Washington Capitals: Is Coach Dale Hunter the Right Man for the Job?

Ian MathesonContributor IIIJanuary 19, 2012

It's been a sub-par season so far in the nation's capital to say the least, and the team is running out of excuses. Superstar winger Alexander Ovechkin has struggled with consistency, as has fellow Russian teammate Alexander Semin, and it's hurting the team offensively.

Making matters worse is the absence of Nicklas Backstrom, who was having a great bounce-back season prior to Rene Bourque's attempt to take his head as a souvenir a few weeks ago. He's still out with an upper body injury.

There's more going on here though than a lack of scoring; there's something missing in Washington this season that's catching their foot in the door.

Just when the team looks like it's ready to take off and start playing like a contender they come out with a dead-to-rights performance where they seem lucky to even register a single goal.

There are several easy explanations for this, the first being the transition between coaches.

With the firing of Bruce Boudreau and the acquisition of former Caps great Dale Hunter, there's some transition that's expected in these situations. However, Hunter's had ample opportunity to incorporate his style of hockey and the team's found success at times marching to his bagpipe call, so their lapses can't be chalked up to coaching differences anymore.

The aforementioned struggles of their team's offensive superpowers has a lot to do with it actually, but even then, that's only a reasonable scapegoat for so long before you realize it goes deeper than the goals-for column.

Before the season began, everyone had the Capitals pegged as shoo-in contenders for the Cup after several bold moves made a good team appear to be even better. They picked up role players like Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer via trade or free agency, then signed veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun to a one-year, $1.5 million deal.

On first glance the team looked to have tightened up their secondary while managing to get infinitely deeper in goal without giving up a whole lot more than cap space to do it.

A 7-0-0 record to start the year seemingly confirmed everyone's notions; the Capitals seemed destined to return to powerhouse territory. However, the team currently owns a mediocre 25-18-2 record, leaving fans frustrated with the Caps' inconsistency.

One nagging problem that's surfaced in DC has been goaltending, surprisingly. Tomas Vokoun has not been nearly good enough for his new team. His 2.53 goals against average and .917 save percentage should both be higher, given who he plays for. 

Still, Washington fans have to be thankful that management came up with a better No. 1 option than Neuvirth this season, given how poorly he's played at times in relief of Vokoun. 

All of these minor problems, however, are mere contributing factors to the main problem that the Capitals have been burdened with: the wrong team identity.

Rewind to the Capitals' fairy-tale 2009-10 season that saw Washington run away with the Presidents' Trophy by outscoring and at times steamrolling their opponents, only to have the clock strike midnight in the first round of the playoffs. It was a heartbreaking loss to Montreal, and it sparked wholesale changes the following year to their style of play.

The word was out that if you shut down the team's stars and took away their ice you could stifle the Caps into a low-scoring defensive grind that they weren't built to win, and the team decided to try and round out their look.

Boudreau and his boys found success playing five-man defense in a more conservative game plan that helped them once again sit at the top of the Eastern Conference standings the following year. Being swept in the second round, though, showed that the team still had some things to work on.

Now you're up to speed with the team's current predicament: They're still playing a style of hockey they're not built to win. One of the reasons the team lost to Montreal is that they still don't have the personnel to win defensive hockey games, regardless of their updated game plan.

This team is built around European offensive superstars, and with that comes a commitment to goal scoring.

If you try to force players like Ovechkin or Semin to constantly be concerned about playing a two-way game, it will annihilate their production. It's no small coincidence that the team's captain is having two sub-par seasons in a row, now on pace for fewer than 82 points for the first time in his career.

Why? Because he's trying to lead his team, and the coach's game plan is to sit back and protect leads. Don't believe me? Mike Knuble said it best in a postgame scrum following Washington's 3-0 win over Montreal yesterday.

"We became more conservative last year in December under Bruce and we had some success at the end of the year then lost in the playoffs. This year, Dale is a big believer in being conservative. If you don't have a play and you're not 100 percent sure, then live to battle another day.

So there's no inherent pressure to be offensive or force things ... Bruce was a big offensive guy, there's no doubting that. He pushed the offense a lot. Dale's thing is if we're good enough defensively you'll create your chances."

In a nutshell, ladies and gentleman, they've been told not to take risks scoring goals. That's all good and well if you're the Minnesota Wild, but when you have names like Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom and Green on your team, you're built differently and should play that way.

The team's current goal total of 128 puts them ninth in the league, a far cry from their league-leading 318 goals in 2009-10. Tweaking a six-man defensive unit seems more realistic than uprooting a style of hockey that was both dominating and wildly successful in their Presidents' Trophy-winning season.

If that's not simpatico with Dale Hunter's philosophy, then maybe he's not the right person to be coaching the Capitals.

If Washington wants a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup, they need to recognize who they are and get their stars scoring in bunches again.


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