Washington Capitals: Will Dale Hunter Finish the Season as the Capitals Coach?

Ryan DavenportContributor IJanuary 18, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 13:  Head coach Dale Hunter of the Washington Capitals looks up at the scoreboard during the game against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Verizon Center on December 13, 2011 in Washington, DC. Philadelphia won the game 5-1.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

When the Washington Capitals announced that they had hired Dale Hunter to take over for Bruce Boudreau as the team's head coach on November 28th, the move was supposed to re-energize a seemingly listless group of players that had stumbled to a 12-9-1 start.  

Now, almost two months into the Hunter regime, the club still appears to be searching for its identity, which is a troubling sign for George McPhee and the rest of the Caps' management team.  

Though the Caps are just one point behind Florida in the race for the Southeast Division crown, the team has gone 12-9-1 through 22 games under Hunter, which is identical to the record the squad posted with Boudreau at the helm.  

If that record wasn't enough for Boudreau to keep his job after four consecutive division titles and two Eastern Conference regular-season banners, what makes the team's performance under Hunter any better?  

Yes, the Capitals have been better as of late, winning seven of their last 10 games, but with the collection of talent McPhee has assembled, more is expected from this group, Hunter included.  

Injuries to stars Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom certainly haven't helped Hunter's cause, but there's still more than enough skill and experience in the Caps' dressing room for Washington to top the perennially weak Southeast Division.  

Hunter's hiring was welcomed with open arms by the fans in Washington, as the former Capitals captain is one of the most beloved figures in franchise history. Unfortunately, the honeymoon didn't last long, as the Caps haven't improved as quickly as McPhee and majority owner Ted Leonsis had hoped.

Though Alex Ovechkin's play has improved under Hunter, the team is in jeopardy of missing the Playoffs for the first time in five years.
Though Alex Ovechkin's play has improved under Hunter, the team is in jeopardy of missing the Playoffs for the first time in five years.Rob Carr/Getty Images

After an offseason that brought coveted veterans Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik and Tomas Vokoun to D.C., the Capitals appeared to be a much stronger team than the one that was swept by Tampa Bay in the semifinals in May.  

However, more than halfway through the 2011-12 season, the Capitals are in jeopardy of missing the postseason entirely for the first time since 2006-07.  

Heading into the season, this team was labeled as a Stanley Cup contender by virtually every hockey analyst on the planet, but at this stage Washington appears to be nothing more than a fringe playoff team.  

Initially, it appeared that the Caps' problems could be traced to the serious decrease in offensive production from Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, but both have been scoring more as of late, indicating that Washington's issues may run much deeper than Ovechkin and Semin.  

Instead, it seems that the team's lackadaisical demeanor in the defensive zone is at the root of the problem, as ill-timed lapses in focus continue to cost the team, which was the case in Tuesday night's loss to the Islanders.  

Unfortunately for Hunter, performances like last night's have been almost as frequent these days as they were under Boudreau, suggesting that he may not be the right man for the job either.  

Unless the Capitals suddenly turn the corner and begin to pile up lopsided wins like it's 2009, McPhee will be forced to make some sort of drastic personnel change, but it's unclear what more he can do to bolster the team's lineup.  

If Hunter can't right the ship in the near future, it will become increasingly unlikely that he'll be back behind the Caps bench in 2012-13. Furthermore, if the Capitals find themselves losing games by wide margins as they did towards the end of Boudreau's tenure, McPhee will have no choice but to weigh his options even sooner.  

Lucky for Hunter, he's a legend in Washington, and a state of panic would ensue if he were to be let go before the end of the season, but his return to nation's capital may be a short one if the Caps continue to underachieve.