Hunter leaves Caps’ mission to players

As Washington Capitals players were collecting their belongings from their practice facility Monday, they were dealt another blow just two days after their season-ending loss to the New York Rangers.

General manager George McPhee made the announcement that coach Dale Hunter had stepped down.

Hunter made the choice to return to his family — and his major junior team — in London, Ontario.

McPhee was disappointed, but ultimately not surprised.

"If we have our priorities right in this life, family comes first," McPhee said. "Dale needs to go home."

The announcement was so sudden that some players only found out about Hunter’s departure when the media asked them about it during their exit interviews. One such player caught by surprise was Joel Ward.

"It sucks, actually," Ward said when a reporter broke the news to him.

Most players agreed.

"I like the way we play. I really wanted to see him back," Nicklas Backstrom added.

"It was a surprise because he did a great job here," forward Jay Beagle wrote in a blog entry with the Washington Post. "To hear your coach say he’s not going to be back next season was a little bit of a shock."

Hunter’s system, a defense-first philosophy, caught a lot of flak during the regular season. After Hunter’s hiring, the Capitals’ record didn’t improve as immediately as most had hoped and some thought that offensive players like Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin would never respond to the system.

But in the playoffs, the entire team seemed to come together in front of Hunter.

Ovechkin led the team in scoring with nine points in 14 games. Backstrom wasn’t far behind, with eight points in the same span.

Ovechkin confirmed that he found it difficult to adjust to Hunter’s system at first, but later found his stride, particularly once the postseason began, saying he "learned a lot" from Hunter.

"He morphed this team into a very respectable team," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "Other teams give us more credit than they had in the last few years. He was a bit of an architect himself the way he taught the game. All he taught us was to be honest and work hard."

Hunter not only changed the team’s systems, but also shaped new roles for the players. Hunter was open to working with his players and tried to use them in a way that would allow them to play to their strengths. It was Hunter’s role as a confidence-booster that made it harder for some players to say goodbye.

Matt Hendricks, a defensive forward, particularly thrived under Hunter, and felt his role change made him more confident.

"(Hunter) gave me that confidence, he gave me the ability to play more, and the opportunity to play more," Hendricks said. "I was looked at as a shut-down guy, where I was given the opportunity to play against the other team’s top forwards. 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. But now I feel like I have a better role and a bigger role."

What happens now? For the moment, Hunter is the only change being made to the coaching staff. Assistant coach Jim Johnson, who came on board at the same time as Hunter and is responsible for the defense, is remaining at that position.

If the Capitals have not hired a new coach by the draft, Hunter said he would be available to help the organization however he can when it comes to drafting prospects.

McPhee may have to take him up on that offer, saying, "We’re going to take our time and get the right person."

As for the players, the Capitals are going to be responsible for taking into next season what they learned from Hunter and the momentum earned from the postseason progress they made. There will be changes this offseason as several players will have unrestricted free-agent status, and trades are possible and expected.

But the way Hunter brought the team together into a more cohesive unit has to continue on without him.

"It was the best team I played with," Ovechkin said of the team under Hunter.

In his final meeting with the players Monday afternoon, Brooks Laich said Hunter closed with one last instruction: "It’s in your hands now."