Photo credit: Rob Carr

Dale Hunter is finished as the head coach of the Washington Capitals. Whether you think that is a good thing or a bad thing seems to be a 50/50 split. How fitting for a coach who played what J.P. called “coin-flip hockey.”

Hunter is being praised for bringing accountability and commitment to the Capitals. Shot blocking totals are evidence of that. But regardless of the invaluable cultural changes Hunter enacted in D.C., I think his leaving is for the best. Let me tell you why.

Dale Hunter coached 74 games with the Capitals– 60 in the regular season and 14 in the playoffs. The Caps won 37 of those games– giving Hunter a win percentage of .500. Seriously. He won exactly half of his games. Coin flip.

If he were to coach another season, we could expect Hunter to win 41 games. Since the lockout, seven Eastern Conference teams with 41 wins or more missed the playoffs. Do you want to play those odds?

I know what you’re thinking: Hunter had to take the reins midseason and change systems. How about cutting him some slack for the adjustment period?

Deal. If we exclude Dale’s first 20 games (about 45 days, much longer than the preseason) to make adjustments, his record actually gets worse. Really, Hunter’s Caps played their worst hockey after that: in late February and March (when I was writing all those dour Capitals During Wartime pieces).

Dale Hunter's Win Percentage

This chart shows Dale Hunter’s win percentage (broken into luxurious 20-game moving averages). The blue line represent .500 hockey (which we already know is no guarantee of postseason play). The Caps were playing wretched hockey from around game 55 to 75 (February 12 to March 23).

There are a lot of conclusions we can reach here, but the most important is: this is not model for a successful hockey team. So let’s figure out why.

Starting in back, with the goalies.

Look how closely this chart of the Caps’ even-strength goaltending matches the win percentage above. It’s not unusual for a team’s success to correlate with goalie performance. What is unusual is exactly how good the goalies had to be for the Capitals to win. Anchored by Tomas Vokoun, the Caps stopped between (an average of) 93 and 95% of shots for more than 20 games. And with that, the Caps managed only to win just 1 game over .500. They should have been running away with the division.

So why didn’t they? Possession.

The Fenwick stat is a proxy for puck possession (how much your team has control of the puck). It’s the sum of all even-strength shots on net, goals, and misses subtracted by the same total for the opponent. (CAustin at Raw Charge has a pretty good explanation of this, similar stats, and why they matter.)

The Capitals averaged a modest minus-4 Fenwick during Hunter’s time. That respectable number is due to a huge recovery from the very sad place the Caps were around game 50. But the Caps didn’t win even then due to faltering goalie stats (as seen above), and then the possession advantage soon fell off again.

As I documented on Monday, I think it was the Caps’ inability to shoot the puck that cost them the playoffs.

Further, I think that the Caps’ dedication to shot-blocking, while it may have engendered warm feelings, was just a savvy way to mitigate the possession disaster of Hunter hockey.

And here’s the crucial part of my argument, so I’ll try to be precise here.

NHL coaches determine how their teams play. The totality of a team’s tactics and standard-operating procedures comprises its systems. It’s how you run the power play, how you break out of your zone, how you forecheck, how you enter the opponent’s zone, how you cycle, how you set up shots, how you backcheck, how you cover your own zone. All that and more.

Hunter had 74  games to implement his system. Even with blanket amnesty for the first twenty games, the Capitals couldn’t win with some of the league’s best goaltending because their systems wouldn’t let them: their offensive style was too buttoned up for the creativity of their forwards, and their defensive coverage plan was too agile for their not-all-that-quick blueliners.

Later in the season, they lost games they frankly should have won. But in the playoffs we saw the old pattern again: a team getting dramatically outplayed on the ice getting bailed out by a goalie playing exceptionally well.

And the shot-blocking, of course. But while Alex Ovechkin blocking with his backside and Alex Semin diving in front of a shot may stir up warm feelings and sentimentality, they don’t actually win hockey games. Tallying up a big block total is just one way to lose slightly less pathetically. Real winners own the puck.

I’m glad that the Capitals have the summer to formulate a new way to play their game. They can take the best parts of Hunter’s style– its defensive coverage and penalty kill– and combine it with an offensive approach that will generate more shots on goal. Without Tomas Vokoun‘s sturdy backstopping and possibly without Alex Semin’s scoring, the Caps are really going to need a more rewarding system.

I really do like Dale Hunter. He was playing when I saw my first hockey game as a kid. This March I ran into him in Clarendon and we had a very friendly conversation. He ran a team that played as a unit– even if that unit was just average. He brought accountability to a lawless town. He loved the big games.

He’s a great guy, but he didn’t have what the Washington Capitals needed. He can’t take them any further.

There’s a chance I’m completely wrong here. Maybe I just don’t understand Hunter hockey and its subtleties. But he never articulated it that well, and so all I’m left with is this:

Here’s what Dale said in his final post-game presser, via the indispensable Clydeorama:

Yeah, you know, some long it’s it’s the right way to play and you know and, ah, you know to to win and and ah that’s what you have to play it and you know it’s ah next year we’ll you know you can you can always start off and ah that’s your goal to win.

Oooookay. Got it, Dale.

I don’t want to be snide here at the end. Dale led this team we love so much as far as anyone has in the last 10+ years. That’s how we’ll remember him. Well, that and the whole Pierre Turgeon thing.

Thanks for everything, Dale.

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  • Dave at District Sports Page

    I was hoping this was going to be funny.

  • haha I got nothing for ya, Dave.

  • Dead on, Peter. Hopefully the can find someone who can make better use of the skill players the team has. I can see why Alex Semin’s agent would say Semin won’t re-sign with the Caps. Why would he if they’re playing defense only hockey? Maybe a new coach with a commitment to scoring will help change his mind. I’ll close with this: winning 5-3 is better than winning 1-0. Or losing 1-0.

  • Guestz

    Spot on, Peter. Thanks for bringing to (statistical) light the fact that our possession game was deplorable. We knew it, and now there are numbers. I only hope they don’t blow everything up this summer, because this defense-readiness approach is a great foundation to build on teamwise, as well as to start figuring out how to exploit our offensive power without giving up a lot of goals like we used to be used to.
    Caps in 16, 2013.

  • Capital_Punishment

    I hope that GMGM can find a head coach that is more dedicated to the offensive side of the puck, but more than anything i hope that he finds someone that can command a locker-room and massage the ego’s in said locker-room. Wishful thinking?

  • I’m no expert, but it seems the problem is Hunter couldn’t find a balance between offensive power and defense first. The offensive powerhouse was great for the regular season but useless in the playoffs, fine; Boudreau tried to change that, but it didn’t work. It worked to some extent for Hunter, but you have to have SOME offense to win games. I hated, hated, hated how Hunter was content to sit back with a lead and engage in what were essentially 20-minute penalty kills; more often than not, it didn’t work. I hope the organization can find a coach who will implement balance between offensive firepower and gritty defensiveness.

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  • I think Semin’s agent said that stuff because he wanted to gin up interest before free agency. The substance of the argument means very little; he just wanted people talking about Semin as an asset.

    I wouldn’t be so sure he’s leaving yet.

  • I think we’re missing the forest for trees here. How many first-year coaches in the majors–baseball, hockey, basketball, football, international soccer, whatever–voluntarily leave after one season? And a season in which one could argue that much good had been done and that much more good could potentially come in a second, full year. How many coaches say, boy, I’m dying to get back to the minors? Coaches generally get fired; they don’t generally walk away this quickly. Family, schmamily. We all hear that as an excuse, just as girlfriends often hear “it’s not you, it’s me” as an excuse during a breakup. (Michael Jordan cited family when he left basketball, and then he couldn’t wait to get back in. What happened to his family then? Suddenly they weren’t so important?)

    I have no insight here, but something stinks and it isn’t in Denmark. It just feels odd for a coach to leave this quickly and then cite his need to be near his family as the reason. He knew he had a family before (and I’m sure he spent a lot of time at the rink in London). The fact that he didn’t commit to even one full-length season says something else is afoot.

  • KareeLyn

    I feel like the coin clip metaphor can go even further when you look at the BB and the NYR series. Either one could have gone either way. And it did. 50/50

  • KareeLyn

    I’m intrigued.

  • Oh, I take Hunter at his word. He’s got tons of responsibility and family up in Ontario. He was lonely down here.

  • johnnymorte

    Thank you Peter, this is a fantastic study. I would like to see how much time we spent in our own zone versus the amount of time that was played in theirs, minus the PP’s and Neutral zone time. It would seem a miracle that we got as far as we did. Not only that, it seems like we’ve lost Semin. Although the agent claims it was not due to the coaching, Hunter’s treatment of Semin’s ice time had to exacerbate whatever problems existed. If you recall in the early years under Gabby, Semin played regularly on the kill. We used to get shorthanded goals, and Ovi would score many empty netters at the end of games. It was Gabby who brought this team out of the cellar and it’s going to be someone else who will bring them to the promised land. Hunter, from the point of view of the Caps coaching history is nothing more than a flashy insert. The greatest evil in this is Hunter had everyone believing that this is how you win games. Really Dale? How many rings do you own? if I wanted to learn how to win hockey games I would ask Scotty Bowman, not the second biggest criminal in hockey next to Bobby Clarke.

  • Livia

    Your graphs and story help explain the squeamishness that often accompanied watching Caps games. I knew puck-possession was down, but didn’t know quite how far down. While I’d love to see more offense and flow, I’d also love to keep some of the solid feeling that comes with the ability to play tough, consistent defense, along with the remarkable resilience the team showed in the post-season. I only want everything.

  • Jake

    It struck me the same way too. But I can’t see Semin staying if the Caps don’t decide to give him more ice time. It’s kind of weird that this was his lowest TOI average since his rookie year, given that he’s been a complete liability on the ice in other years but skated constantly. This year, he showed heart under Dale and made a difference in the playoffs against the Bruins, but had less. It doesn’t seem to be performance-dictated at all, and some of the players who got more ice time ahead of him weren’t playing any better. I got why Boudreau benched him, but despite Semin making an effort with Hunter’s style, it didn’t really get him anywhere, while players who didn’t play it Hunter’s way kept getting shifts.

    This isn’t really an argument for/against keeping Semin, just some thoughts that have been rattling around in my head. In the end, it’s the same with any other good player: keep him if we’re going to use him, or let him go if we’re not. Having wasted players on the bench isn’t good for anyone’s morale.

  • Jake

    Man, empty netters seem like a distant memory. The Semin situation under Hunter was really weird. He played defensive like Hunter asked, scored more points than in the first half of the season under Boudreau, but got very little time. You’d think more points would mean more ice time.

  • JH

    Every year the problem has been lack of offensive production in the playoffs, which is a direct result of puck possession issues and poor shot selection. Defense improved this year in the playoffs, sure, but all those blocked shots wouldn’t have been necessary if the Caps had controlled the puck more. RMNB: Couple stats I would like to see: (1) what would have been the ratio of shots in each series if you tallied up blocked shots + saves for each team? I bet the Rangers made WAY more shots that were blocked or saved than the Caps did. That’s not sustainable for the Caps. (2) What is the Fenwick stat for each of the last four regular seasons and each of the last four playoff appearances. That would be interesting as well.
    Finally, I really hope the NHL bans shot blocking so we get rid of this odiously boring brand of hockey, and we can get back to runnin and gunnin and scoring five goals a game. That’s much more fun to watch as a fan. Sorry.

  • JH

    Especially if Hunter left. One thing that is always left unsaid: Wingers are supposed to play…OFFENSE! Of course the Sashas aren’t as good on D – if they were, they’d be defensemen. We pay them to scoar moar goals, for the love of all that is holy.

  • What is unclear to me is if the Hunter hockey we experienced is Dale’s philosophy or what he thought was the best system for the Capitals as presently constructed. It appeared he was trying to create a defense first system with an aggressive counter punch. That’s why players like Chimmer and Carlson suddenly began to shine. It’s all in the past but I am curious want kind of success he could achieve with an off season to adjust the roster.

  • For the record, Semin was one of the best players on both sides of the ice this postseason. That he didn’t score was just bad luck.

  • Dammit. That’s a good point.

  • Bryan

    “I don’t want to be snide here at the end. Dale led this team we love so much as far as anyone has in the last 10+ years. That’s how we’ll remember him. Well, that and the whole Pierre Turgeon thing.”

    Not true. Bruce did the same thing. Including this year, they’ve made it to the second round three times in the past 10+ years.

  • Soooooooooooo

    You’re saying that Dale led the team as far as anyone has in the last 10 years.

    If other people led them the same distance, it’s still true. That’s the whole intent.

  • While I always defer to the knowledge and insight of the writers here at RMNB, I don’t know if I can get behind this view. Yes, the Caps obviously have some work to do, tweaking whatever system they decide will be best going forward – but I really can’t believe that the key to it is statistical in nature. While stats provide a great analysis tool, they are 20/20, much like hindsight.

    You can’t argue that the current statistics would hold true for the next compete season. So much more goes into a hockey season, and team, and team psychology that simply counting blocked shots or puck possessions.

    Sure the next season might continue on a .500 level of statistics, and then who knows, someone could get hurt/have a baby/step up their game/who knows what else & the team could rally around it, get destroyed by it, or anything in-between.

    Its not like its played by programmed robots. These are people (and some very YOUNG people) –

    I for one, like the people that showed up & played under Dale’s “system” more than the people that showed up under BB, (or anyone else for the last 10 years for that matter) – and HOW they showed up. Statistics wouldn’t allow for Hendy to raise up from a 4th level “fighter: (his words!) to a top checking line, or account for Knuble’s veteran leadership despite his slide from 1st line to 4th.

    In terms of opening our game back up, and going more offensively, I wonder how people can be so quick to forget how fun it was to dominate the regular season, and then get swept in the postseason. I’ll grind it out, thats cool with me.

    I don’t understand fans that complain about getting back to “more exciting” hockey. You know whats exciting? WINNING THE F*$(ING CUP. That’s exciting. I’d rather be “bored” in January and peeing myself in excitement in June than the reverse.

    Sad to see Coach Hunter go, and I don’t think its statistically relavent to look at his tenure (less than 1 complete season). The data size is simply too limited.

    Not that its all about statistics mind you.

  • Lots of good points. There’s no way to compare the poetry of the game vs the numbers that describe it, and I don’t try to.

    But possession numbers are good predictor of future performance, and they were very, very bad.

    Dominating in the regular season was a victory of will. Getting rocked in the playoffs (2010, Halak) in 4 games was an artifact of luck. I’d roll those dice again.

    P.S. Numbers can account for Hendricks’ rise, and we can talk about that more if you’re interested.

  • Mikhail

    To some extent you’re right when it comes to the regular season. But he got the job done in a more convincing manner in the post-season. Anyways his system wouldn’t work with wingers like Semin or Ovechkin in the regular season. A more balanced approach is necessary.

  • That’s not what the numbers say.

    The numbers say the Caps played poor possession hockey– which forced them to block a lot of shots. They won because they got .940 goaltending, which you can’t rely on. They got lucky to get 14 games deep.

  • I would love to see the numbers on Hendricks – not because I doubt you at all, but more to expand my hockey knowledge in general.

    While the stats are good indicators – was the “progress” that the team seemingly made this end of season/postseason really that much of smoke and mirrors you think?

  • Yeah, the progress was a mirage. Except for great special teams.

    Great goaltending and PK. Most everything else was kinda crummy.

  • Say it aint so! It’ll will be interesting to see how the Caps and GMGM move forward this summer then. Thanks for the great info!

  • mattR

    Bruce’s run-and-gun offensive system worked until the playoffs. Some think that’s because the system didn’t work. I say it’s because we never had playoff-caliber defensemen or true #1 goalies.

    So each year, we get a more defensive system, without ever adding defensive players. We added a lot of goalies, none of whom was an obvious #1 going into the playoffs.

    In short, we need a balanced approach. Spend some money on the blueline, GMGM.

  • Louis Porter

    Is it possible to attribute the loss of Backstrom to the decline of wins in Feb and March? Just wondering…other then that nice article.

  • bluejeener

    I am getting to this post late, but want to go on record as agreeing – thoroughly, totally, completely. One question re the stats, esp the Fenwick – how do giveaways/takeaways figure in? From my spot standing against the wall in Section 430 I know I was annoying fans around me by constantly yelling “puck posession”, and it was the turnovers and bad passes that killled me. A friend kept telling me that they need more sog, but how can you shoot if you can’t control the puck?
    To be fair, they did look better in the playoffs, before becoming the same old out-in-2-rounds Caps.

  • Fenwick is a proxy for possession, so think of it as a good description of a team’s possession rather than the actual “THING” of possession itself.

    When there’s a takeaway or giveaway, the other team has gained possession of the puck and then has an opportunity to put that puck on the net– which is when you’d see the impact reflected on the actual Fenwick stat.

    But if you get a takeaway and you have a giveaway right after, there will be no impact on the stat. It’s what you do with the puck that shows up.

    Does that make sense?

    Your last point is the thing I don’t agree with. The Caps had a better defense (and a MUCH better goalie), sure, but their offense wasn’t nearly where it needed to be for me to say that it looked better overall.