice tonight,you don’t want to block shots grab a seat at left end —- of the bench,don’t want to play for the better good of the team how’s the view from the press box look. The Washington Capitals will never come close to winning anything playing the way they were before Hunter came along. Good luck to the next coach he’ll need it and good luck to George McPhee for signing two for sure floaters(Ovechkin and Semin) for the long term because he more than any coach should be under the microscope for signing some of these guys who aren’t equipped to play in the playoffs. I’m a Bruin but great job by Mr. Hunter

  2. Interesting theory. I sort of thought along same lines that this wasn’t Hunter’s call. From Washington’s perspective it allows them to save some face too. It spares the organization of admitting it made the wrong choice or having to justify the decision to can Hunter.

    However, I think the biggest beneficiary to how everything went down is Ovechkin. Had this been announced as a Caps decision it would have kicked off a whole round of “Ovechkin is a coach killer” speculation about how the Caps are coddling their star again against a coach who applied tough love to the Russian star.

    Washington and Ovechkin are in the same boat for the long haul, and for better or worse the team’s coach is going to have to keep the star happy. Looking back at the season it’s a lot easier for the organization to say this was Hunter’s call and not them opposing the way in which the star were used.

    Good theory, definitely think there is more to the story than is being led on.

  3. I’m inclined to agree with you, although I think it was probably a mutual decision. McPhee et al got a good look at what might happen with a true defense-first system, and the results were no better than they were under Boudreau (while making it clear that this is a roster that’s just not made for that style). So you either have to overhaul the player personnel to match Hunter’s style or you go in a different, more two-way direction.

    Having said that, it’s hard to see how Hunter could look at that roster, see $16 million committed to Ovechkin and Backstrom, and think “yeah, I can make this work.” So he goes back to London, and keeps one eye out for an opening with a roster he is better suited for in a couple of years. @hanger_one

  4. Even though its counter-intuitive to think of a coach who prefers Juniors – given most coaches use the CHL as a stepping-stone to the NHL – I don’t think its a small factor that Hunter OWNS the Knights.

    They are a fantastically successful franchise that pull in serious money each year. I have no idea how much – but I’ve heard a lot. Given that the Knights are in the Memorial Cup and will lose very few players next season (its crazy how young that team is), its entirely imaginable that Hunter would actually prefer to focus on his direct investment rather than earn an NHL coaching salary.

    Secondarily, its been a long process for the neutering of Washington’s snipers. You can practically track the moment that Washington was eliminated by Montreal several years ago as the moment when the high-flying Caps had their wings clipped. Hunter’s defensive style brought a floundering team some serious success. Going to the second round has to be looked at as a success given the turmoil that surrounded the firing of Bruce Boudreau.

  5. Justin:

    I’m sure Hunter had a choice — he surely could have come back. He just didn’t want to. If he’d really been interested in an NHL coaching gig, I’m sure he could have had one more this.

    Hunter gets kudos for getting his team to play hard. But In watching the Caps during the Ovie era, the saddest thing has been to watch this franchise waste some of the NHL’s best offensive talent.

    George McPhee panicked twice in 2010 – first when Jaroslav Halak beat them in the playoffs, and again when they struggled in the first half of the season. Bruce Boudreau ultimately was axed because his team (in most eyes) didn’t play enough defense; they lost under Hunter because they didn’t play enough offense. Having a team with that kind of talent that doesn’t even look to score (they were outshot by 73 in 14 games, and shot attempts were even worse) with Ovechkin, Backstrom, etc., means you’re not using your players correctly. The Caps played hard under Hunter, they did not play smart.

  6. Oops:

    I’m sure Hunter had a choice — he surely could have come back. He just didn’t want to. If he’d really been interested in an NHL coaching gig, I’m sure he could have had one * sooner than * this.

  7. It could be win-win. Hunter gets to realize the dream of coaching in the NHL without committing for more than a year. It’s a life experience. And the Caps get schooled in gritty hockey. He took the 7th seed to one bounce from the Conference Finals. Yes, the Caps are stacked and you can make the claim they underperformed. The next coach will have to sort out how to harness the offensive talent. But still, Hunter implemented discipline and defensive responsibility. Maybe that’s all ownership expected.

    Also, not everyone would take the extra money of the NHL. Some people prize family and not having to travel as much. Justin, per your thoughts from the podcast, it’s very likely he rented a small, furnished apartment and brought a bag of clothes. Easy move to Washington and easy to head home.

    You mentioned a coach declining an NHL job because of money. Was that a head coach job?

    Love the podcast and this site. Thanks.

  8. Maybe you’re right that they didn’t want him back, but the way Hunter was coaching is as if he got the job and immediately didn’t like what he’d gotten himself into. Just an impression I had from him ever since he got there.

  9. The city of London loves Dale. The Hunters can do no wrong, it’s not such a bad situation to return to. I’m just surprised he’s never coached or been on the staff of Team Canada at the World Juniors.

  10. Any one who thinks that Hunter was forced out of Washington (Bourne) clearly doesn’t know much about the guy. I don’t think he needs to be coaching at the NHL level to justify his own sense of importance. He doesn’t need the money. And he doesn’t need to have to juggle the various egos, management directives, and media spin. He goes back to London, where he owns the franchise with his brother-whose life got significantly harder in trying to play the dual roles of Head Coach and GM, with all of the scouting that entailed. He owes no one an explanation of why he played any player a given number of minutes, he has no one telling him what is expected of him on any level, and he will have his brother and son along with him every day. This is a guy who doesn’t need to ride in the private jet but is perfectly happy riding the bus around the OHL. He enjoys showing the young players in London what it takes to develop into a successful NHL’er, and his success at that job is proven by the number of Knights drafted in the upper rounds, and the number having solid careers in the NHL right now. This whole article sounds like a lot more like you not being able to admit you misread, and misunderstood the situation than anything else. Bury your ego in your assumption that your experience in hockey leads you to be able to determine the “truth” in any hockey related subject.Normally I enjoy your articles, but this one makes me not want to read one ever again.

  11. I concur with Londoner (although not with his never reading you again, I quite enjoy your articles). You are looking for a conspiracy that does not exist. Go and listen to their two exit interviews yesterday, especially McPhee’s. You can almost hear the pain in his voice as he talks about Dale not being back. And you can certainly here the admiration. No way is he faking that, especially not that well. If it was all a put up, he’d have given one perfunctory line about Dale and his family and that would be it. THAT is not the way he talked at all. He goes on and on about what Dale meant to the team becoming a TEAM. As it happens, I don’t want Dale back (and I love the guy as I have been a Knights season ticket holder since day 1 of the JLC). But he caused the Caps possession stats to crater. You don’t win by making every game a coin flip when you have that much talent on a roster. That’s what you do when you don’t have talent. The Caps do. I do believe however he caused them to become far more of a team. If you listen to Ovi’s presser, he talks about no more backbiting in the room or complaining if someone screws up. What I think he means is that there were factions in the room that would bitch if he or Semin or Backstrom didn’t score or didn’t do this or that. Since they bought in I think the rest of the team has become far more supportive of it’s star players and I think that that part of the Dale experience will be hugely beneficial long term. The RedWings play great up tempo possession hockey with a commitment to defence. No reason the Caps can’t do that as well. And that is precisely what they’re going to do.

  12. The London Knights were always one of the more desired destinations in the O. Having Dale back in London with almost a season under his belt as an NHL coach will do nothing but help the franchise he owns. I’m sure the rest of the Ontario league is looking at his decision to return and thinking “the rich just got richer.” You wrote before about kids choosing between the major junior leagues and American colleges and what goes into a decision like that. Now factor in London Knights + recent NHL coaching experience for Dale Hunter and maybe the Knights gain a little greater edge over the colleges than they had before. And maybe Dale factored that in right from the get-go. My guess is he’s sly enough to have put into the mix the ways in which his experience with the Caps could benefit his Knights.

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