The Washington Capitals after Dale Hunter: What's Next?

May 15, 2012

The Washington Capitals lost their second-round playoff series to the New York Rangers on Saturday, then learned on Monday morning that coach Dale Hunter had decided not to return for the 2012-13 season.

So, what's next?

Washington Post Capitals reporters Katie Carrera and Tarik El-Bashir discussed the Caps and their future with readers in a live Q&A on Tuesday.

Related content
- Ovechkin, Backstrom on Hunter's departure
- Thomas Boswell reacts
- Possible replacements for Dale Hunter

Good morning everyone and thanks for submitting so many questions. Let's get right to it.

I'm impressed with Alan May's game analysis and straightforward communication. Would he be a good Caps coach? Would he consider it? Are Caps only looking for a proven winner ?

Alan certainly knows the game and is very good on TV. I bet he would like to get into the pro coaching ranks, but he'd probably need to start as an assistant first, right?

 

I don't want to speak for Alan, but it would not surprise me if he is interested in joining the coaching fraternity. He definitely has the knowledge and communication skills to pull it off after gaining some experience.  

Sashaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Say it ain't so. I loved Semin and his quirkiness. Watching him skate was one of the reasons I came to the games. Is there really no chance he comes back?

I wouldn't say there's no chance but based on my conversation with his agent, Mark Gandler, there are certainly some differences between Semin and the Capitals about his role on the team that would need to be sorted out.

Gandler wouldn't rule out Semin returning to the Caps and the winger said something similar to Russian reporters today at the IIHF World Championships. With a new coach coming in for next season, possibly with an entirely new system, nothing is out of the question. That said, I think Semin will see what options are available for him around the NHL given that he stands out in a thin free-agent pool.

 

Do you both think Ovechkin ran Hunter out of town as he did Boudreau?

Does Dale Hunter seem like the type who would allow a 26 year old to run him out of town?

 

Yeah, me neither.

 

When Hunter played Ovi 13 minutes in Game 2 vs. the Rangers, it was very clear who was in charge.

 

Had Hunter stayed, there may have been some fences to mend, but I don't think he felt he needed to give into Ovi the way Boudreau did.

It seems to me that the Caps were not all that far from winning it all in 2009. When you have skill guys like Ovi, Backstrom, Semin, Green, Wideman, Perrault, Orlov, Kuznetsov (in the pipeline), etc., does it make any sense to play a stay back, trapping style? I'm not against a defense-first system in general, but don't you have to tailor the style of play to the players that you have?

You do need to tailor the team's playing style to that of the personnel, which is why it took so long for the players to "buy in". In some cases, the players were simply a poor fit for what Hunter wanted to do.

 

It was like when Mike Shanahan switched defensive schemes. If you're going to play a 3-4, you better have the right players or it ain't going to work.

 

Which brings me to my point: the Caps need to pick a style and stick to it.

 

I think Hunter laid the foundation for a defensively sound team. The next guy -- if the Caps choose wisely -- should build on that foundation rather than pour new concrete. Which means the Caps are going to need more hard-nosed players (think Backstrom and Chimera) and fewer freelancers (think Johansson).  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is this more Dale Hunter giving up or more of a realization that his style of play isn't going to work with the mediocre-8?

Alex Ovechkin CAN play a two-way game. And on some nights, he sort of does.

 

Alex Ovechkin needs to commit to playing strong at both ends every night. It's up to him now.

Do you think Dale Hunter's decision to go back to London has more to do with his strong ties to that area and franchise or a dissatisfaction with coaching the Capitals? It just seems odd in this day and age of NHL coaches struggling to hold on to their jobs, that Dale decides to step down voluntarily.

From what we saw of him this year, Dale Hunter is very straightforward. While there likely are more layers to his decision, Hunter has extremely strong ties to London, Ontario. The bulk of his family resides there or in his hometown of Petrolia, roughly an hour away, and many of them help run the OHL's Knights. One of the Capitals refered to the Knights as Hunter's "baby" yesterday (forgive me for not remembering who). That's about as accurate of a description as you can find for Hunter's role as co-owner of the team.

I do believe he enjoyed coaching in the NHL, though, perhaps not certain parts like daily sessions with reporters. And keep in mind that it's tough to compare Hunter to the rest of the NHL coaching landscape, because few among them have an institution to return to like he does in London.

I take issue with something Tarik wrote today. He said Alex Ovechkin was "once" one of the league's elite scorers. I've heard several people refer to him this way, and it makes no sense to me. No one seemed to notice that even in his WORST year, he managed to be No. 5 in goals scored in the entire league. He was number five. Out of hundreds. Is that not by definition an elite scorer? Obviously, it's a step below the sort of wunderkind numbers he put up years ago, but it seems absurd to me to suggest he's still not one of the best offensive producers in the NHL. And I imagine his assist column would have been much improved had Nick Backstrom not been injured for so long.

Did Backstrom's injury have something to do with Ovechkin's decline in points? Yes.

 

Did the switch to a defensive system have an effect? Yes.

 

But at the end of the day, you are what your stats say you are. And 65 points had Ovechkin tied with Max Pacioretty, Logan Couture and Teddy Purcell.

 

Are those guys who would have belonged in the same sentence with the Great 8 a couple of years ago?

 

It's also good that Ovi finished fifth in goals with 38 -- a full 22 behind Steven Stamkos.

 

Excuse me for expecting more from a player who has a $9.5 million cap hit.

 

The media, both local and national, has been saying very positive things about the Caps' playoff run, however they still lost in the 2nd round, just like last year to Tampa and three years ago to Pittsburgh. So even though they played all those close games are they really any better? They still did not advance to the the conference finals.

I do believe that they are a little better, both as individuals and as a collective, for having played under Hunter.

 

They learned some of the details of winning.

 

But, as you said, they didn't get beyond the semis again. Who remembers teams that are eliminated in the semis? Not me. I usually have to look it up.

 

Is it possible that Ovie's best days are behind him? Do you think he can become a good two-way player?

Can he become a good two-way player? Absolutely. And he must if this franchise hopes to advance with him as their face and leader.

Do you think there is/will be pressure on GMGM to go with a coach who has NHL experience, as opposed to his recent preference for coaches with only minor or junior league experience? Is Jim Johnson in the picture at all?

I don't think McPhee feels any pressure to hire an experienced coach. And if you look at his track record, in fact, the next coach won't be an NHL retread.

 

And, yes, I do think Johnson will have a conversation with McPhee. While Hunter was the heart and soul, Johnson was the Xs and Os guy.  

Katie, following up on "With a new coach coming in for next season, possibly with an entirely new system, nothing is out of the question." How could they possibly bring in a coach with a different system? Dale just showed us how to win in the playoffs. True, we didn't achieve the ultimate goal but this team had no business taking the Rangers to Game 7 in the second round.

Rather than his exact system, I think Hunter's largest lesson to this team was in teaching them what it took to be resilient, what it took to leave a full and honest effort in every game in the playoffs and so on. That is what I believe the Capitals must find a way to carry into the future, regardless of who their particular coach is or what type of hockey he has them play next year.

Specific strategies and gameplans are bound to differ in varying degrees from coach to coach. Don't forget that even though Hunter helped make them a grittier, tougher team to play against, at their best the Caps played games that could go either way. All but one of their 14 playoff games were decided by one goal, a bounce or break here or there. They were in every game but they never dominated either, and that's a tough mentally taxing way to play a full season.

Until last year the Caps roster was geared for "run and gun." Last summer GMGM added grinders. What type of team does GMGM want? I'd like to see a team that is defense first, but allows more aggressive offense when the opportunity arises. Playing strictly defense makes for one-goal wins or losses. Which means .500 season and hit-or-miss playoff success.

This is the burning question. What does McPhee want?

 

If you look at the teams that have success year in and year out, teams such as Detroit and Philly, they have an identity and they don't they don't stray from that identity.

 

The Caps seem to go with the flavor of the week. That needs to be addressed first and foremost. Who are the Caps? And then go from there.

Why is Dennis Wideman a better keep than Alexander Semin? You can make a strong argument that If we hadn't played Wideman, we would have advanced. He lost his man, gave up on the puck, and cost the team goals. He made many other additional mistakes (e.g. selfish slashes, a pass to the NYR that should have been a goal) that could have also wound up on the score sheet. The assists he made weren't anything another d- man couldn't make. Semin has historically been good in the playoffs. He often scores in bunches, which is why he was more productive in the Boston series.

Wideman, it seemed to me, lost his confidence at some point late in the season and never got it back. He struggled mightily in the playoffs, but he wasn't helped by playing with a similarly struggling Jeff Schultz.

 

I also have to wonder if his serious leg injury from the previous season hampered him at all. He didn't seem to move very smoothly, at times, after playing some big minutes while Green was out.

 

I don't know for sure, but I doubt Wideman will be an issue next season. Seems he'll get more money and term from someone else, given that he's UFA.

 

I must disagree with your comment about Semin. He was praised -- and deservedly so -- for his performance early against Boston. But he had ONE point (and a bunch of forehead slapping turnovers) in the Rangers' series. That's not good enough for a player of his skill level.

What will the goalie depth chart look like next season?

After Braden Holtby's postseason, it's tough to imagine a scenario where he isn't in Washington competing for NHL starts next season.

Holtby and Michal Neuvirth are both signed through the 2012-13 season and they'll likely share the workload here next year. At this point in their development it doesn't seem to make sense to bring in a veteran netminder again.  (Tomas Vokoun said yesterday that he won't return to Washington.)

From there, I'd imagine that prospect Philipp Grubauer will head to Hershey for regular starts and more experience after a successful tilt in the ECHL this past season. Journeyman Dany Sabourin's contract is up, but they could bring another similar player to back-up in the AHL and allow prospect Brandon Anderson more ice time in the ECHL.

 

Do the Caps trade Michal Neuvirth before next season? Does he have any value on the market?

I don't think so. Seems to me the Caps will enter training camp with Neuvy and Holtby as their goalies. The best one in the preseason will grab the reigns -- until he struggles.

 

From a salary cap standpoint, they are a very affordale duo.

Hate to rewind to Saturday, but what the heck happened to the Caps in the last five minutes of Game 7 vs the Rangers? They looked awful.

Pressure. They cracked. 

..have so much trouble winning big games? Ownership DNA? The management they hire? Sun spots?

Sun spots seems like a reasonable enough explanation to me....

That's the eternal question for the Washington region, I suppose, and one the Capitals keep trying to answer. 

 

Do you think the front office will approach the 2012-13 offseason (and season) as if the Caps are Stanley Cup contenders? If they do, are they deluding themselves?

I do not. I suspect the Caps, from management down to the fourth line left wing, will approach next season with a sense of humbleness. 

 

And if they don't, well then they don't get it.

Do you expect Dennis Wideman to be back?

I do not. He will command more money and term than the Caps will be willing to commit.

 

This is his chance to get paid -- and I doubt he'll pass on that opportunity.

Any shot that GM GM loses his job?

I don't think that's going to happen.

 

If you're Ted, and you change GMs, then you're admitting that the franchise is pointed in the wrong direction. Means you want a whole new front office, from GM to the scouts to perhaps the trainers.

 

I don't think Ted feels the need to blow things up. I sense the owner does NOT feel that things are not irretrievably broken. Instead, I sense that Ted feels a tweak or the right coach can get the Caps to the next level.

 

I know some fans don't share that feeling. But as long as the Caps are selling out and making the playoffs, I don't think Ted is going feel the pressure to overhaul the front office.

  

Why does there seem to be a question as to whether Braden Holtby is the No. 1 goalie going into next season?

Because he's 22 years old and will still be learning on the job.  I'm by no means saying he won't be here and likely see a significant percentage of the regular season starts, but even a strong playoff performance doesn't guarantee a No. 1 role. It will likely be a 1a and 1b situation with he and Michal Neuvirth until later in the season.

Look at the previous playoff runs as well:

--In 2011 Michal Neuvirth was the starter in the playoffs but wound up playing 10 fewer games in the following regular season than he did the year before.

--In 2009 Semyon Varlamov played in 13 playoff games but the Capitals turned to Jose Theodore to carry the load from the start of the next season. (Granted Varlamov's injuries played a part in both 2009-10 and 10-11, but you see what I'm getting at.)

Do you sleep?

I was sleeping until The Sports Junkies called me at 7:45 this morning.

Any chance Mike Green gets an extension, or are we done dealing with his fragile body and inconsistent play of late?

Green is an RFA. I expect he'll get a QO -- and a year to prove he deserves a multi-year extension.

Can we please make sure Mike Keenan is NOT on GMGM's short list?

I would be very surprised. Doesn't seem to be McPhee's kind of guy.

Can you explain to me what Dick Patrick's role in this organization is? He's listed as the president and he seems to keep a very low profile. How much involvement does he have in on-ice decisions?

Dick is involved in the day to day operations of the team. He's in on the big decisions. His biggest role, as far as I can tell, is controlling the team's purse strings, particularly when it comes to the front office's expenditures. 

 

And, yes, he does keep a low profile.

Any chance at all they trade him? Is there really a downside to trading him if they get a lot in return given that he seems pretty replaceable these days?

I don't think so. The Caps are tied to him and he's bound to the team via a monster contract.

 

But the fact that the question is being asked -- even by fans -- shows how things have changed around here.

Wouldn't money being potentially spent on bringing Semin back be better spent addressing this team's giant, glaring, ever-present hole at 2C?

Perhaps. But if you spend $$$ on a second line center and let your second line sniper go, who is the second line center supposed to set up?

How much will it hurt for the team not to know what style they will be playing going into the fall or know who their coach is for awhile?

Coaches don't have much impact on the team right now. Even if the Caps hired a coach tomorrow, he would have to wait until training camp before getting on the ice ice teaching the players his system.

 

 

Is this jealousy article making a mountain out of a mole hill or is it a sign of some major issues in the locker room? Many Caps fans have taken this article to mean there are major divisions in the locker room between the flashy stars and the workhorses.

Capitals Insider: Ovechkin says 'Sometimes you don't have to be jealous'

 

When a star player and captain says that there were times that he didn't feel the team was "a group together" while numerous others described it as a tight-knit group with a mutual respect, that certainly gives the impression that the dressing room isn't all on the same page. 

At the very least, Ovechkin didn't have the same take-away opinion of the Capitals' dynamic at the end of the season that several others did.  

Karl Alzner mentioned a few times that the players occasionally had "yelling matches" to sort things out,  but that they were better for the openness. Maybe not everyone felt that way.

"They were in every game but they never dominated either, and that's a tough mentally taxing way to play a full season."

Who cares how the regular season goes as long as the team makes the playoffs? More than any other sport, hockey is wide open once you are in the playoffs. The Caps still beat the 7 seed and had a valid shot at taking out the 1 seed with this style of play!

What if that style wouldn't have got them to the playoffs?

Don't forget that Dale Hunter went 37-37, including the playoffs and shootout losses, during his tenure.  Playing .500 hockey wouldn't have been a ticket to the postseason.

Semin gets a lot of flak for not showing up, but Mojo was much a much more conspicuous underperformer, to me. Based on memories I'm actively trying to repress, Marcus Johannson had several glorious opportunities against Lundqvist that didn't find the net. If the guy doesn't play great defense and isn't big enough to play possession hockey, he's got to convert on those A+ chances. What can he do to improve his game?

You're right. Johansson had a rough regular season and even tougher playoff (which was somewhat of a surprise since he was so good last spring).

 

He needs to develop an edge to his game. He got knocked off the puck too easily. He swung wide when he got stripped instead of stopping an engaging. He got creamed in the corners. He struggled on the faceoffs. 

 

He needs to pattern his game after Backstrom's. Get bigger. Get tougher and take 10,000 faceoffs this summer. I'm not sure he can be taught to get meaner, but that would help a ton, too. 

 

Hi, Katie and Tarik--thanks for the great Caps coverage. What is the possibility that the Caps could package together some of their mid-level/prospect talent (i.e., Hamrlik, Perrauelt, Eakin, Erskine/Schultz) to obtain a top-six centerman, such as Rick Nash, who wants out of Columbus? Thanks.

I'm not sure the Caps would be willing to take on another "lifetime" contract. They've already got two and Nash would make three. Nash also plays wing.

An entire chat and not addressing the status of George McPhee. I know he will be back, but after 15 years of yearly disappointments (besides David Poile's constructed 1998 team) has he really earned that?

I believe Tarik addressed George McPhee's status earlier in the chat, but in any case I don't think he is going anywhere.

Changing a general manager means changing many, if not all, aspects of a team's hockey operations department and establishing a new vision for the future of the franchise. I don't believe that Ted Leonsis is looking to fundamentally alter the franchise in that way, even after a fifth straight season where the Capitals couldn't get past the second round. 

While it was the same result, the Caps were still within a game of knocking off the top seed in the East and it seems to me that they'll try to make smaller adjustments in the way of a new coach and new players.

Also worth mentioning is that McPhee is under contract until the 2013-14 season, as colleague Mike Wise reported earlier in the playoffs.

Wise: Hunter keeps his cool as Capitals advance

Got to ask...will GMGM attempt to move Schultz to get a more shutdown defenseman? Also, do you see John Erskine in the plans for next season? Why did he fall out of favor with the coaching staff?

"Attempt" to move and "able" to move are two very different things. Schultz has two more years at $2.75 million. That would seem hard to trade at this point.

In addition to the usual suspects like Bob Hartley, Paul Maurice, Marc Crawford, yadda, yadda, yadda, do you think Ted Nolan or Barry Melrose are legit candidates for the Caps?

I do not.

It seemed during the regular season that this might be the last NHL season for Mike Knuble. But a late-season/playoff burst apparently reignited his desire to keep playing. Do you see a role for him on the Caps next season? If so, what does that look like? If not, do you see other teams taking a shot at a player like Knuble coming off a season like he had?

I don't think he'll be back, even in a reduced role. He was a true professional to the end and never complained publicly about his lack of playing time. But you could see he wasn't happy here anymore. I bet he'll get an opportunity -- a one year deal or tryout -- with an established team like Detroit or Boston looking for one more veteran.

Thanks for stopping by our end-of-season chat everyone. Katie and I enjoyed answering your questions. Talk to you all soon.

In This Chat
Katie Carrera
Katie joined the Post full-time in the spring of 2008 after graduating from Ohio University. She began her Post career covering high school sports throughout the Washington metro area and became the beat writer for the Washington Capitals at the start of the 2010-11 NHL season.

Follow Katie on Twitter: @WPKatieCarrera
Tarik El-Bashir
Tarik joined The Post in 1999 after a three-year stint at The New York Times. A native of the Washington area, he has handled a number of beats, ranging from high school sports to the Capitals, and currently covers Georgetown men's basketball and auto racing while occasionally weighing in on hockey.

Follow Tarik on Twitter: @TarikElBashir
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