Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hunter about to get captured by NHL game

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor

Dale Hunter was brought to the Washington Capitals prior to the 1987-88 season in a trade with the Quebec Nordiques in order to bring the successful but playoff-failing club some badly needed heart and muscle.

One season after blowing a 3-1 series lead to the New York Islanders and losing in an epic four-overtime Game 7 at home, the move paid dividends. Hunter tallied the final two Washington goals in a home Game 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers -- including the breakaway game-winner 5:57 into overtime -- giving the Caps a 5-4 decision that clinched a seven-game triumph after trailing 3-1 in the set.

But that was April 16, 1988. Hunter did not do anything so epic as that for his remaining 10-plus years with the franchise.

Check that -- he did. Except it was all over Pierre Turgeon's back five years later and garnered him an epic suspension.

And now, after more than a decade as head coach of the London Knights from the Ontario Hockey League, Hunter gets the call to sit behind the bench of the team for which he's apparently morphed into some kind of mythic figure.

Given his gritty hockey background, Hunter may turn out to be more King Canute than Red-robed Messiah, but it may not serve him well as he steps into the pressure cooker that has become the Washington Capitals.

I tossed out the question the other night: Other than a "different voice" from Bruce Boudreau, what does Hunter offer that will get his team to perform to expectations?"

The only answer came from Anthony Mingioni, now over at Sportsology. He unveiled a three-pronged response: Hunter's history with the organization, his ability to deal with "star players" in juniors, and his impressive record.

So let's deal with that, shall we?

Hunter played in Washington from 1987 until the end of the 1998-99 season, when he was shipped to the Avalanche to finish out his career. The man who apparently meant so much to the franchise only participated in two conference finals (1990, 1998), and his lone Stanley Cup Finals appearance ('98) came in his last full season with the team.

The Caps won one division title -- in 1989 -- and were promptly dumped in the first round by the fourth-place Flyers. They finished below .500 or less three times. Failed to win a playoff round five times.

While he was arguably the lifeblood which pulsed through the Caps' veins, Hunter wasn't chosen as captain until 1994 and he served that role up to his trade to Colorado. Just as a reminder, the Caps failed to win a game in that final series against Detroit, and by then, was it really his team even though he wore the "C?"

His decade-plus era was one, like that of Mike Gartner and Rod Langway before him, of elevated expectations never quite met. In spite of all the excitement he generated with his heart, desire and often illegal style of play, Hunter ultimately left America's capital empty-handed.

While in London, Hunter had the pleasure of molding future NHL stars like Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Patrick Kane and well...that's it. Doesn't that look like a very short list for how long he spent as head coach?

And of course, taking a Kane or Perry or Nash at ages 16 through 20 and guiding them into hockey players is a totally different animal than taking on Alex Ovechkin at multi-million dollars per season. If Bruce Boudreau's anti-systematic, but very much profane style of coaching could be tuned out by a roster which should be performing much better than it has, how can you argue that Hunter's style going to mesh well with adults in the long term?

On balance, so-called players' coaches have the same shelf life as the hard-asses and the candy-asses in the NHL, so what's the angle there? That Boudreau, who worked his way through the minors as a player and then as a bench boss, wasn't up to snuff and Hunter somehow magically will be?

What is he going to do to get the slumping captain, along with Alex Semin, going again to the point where they can carry the team as in years past -- point to his vicious elbow of Gordie Murphy in 1991 and say this is what I did to try and win for my team, you should too? Talk about finally getting over the hump against the Penguins in 1994 despite blowing a pair of 3-1 series leads to them in 1992 and '95?

After all, Hunter, unlike new Carolina head coach Kirk Muller, has not served his apprenticeship for any period of time in either the AHL or the NHL. While I think it's a noble concept, and a sharp public relations move to reveal that Hunter never wanted another post except that in Washington, the league is littered with men who came from Canadian juniors only to stumble in The Show.

At least in Muller's case, there are no serious expectations in Raleigh given the almost total roster turnover which stripped the team of its veteran core from just two years back. He'll have time to adjust on the fly, while Hunter goes directly underneath what's become an electron microscope from the drop.

But without those extra years of buffering, Hunter is less likely to turn out like, say, Ken Hitchcock or Bob Hartley.

Though his record is impressive: 431-184-17-30 as of the end of last season, there's one glaring fact: with all of that firepower and success year after year, there was just one Memorial Cup banner (2005 in a 59-win season, and no other title series appearances. If consistent regular-season success is what Ted Leonsis and George McPhee want, there it is. But if it's a shiny silver prize they're really after, they're looking past the regular-season record for something else.

Here's a short list of former successful junior coaches who haven't done/didn't do squat in their jump to the NHL: Brent Sutter. Craig Hartsburg. Dave King. Peter DeBoer. And the most notorious failure of all being Bill Laforge, whose club wore out its own goal light going 4-14-2 with Vancouver at the start of the 1984-85 season.

As for Hitchcock, he's living off his Cup win from 1999 and Stars clubs that were aided in no small part by no less than six potential Hall of Fame players (Hull/Modano/Nieuwendyk/Carbonneau/Belfour/Moog) at one time or another. Still, he'd been an assistant with the Flyers before this and coached in the IHL before getting the call to Dallas.

Hartley was also given the keys to the Lamborghini and told not to scratch it up, but still did and was axed less than 2 years after delivering Colorado's second Cup.

What Hunter needs to guard against the most is not how the opposition plans against his club, but how tangled the web of his mythos to the Capitals organization becomes with his actual performance on and off the ice. It will certainly become tangled at some point, once we find out just how he deals with the realities of NHL existence.

The guy who broke a playoff curse 23 years ago and gave the fans something to scream about in the old Capital Centre for years after that, is now a 51-year-old tasked with a tremendous responsibility with more on the line than he's ever experienced.

When you look deep enough, Hunter's bona fides suggest a rockier route than a star-spangled success story, but it does make for better headlines that a beloved former player has been called to the rescue and carried into town on a sedan chair, doesn't it?
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