Sometimes, the success of an NHL team is just as much about the reinvention of the coach as it is the system or the players themselves. That’s something of the case for the Capitals’ Dale Hunter.
Away from the NHL spotlight after he retired as a player, Hunter reached a different kind of height in his game. He was used to motivating players as a peer; he had to learn instead how to motivate them as a coach.
And, for him, it required altering a fiery and edgy style of play that was his signature in the world of hockey. The guy who led the Washington Capitals in career penalty minutes now leads that bench by being, of all things, calm.
Some of it’s simply that he has more to manage.
“As a player, you want to be keyed up, and when you go on the ice, you’re really going,” Hunter said. “As a coach, I’ve got line matchups to worry about, what they’re doing on the ice, the system changes they’re doing, so as a coach, you’ve got to think more with your head. As a player, you’re using your legs a lot.”
But the different presentation is also something he adapted based on how he’s observed players react.
“I could see it, years ago, when I started coaching, that if I got riled up, the team does,” explained Hunter, who was suspended in the OHL more than once as a coach. “So I try to most of the time, you know, make sure I’m not yelling at a ref or something, taking away from myself or the team.”
That calmness has puzzled outsiders, and frustrated them at times amid other coaching conundrums such as his lineup decisions. People have questioned his coaching calls against certain current NHL conventions; Jeff Marek and Greg Wyshynski have, in fact, asked if he’s a genius or goofball.
So far, the bottom line remains that Dale Hunter gets results from his roster by doing something fans from his playing days might have never thought possible: being the calm in the storm.
His roster cites his calmness, or agrees with that assessment, when talking about their success.
“I think our guys, we don’t get shook up by a whole lot. They’re pretty resilient and pretty calm and pretty composed. But a lot of that comes from our head coach. He’s calm behind the bench and he always instills positive thoughts and positives things into his players. He doesn’t lose his composure behind the bench and that really has a calming effect on the players,” Brooks Laich said Friday as reported by Brian McNally of The Washington Examiner.
“He’s talking to us, he’s not yelling that much,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “I think that’s good so we can focus on the right things and make sure we stay focused the whole game.”
Even during Game 4 against the Rangers, with the score tied 2-2 when the Capitals left the ice at the end of the second period playing what Jay Beagle described as a do-or-die game, Hunter was the same: calm.
Don’t doubt the passion is still there, though.
“I think he knows that he gets pretty emotional—like he doesn’t come in after games to talk to us, because he’s usually too fired up and he might say something that he might regret the next day,” said Dennis Wideman, who played for Hunter early into Hunter’s career coaching in the OHL and said Hunter was calm as a coach even back then.
The secret ingredient to Hunter’s success, however, is keeping a heavy dose of accountability mixed in with the calm—which helps players avoid becoming complacent.
“With Hunts, he makes sure that guys are still accountable for what they’re doing out there,” Brouwer said, emphasizing again how much Hunter’s calm helps players settle down in these 1-goal games. “You can’t take it easy, can’t get complacent, as you say. … He makes guys aware of when they’re making mistakes, and if they’re consistently making mistakes, so that you can make adjustments.”
In fact, Hunter doesn’t just have the Capitals talking a different style of play; he has them speaking a different language. Karl Alzner talked about being calm and not getting too high or too low after the Capitals got off the ice Wednesday having just lost in triple OT. It’s all about the calm, apparently.
When Washington Times reporter Stephen Whyno talked with various people associated with Hunter during his time coaching the London Knights, he got this quote from London Knights radio color analyst Jim Van Horne about Hunter: “I remember once him saying that every coach that he had during his NHL career, he took the things that he didn’t like about them, whatever little thing they might be, and he said, ‘I’ll never do that.’ ”
And his success so far speaks for itself. This May, they’re in Game 5 in Round 2, already farther than last year at this time. The Capitals’ recent postseason disappointments have been blamed on everything from a hot goalie to the front office. But now, despite squeaking into the playoffs, they’re finding success by doing something that seems far too straightforward: remaining even-keeled—thanks to their head coach.
Was it really this simple all along?
Since when is 6-5 considered successful? The Caps are struggling mightily on offense. No team has ever won in the 3rd round of the playoffs after taking 14 games to win the first two rounds. At some point the Caps need to win more than every other game. Then maybe I’ll buy this Hunter talk, but right now, ummm…no, not happening.
Very few NHL teams dominate throughout the playoffs. Often the one that runs through a series seemingly easily (like the Caps last season, or the Flyers over the Penguins this season) stubs its toe on the next team, and now you have the seemingly powerhouse Flyers on the verge of elimination.
Still, like many, until the Caps show me they can get past this 2nd round (I still have faith despite the game 5 fiasco), I don’t really see this team as truly better than any of the last few seasons’ teams. Yes it’s more defensive and tough and shot-blocking, but in the end, if we don’t get past the 2nd round, there’s been no measurable progress.