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).
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.