Up until the opening game of the Washington Capitals' Quarterfinal matchup against the Boston Bruins, the general consensus among the media and fan base was that Head Coach Dale Hunter was on the verge of being let go after less than a full season in the nation's capital.
However, in a matter of two weeks, Hunter earned the approval of the entire city and hockey world by leading his team to a dramatic upset, as his seventh-seeded Caps eliminated the reigning Stanley Cup champions in seven games.
Though Hunter's troops would fall in the second round to the top-seeded New York Rangers, the Capitals, left for dead by hockey analysts across the country just a month earlier, proved that they were a team on the verge of something special with their 14-game postseason run.
Unfortunately, that all changed when Hunter stepped down, leaving George McPhee to search for the team's third Head Coach in less than 10 months.
Now, McPhee is faced with the challenge of identifying and reeling in a bench boss who can stress many of the same principles that Hunter did during his six-month reign. Unlike his predecessor in Bruce Boudreau, Hunter consistently challenged his stars to alter their individual styles of play, and held them accountable when they failed to do so.
In the postseason, Hunter made headlines for limiting four-time 50-goal man Alex Ovechkin to under 14 minutes of ice time for the first time in his career, but ultimately, the team marched all the way to within a goal of the franchise's first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since 1998.
Alexander Semin, once thought to be a franchise winger, went as far as to say that if the team wasn't prepared to increase his ice time, he wouldn't be open to re-signing with the only NHL team he's ever known.
Despite these minor controversies, Hunter's style brought the best out of the Capitals, as his boys fought as hard as they could on a nightly basis, and McPhee has to be on the lookout for a coach that will do the same.
From a personnel standpoint, the Caps are built to play the hard-nosed style that Hunter preached. They boast a enviable collection of grinding forwards like Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks, complimented with a group of responsible, if not overly physical defensemen.
No, this style won't help Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom reach the 100-point plateau again, but if the franchise hopes to bag more than Hart, Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies, that's what it'll take to get there.
Three years ago, the Caps were built to be an offensive juggernaut. The team had skilled forwards like Tomas Fleischmann, Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov in addition to Semin, Backstrom and Ovechkin, but still couldn't advance beyond the second round of the Playoffs.
Nowadays, the team's makeup is built to win via a defensive brand of hockey, one that will yield many more one-goal games than the offensive blowouts fans became accustomed to during the Boudreau era of Capitals hockey.
While Hunter's Caps didn't advance any farther than Boudreau's teams did (each reached a Semifinal Game 7 before bowing out), the road the former took to get there was far more impressive, and his style appeared to be much better suited for the rough-and-tumble nature of postseason hockey.
Furthermore, Hunter's quiet yet blunt nature seemed to motivate his players, as they showed up ready to compete during their most important games, even during the final week of the regular season.
If there's one piece of knowledge the gruff Petrolia, Ontario native seemed to impart upon his players, it's that nothing comes easy during the Playoffs. It doesn't matter what seed a team earns during the regular season, because hard work and a commitment to team defense can trump home-ice advantage in any series, and that's the sort of mindset the Caps' next coach needs to instill within his troops.
Hunter's confidence in the team never wavered, despite entering the postseason up against the defending Cup champs with Braden Holtby, a goaltender with 21 NHL games to his credit, which is a quality that can't be overlooked.
In previous years, the Caps buckled under the weight of Cup-or-bust expectations, but Hunter's calming influence in Washington's dressing room appeared to help ease the nerves of a team that has dealt with more than its fair share of criticism in recent years.
His experience, winning pedigree (albeit at the Major Junior level) and emphasis on accountability were instrumental in the Caps' surprisingly lengthy Playoff run, so the team's next coach should be someone who at least partially embodies those same characteristics.
There haven't been many players as tough as Hunter was during his 19-year career, but it's McPhee's job to find a coach who can convince the players to play with a Hunter-esqe level of intensity night in and night out.
According to Lindsay Applebaum of the Washington Post, the leading candidates for the vacancy behind the Caps' bench include Bob Hartley, Michel Therrien, Marc Crawford, Paul Maurice, Ron Wilson, Jon Cooper, Mike Keenan and Jacques Martin. Of the names suggested, only Crawford and Wilson skated in the NHL, and though Maurice, Therrien, Hartley, Keenan, Crawford, Martin and Wilson all have previously coached teams to the Stanley Cup Finals, none appear to be the ideal fit for this group of players.
Instead, McPhee should be looking for a bench boss with enough playing experience to earn the respect of the Caps' stars, while demonstrating the capability to motivate players to buy into the gritty, defense-first style of hockey that proved to be surprisingly effective in these Playoffs.
Of those currently without head coaching positions, Larry Robinson and Adam Oates, two assistants with the current Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils, should be prime targets for McPhee. One of which, like Hunter, is a former Capitals great, as Oates was one of the most talented set-up men the franchise has ever seen.
Though soft-spoken by nature, Oates has demonstrated an ability to teach, as he's been the architect of the Devils' power play that has been among the most efficient through the first three rounds of the postseason. His only shortcoming may be that he isn't known to be a defensive guru, but as one of the smartest hockey players in recent memory, that may not be a problem.
On the other hand, Robinson, a Hall of Fame rearguard, has a winning pedigree as both a player and coach, as he won six Cups as a defenseman with Montreal, one as the Devils' Head Coach in 2000, and another as an assistant coach in 2003. More importantly, Robinson's experience with the Devils demonstrates that he has an ability to mold teams into defensive juggernauts, which is an important factor for McPhee to consider.
The work Hunter did during his time with the Capitals is something McPhee should be intent on building upon, so the team's brain trust should be looking to bring in a coach capable of doing so. A failure to do so could result in a substantial step back in the team's overall development in 2012-13, which will more than likely result in wholesale changes in the Caps' management department.
The loss of Hunter won't be an insurmountable one, that is, unless McPhee hires a man incapable of motivating this talented roster to play the way it did under Hunter during the months of April and May of 2012.
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