There were a few common themes to the Capitals’ last postseason interviews, before they went their separate ways for summer. The first question posed was always about Dale Hunter, who has made the decision to return to the London Knights franchise in Ontario rather than stay on to coach the Caps. The team expressed universal admiration and gratitude for what he brought to the Capitals in his short tenure, often focusing less on his system than on the character and sense of accountability he was able to instill.
There was clear disappointment at the early ending to the season, but a different tone to the team’s assessment of their year than the year before — many of the Caps mentioned that they thought they were able to go out in a way that they feel better about this year, though of course they’d all still rather be playing hockey.
Read on for the details of Jay Beagle‘s injury, Brooks Laich standing outside Hunter’s window holding a boombox, and Hunter’s odd career model for Alexander Ovechkin.
Alex Ovechkin had 9 points in 14 games, but it was his shot-blocking and his willingness dump the puck into the offensive zone that got him national attention this postseason. Ovi, dressed in casual Nike leisurewear, spoke mostly about Hunter, mentioning that he reminded him of an old coach.
He said that moving forward, the leaders in the room will have to continue to be cohesive, as he felt they were near the end of the year. “I think at last, we were a team in the playoffs. I don’t know if you guys see that or not, but I was in the locker room, I was on the bus, I was playing, and it was a team. You lose like a team and you win like a team.”
“I think he just bring a system right away, when he came to the locker room,” said Ovechkin of Hunter. “It doesn’t matter if I like it or not, I have to play it because he’s my coach. Again how he said, you have to be a plumber, so I was a plumber.”
Ovechkin will now travel to Stockholm to play for the Russian National Team in the World Championships.
Braden Holtby, dressed in some kind of strangely cowl-necked sweatshirt, said it has been a season where he had to “grow up fast,” but denied the pressure was ever really on him.
“This has been the place that I’ve wanted to be forever. Obviously it’s not the result that we wanted, what I wanted, but it shows that we do have the capabilities in this dressing room and as an organization to give ourselves a chance every year to win a Cup.”
When asked about what he would take away from Dale Hunter’s coaching, Holtby emphasized his patience, and his willingness to let the team find its own identity. “There’s usually a lot of pressure on guys put on through coaches and whatnot to figure things out quick, I think he was very patient. That was what we needed as a group.”
Holtby said he looks forward to competing with Michal Neuvirth for the starting position, and with Tomas Vokoun leaving Washington, it seems that he will get a chance to do so.
Brooks Laich, still defiantly unshaven and looking like a handsome extra in a period drama, seemed perhaps most visibly affected by Dale Hunter’s departure. He repeatedly expressed admiration and respect for the coach, saying that he is still trying to talk him into staying.
Though he expressed disappointment at the way the season ending, he only had good things to say about the chemistry in the room near the end of the year. “It was the tightest-knit group and the hardest-working group that has been here, I believe. The team that played two nights ago was the hardest-working team I’ve ever been a part of, and the closest. The atmosphere and the culture has really changed, and everyone is of equal importance.”
“It’s a different feeling going home this year than it was last year.”
Dennis Wideman, dressed in cowboy flannel, said he understands Dale Hunter’s decision to return to London, having played there in the past. “It’s a great city,” he said. “I still try to get back there as much as possible. All his family is there, his kids are there [...] I think it’s just where home is for him.”
He said he has not yet talked to his agent about his impending UFA status, but confirmed that he’d like to be back. “Why not,” he said. “Yeah, I’d love to be back.”
George McPhee was dressed incredibly sharply, of course, and broke the news about Dale Hunter stepping down. “I thought he did a great job of coming in and helping us out,” he said, explaining that the front office has known that his stay could be a temporary one. “Trying to hire a coach in the middle of the season is a difficult process, the vetting process there is a long one, and so to have Dale to be able to come in, even if on a temporary basis, was something we liked a lot.”
He said that he plans to take his time and be deliberate in choosing a new coach, and that the process may go into July or August if necessary. He also gave an update on Evgeny Kuznetsov, saying that they’ve talked to his agent, and he is not going to make it over to the NHL this season. “He’s a young guy, he’s only twenty years old. We understand why he may not want to leave yet, but at some point, he’ll want to come to this league, it’s the best league in the world, and he’s a heck of a player.
Jason Chimera, wearing a gray V-neck shirt of mourning, admitted that the Game Seven loss was very painful, saying “I’d be lying to you if I said it doesn’t hurt. It hurts, it hurts quite a bit.”
He talked about the difference between the road to the playoffs this year than in other years. “I think this year we kind of battled our way to get in, we kind of went through a lot of stuff during the year, kind of of ups and downs, we got ourselves in, we gave ourselves a chance.”
He called previous seasons “easy” compared to this season’s struggles. “This year it was kind of — a lot of guys had down years offensively, we struggled as a team to get in. Once we did, I think we kind of came together. That says a lot about us. That’s what I’ll take away.”
Jay Beagle, wearing a cotton shirt in a lovely shade of sky blue, revealed that he broke his foot blocking an Anton Stralman shot in Game Five, though he still continued to play the rest of the game. He said that he felt “useless” on the ice, taking fifteen and twenty-second shifts by the end of Game Five, but that he didn’t want to leave his team a man short.
Though he’d had his foot X-rayed by Game Six and was aware it was broken, Beagle says he tried so hard to play through it that he was dressed and walking down the tunnel before Hunter and the team trainers pulled him aside. “It was better for the team not to play,” he said, “although it was hard obviously to get undressed while your team is about to go to an elimination game.”
It was almost even more difficult for him to watch Game Seven from home, after having surgery on his foot that ended his season for good. “It was tough to be a spectator, it was tough to watch,” he said. “You hurt for the team, and in the other aspect, you kind of hurt for yourself that it’s over.”
Jeff Halpern, looking like somebody who has barely dragged themselves out of bed to go to the grocery store after a bad breakup, said he does plan on playing next year, and will prepare the same way during the summer regardless of his USA status. “It wasn’t the finish to the season I personally would have liked,” he admitted. “The team was doing well, but as far as for my own personal career and future, you hope that there’s a lot of other opinions out there.”
He said he was happy to get back into the lineup in the last few games, and said he felt very good by the second game that he played. “I was unhappy,” he said of the long stretch he spent in the press box. “I wouldn’t expect anyone to not be in the lineup to be happy about that. You try to come to the rink, you try to have a smile on your face and support the guys as much as you can. I tried to do that as best as I could.”
He said the biggest change in returning to the area after many years was the difference in expectation for hockey in Washington, saying he was surprised at “how much hockey has grown to be not just a fun sport to be a part of, but an important team in this area.”
John Carlson, wearing a “74″ Caps hoodie, didn’t seem concerned about his upcoming RFA status, saying “I think that hockey makes it pretty simple, the way things happen when you’re young. I certainly can’t complain, I’ve been given a great situation since I’ve been here. I like the city and I like playing here.”
It was clear his mind was still on the season just behind them, saying that the loss “sucked a little more” because of how hard the team had been playing. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how you lose, I think everyone is just as disappointed, but maybe you take a little more out of it than say, last year.”
Karl Alzner, wearing a baseball sleeve tee and new stubble in place of his glorious beard, used three “very”s to get across just how well-liked Dale Hunter was by the players, saying he “transformed” the team into a team that “works extremely hard, is very honest, one that I think that other teams don’t like playing against.”
He said he never had trouble adapting to Hunter’s defensive style of play, pointing out that he never sees the puck carrier anyway unless he’s trying to check them. He acknowledged the overall growing pains the team went through this year, though, saying there were “meetings and shouting matches”.
“When you have that and get that out in the open, things usually gets better after that,” Alzner said. “Kind of a stupid saying, but someone said it and it was perfect — you got to crack a couple eggs to make an omelet. That’s exactly what’s happened, we kind of broke things down and slowly start to build it up. It’s going to be exciting to see how everything pans out.”
Matt Hendricks, in a blue cotton t-shirt, said it was going to be a tough couple of weeks watching the rest of the postseason play out. “It doesn’t get any easier.”
He said Dale Hunter’s most significant impact on him was giving him confidence, and the opportunity to play a significant role on a team. He said he does not expect that’s something he will lose, and that he now knows he can contribute on an NHL level.
“He gave me that chance, and he worked with me until I did exactly what he wanted me to do, night in and night out. Once I achieved that, he started giving me more and more opportunity, more minutes, to prove to him, and myself, and the team that I can do that. Without him giving me that chance, I’d still be looking at myself as a fourth-line guy that fights, and scores a little bit. Now I feel like I have a better role, and a bigger year.”
Michal Neuvirth, wearing a gray shirt and a distracting silver chain, confirmed that his injury was to his hip flexor. He said that he was disappointed that things happened the way that they did, but that he understands he has no control over that kind of accident. “These things happen.”
He said that he was able to get close with Tomas Vokoun in his time here, and that he picked up a great deal from the veteran goalie, both in conversation with him and simply observing him in practice and in the games. “He gave me a lot of his thoughts about the game,” Neuvirth said. “I can’t say one bad thing against him.”
He said that he does expect to compete with Braden Holtby for the starting position next year, but pointed out that it doesn’t matter who starts the first game of the year, and said that was one of the biggest lessons he has learned in his NHL career so far.
Mike Green, very matchy-matchy in a red Reebok shirt and red hat, acknowledged that it was a difficult season for him, missing games with injury early in the year and seeming to struggle to find his scoring touch when he began playing regularly again.
He seemed confident that he’d found his groove again, though, later in the season and into the postseason. “I felt mentally the best I’ve ever felt, and physically — you get your bumps and bruises. I feel great, I feel like I did four or five years ago on the ice, and that’s comforting for me.”
He wasn’t willing to get into specifics regarding his upcoming UFA status, but like Carlson, expressed a desire to stay in Washington. “I’m excited to come back if that’s the game plan,” said Green, “and that’s what I want, so we’ll see. I love it here, it’s a great organization, a great city, I believe we’re going to win a Cup here, and I want to be part of it.”
Mike Knuble, in a brownish-beige polo shirt, says he’s open to playing next year and that he feels healthy, with no nagging injuries. “Mentally too,” he emphasized. “I still enjoy playing the game, I still enjoy coming out to the rink every day, I enjoy being around the other players. I think that’s half the battle, is wanting to be there as you get older.”
He also lent a veteran voice to the search for the Stanley Cup, saying that he does think the Caps are very close. “Everybody’s got that microscope out at the end, trying to figure out what separated this champion from everybody else this year. Some people kind of chase that, try to build their team that way, and then that flavor of the year changes the next year. I think the personnel in there, the guys in the room are good players who care about the game and want to win. I think this year got a little more of a taste. A bounce there, or two, and we could be playing hockey right now. But we’re not.”
Tomas Vokoun, wearing a black athletic shirt, says he feels healthy as this point and is prepared to test the UFA market. He said he did not plan on being back in Washington, and that it was never his intention to be in Washington for more than one year.
He did express disappointment at not being able to play in the postseason. “I waited for a chance like this for a very long time,” he said, “and you get hurt — that’s life. Worse things happen to people. It just didn’t work out.”
Vokoun has been rumored to be headed to Russia to join the new Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team in the KHL.
Troy Brouwer, surprisingly looking as if he has actually seen a hairdresser in the past month, said he thinks the team will be able to maintain the things they learned from Dale Hunter in his short time coaching. “I know it’s a long summer here, but hopefully guys remember that to win in the playoffs, you have to sacrifice, block shots, do the right things, and that’s just what he tried to instill in us the entire time he was here.”
He had praise for Jay Beagle and his attempt to play in Game Six, saying he was an ideal teammate. “The way he was walking, the way he was feeling it, it was kind of clear to the guys how it would turn out, but we love the guy for trying like he did.”
Nicklas Backstrom, wearing a white cotton shirt and at least two chains, said the team really came together when the playoffs began, starting with the first game of the Boston series and feeling stronger in the system as the postseason went on.
“For me personally it’s been a little up and down, with my concussion,” said Backstrom, who missed 40 games this season with a head injury. “I think I’ve been doing all right, when I’ve been playing. But as a team, I think we’ve actually been better than people thought, and we’ve been changing a lot of things a lot of people didn’t think could happen.”
“I think everyone worked hard,” he said, when asked what lasting impression Hunter would have on the team. “That’s something I’m always going to remember. Work hard, and good things happen to you.”