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Winning Despite Coaching

In November the Washington Capitals fired coach Bruce Boudreau and replaced him with Dale Hunter.  Washington had a 12-10 record with one regulation tie point at that time in the season.  Under Hunter the Caps had a 32-30 record with seven regulation tie points.  The Capitals did not show any improvement under Hunter.

The story when Boudreau was fired was that he lost the support of his star players, especially Alexander Ovechkin.  Hunter has not had a better relationship with these players.  Ovechkin is unhappy with the fact his ice time has been reduced in several high profile situations.  Hunter was seen as a “rah rah guy” who had little to add to his team tactically.  If Washington stumbled and missed playoffs or lost in the first round, he was expected to be fired.

Washington has eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins with a seventh game overtime victory last night.  That victory alone seems to guarantee Washington will have another year of Dale Hunter coaching the team. 

The first round coaching match-up between Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins and Hunter in Washington clearly favored Boston, but Washington squeaked out a victory.

In hockey the best team does not always win.  The Washington-Boston series was a closer series than a typical two seed versus seven seed match-up.  Washington is a team many expected to contend for the East Conference title.  Their failure was blamed in part upon coaching.  It led to an in-season coaching change.  The new coach seemed to be no better (and several argued he was worse) than the first coach.  Despite that Washington is moving on to the second round of the playoffs. 

It is clear that the team with the better coach does not always win a playoff round.  There are many reasons outside of coaching (for example the players) to explain playoff results.  When a series is as close as a seventh game overtime series, there is plenty of room for luck to dictate a result.  Washington has inferior coaching and will likely be outcoached in the second round.  They may have the talent to survive depending upon who they match up with, but it is unlikely to be a coaching success.  Dale Hunter is not regarded as a top NHL coach for many reasons.  He has done little to show his coaching ability at the NHL level.  However his team winning in the playoffs, despite being outcoached, will let him have a longer run as the Washington coach.  Their playoff success this year will increase his coaching tenure and that is likely a bad thing as it will keep the team outcoached into the future.

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Comments

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What do you think about Hunter taking Backstrom off of OV’s line and putting him with Semin and Johansson?
To me it was a move that changed our season. Teams have to match up with OV leaving the second line, our best line free to go against the opponents #2 pair. Benching Knuble, bringing him back at just the right time…... His firm stance with the goalies all year long. I don’t know man you are being really tough on Dale. How did Claude out coach Dale? Are there any specific instances?

Posted by Bert from Baltimore on 04/26/12 at 04:06 PM ET

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I guess that’s like saying Robert E. Lee out-generaled U.S. Grant—except that one of them went on to become president.  I guess it’s good that Hunter got out-coached by Claude or he and the Caps would be hitting the links right now—kind of like the B’s

Posted by MWR from Washington, DC on 04/26/12 at 04:16 PM ET

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HOCKEY NEWS HEADLINE:  “Despite being out-coached for the fourth consecutive series, Hunter and the Caps raise Lord Stanley’s Cup”—Leonsis hopes for continued failure next season

Posted by MWR from Washington, DC on 04/26/12 at 04:23 PM ET

FanspeakNHL's avatar

Hunter’s biggest accomplishment was getting this team to play a defense-first system and getting total buy-in from everybody. Boudreau never got that and Hunter has now won half the number of playoff series that Boudreau did.

Yes, many people say that Hunter isn’t the best coach in the world—and certainly Julien won the Stanley Cup last year—but, last time I checked, winning was more important than a pundit’s opinion. And the Caps eliminated the Bruins—and have a great shot at advancing even further.

Posted by FanspeakNHL on 04/26/12 at 05:52 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

Hunter’s biggest accomplishment was getting this team to play a defense-first system and getting total buy-in from everybody.

Except Hunter hasn’t actually done that.  In fact it is pretty clear he doesn’t have buy in from the captain of the team in Alexander Ovechkin.  It speaks volumes that Dale Hunter’s alleged biggest accomplishment is something he hasn’t actually accomplished.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 04/26/12 at 06:10 PM ET

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Extremely conclusory.  At least show something other than the guy’s W-L record, if you are going to trash him.

Posted by John on 04/26/12 at 06:37 PM ET

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Seriously? Here’s where you lost the plot (aside from the whole out-coached meme), ” Hunter was seen as a “rah rah guy” who had little to add to his team tactically.” Bruce Boudreau was a rah, rah guy - DH32 is the exact opposite and his stoicism helped calm the previously mentally fragile team. And “adding nothing tactically” ignores the fact that he completely changed their defensive style from zone to man 2 man. Add to that, he got the whole team pulling in the same direction by changing the country club atmosphere of the dressing room. Sure, some players chaffed at their benchings (as well they should) during the regular season but when they were put back in the lineup they all had a chip on their shoulder. Bruce threatened to limit ice time but rarely did, DH meant it and the players responded. There were a few personnel quibbles and TOI issues but hey, it worked.

So if taking a team no one thought had a chance and/or had less talent/depth, getting them to play a system that gave the defending Starley Cup Champians fits, and winning, is getting out-coached then yes, I’ll take getting out-coached in the next series too.

Posted by Erik on 04/26/12 at 08:29 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

taking a team no one thought had a chance

This is a team that was the consensus pick to win the East Conference before the season began.  Your narrative doesn’t fit the facts very well.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 04/26/12 at 08:37 PM ET

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Nor does yours. On paper, maybe they were favorites and obviously the season didn’t go as planned. Losing their best center and defenseman for significant portions of the season will do that. And as it stands now, with the way this team is playing “inferior” coach DH’s game, are they not still a solid pick to go to the finals?

Posted by Erik on 04/26/12 at 08:52 PM ET

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“He has done little to show his coaching ability at the NHL level” Aside from stymieing the defending champs. Unless of course, you attribute the whole change in strategy solely on the players. Or maybe it was just their AHL goalie.

Posted by Erik on 04/26/12 at 09:09 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

Erik

Nothing you point out has anything to invalidate what i am saying.  Backstrom and Green were hurt in the regular season.  Why should that affect playoff chances?

And as it stands now, with the way this team is playing “inferior” coach DH’s game, are they not still a solid pick to go to the finals?

Depends what you mean by solid.  I will accept they have about a 25% chance of going to the finals.  Afterall there will be four teams left in the East Conference after tonight and they are one of them.  They are doing that despite weak coaching.

weak coaching does not mean a team cannot win the Stanley Cup.  The most prominent semi-recent example of a Stanley Cup winner with a weak coach is the 1986 Montreal Canadiens under Jean Perron.  Three years after he won the cup, he couldn’t get another NHL job.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 04/26/12 at 09:09 PM ET

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Perhaps I’m missing what you mean by weak coaching, because you never explained it aside from simply claiming DH weak or inferior, or not highly regarded. It’s a trolly hit seeking article with nothing to back it up.

Posted by Erik on 04/26/12 at 09:30 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

If you or anyone impartial rank the 30 NHL coaches from best to worst, those near the bottom of the list are the weak coaches.  At this point Dale Hunter has done nothing to show he is much of an NHL coach.  It has openly been speculated that he would be fired at the end of the season if Washington missed playoffs or lost in the first round (and they almost did both).  Were Dale Hunter an unemployed coach looking for a job this summer, he probably wouldn’t be considered a top candidate for any positions.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 04/26/12 at 09:39 PM ET

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” Backstrom and Green were hurt in the regular season.  Why should that affect playoff chances?” Are you effing kidding me? Green, I don’t know whats up with him, still not Green but played O.K. But, Backstrom missed 40 games on a vacussion and only played a few games before the playoffs and you don’t think that had any effect on their chances?  Nowhere do you explain how they overcame bad coaching despite that being, ya know, the title of your piece, whereas I describe how DH made a difference in why they won and are still in the race to go to the SCF.

Posted by Erik on 04/26/12 at 09:41 PM ET

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“At this point Dale Hunter has done nothing to show he is much of an NHL coach.” Did you even watch this series? This was not BB’s Caps and they didn’t decide to play like that out of thin air. Even had they lost, I think they/he showed enough (both in system and buy-in quotient) in this series that if DH wanted to come back, he could’ve.

Posted by Erik on 04/26/12 at 09:50 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

You are misunderstanding me now.  Backstrom and Green being hurt at some point in the regular season do not affect their playoff chances today or in the first round because they are not hurt now.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 04/26/12 at 09:51 PM ET

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Oh, c’mon. Yeah, a 40 game vacussion with only a couple games back before a brutal playoff series has no affect on a player. Likewise, hernia surgery.

Posted by Erik on 04/26/12 at 10:00 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

At playoff time every team has key players who are playing hurt.  Washington is not unique in that.
Its just an excuse on your part to accept nearly losing.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 04/26/12 at 10:07 PM ET

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O.k. we’ve gotten sidetracked here (but then again you’re nitpicking). So yeah, they were preseason favorites to go to the ECF, they still are. They did that mainly because of a coaching change that altered their game plan into more of a post season system and improved their mental make-up (Ya know, the kinds of things a coach can affect). Said system prevails against a better team, and some butthurt blogger claims it’s despite inferior coaching while providing no evidence to back it up aside from - because I said so. Just sayin’.

Posted by Erik on 04/26/12 at 10:25 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

The simplest explanation if the pre-season favorite to win the East Conference actually does in playoff time is that the team is a good talented team.  The initial predictions were correct.  We don’t need to invoke a mid-season coaching change in the explanation at all - its probably wrongheaded to do so.  Of course this assumes Washington does win the East Conference in the playoffs and that is far from a given.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 04/26/12 at 10:29 PM ET

J.J. from Kansas's avatar

weak coaching does not mean a team cannot win the Stanley Cup.  The most prominent semi-recent example of a Stanley Cup winner with a weak coach is the 1986 Montreal Canadiens under Jean Perron.

Joel Quenneville circa 2010.

Posted by J.J. from Kansas on 04/26/12 at 10:38 PM ET

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At the end of BB’s reign, I don’t think anyone thought of them as a SC contender (my god they were bad and BB threw up his hands). DH has had his issues, and I propose, because he had to change their mentality mid-season (with sometimes mixed results) he is responsible for the turnaround and subsequent first round win. Obviously, you think it was despite him even though you never said why. I could give you a few reasons why I think he’s been bad but then again, some of the moves he made mid season RE benching and TOI that I didn’t like have paid off so if I knew more, I’d be in the game.

Posted by Erik on 04/26/12 at 10:44 PM ET

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I think you simplify your argument a little too much. Hunter’s overall record may not be that impressive but if you look at the trends it shows a different story. First off, when Bruce Boudreau was let go, discounting the first 7 seven games, he had a record of 5-9-1.  An 82 game pace of 27-49-6. At the time the Caps were reeling and the decision was made to replace the coach.

As described by Hunter, he moved to change the emphasis of the Capitals system play. His stated goal was to build a playoff contender, i.e. able to compete in the close one goal games that typify the post season. In his first 38 games the team went 17-17-4. Not very impressive. However, in the final 22 games of the season the team was 13-6-3. Expanded out across a full season that would be a 48-22-12 record which would have tied them for second in the conference.

I’m my opinion it took a lot of effort and coaching to get this team to buy in to the systems that Hunter put into place. It was painful to watch but once it was fully implemented the Caps was a much better team. With team being the optimum word to describe them now. It takes more than talent alone to beat the defending Stanley Cup champs in 7 grueling games by a combined 1 goal with a goalie that has a combined 21 games of NHL experience.

Posted by Joe from Kentucky on 04/27/12 at 03:06 AM ET

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ovechkin is unhappy with his lack of ice time in certain situations but he realizes that he is not amoungst the best defensive players on the team and when you have a 2-1 or 3-2 lead late in the game he knows he wont be on the ice.because of this hopefully this means that during the offseason he will work to improve that.i am glad that the star player isnt happy about it and realizes why he is on the bench.he knows if the caps are tied or losing he would be getting more ice time.remember jagr wasnt great defensively in pitt,dc,or new york and has improved himself.that is one of the reasons why he was run out of town he would always be around center ice waiting for that breakout pass and caused the team to play almost like they were short handed

Posted by rob from san angelo texas on 04/27/12 at 06:15 AM ET

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Hunter’s biggest accomplishment was getting this team to play a defense-first system and getting total buy-in from everybody.

Except Hunter hasn’t actually done that.  In fact it is pretty clear he doesn’t have buy in from the captain of the team in Alexander Ovechkin.  It speaks volumes that Dale Hunter’s alleged biggest accomplishment is something he hasn’t actually accomplished.

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And OV was benched for that, Props to Dale for sitting OV down in the right spots.
Bottom line your article doesn’t prove at all the Dale is being outcoached

You talk about tactical moves well the line changes was a great move and bringing Knuble back for game 5 I think it was, was another great move. He plays the right guys at the right times something Bruce never did.

Posted by bert07 on 04/27/12 at 01:51 PM ET

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From ESPN
“He [Hunter] runs the team not the players,” former GM and national analyst Craig Button told ESPN.com. “As it needs to be. Too much in the past, it was ‘hoping’ the stars would carry the day. Now if your actions don’t coincide with the plan you don’t play.

“That is how successful teams are run.”

http://espn.go.com/nhl/playoffs/2012/story/_/id/7860409/new-york-rangers-versus-washington-capitals

Posted by bert07 on 04/27/12 at 01:55 PM ET

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Great goaltending can make the worst of coaches look like a genius

Posted by Cubanpuckstopper on 04/27/12 at 02:07 PM ET

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Holtby let in some goals he shouldn’t have
for example the only goal boston scored in game 7 was a bit weak. At times yes he played great but he would like to have 3 or 4 goals back at least over the course of that series.

Posted by bert07 on 04/27/12 at 02:19 PM ET

PuckStopsHere's avatar

Braden Holtby posted a .940 saves percentage and a 2.00 GAA in the first round.  Those numbers are unsustainable over any long term and a real surprise from the man who was the third choice in the Washington nets.  Nevertheless Bert07 must attempt to downgrade that performance to try to debate with a throwaway (though correct) comment from Cubanpuckstopper.

Had I written something as critical of Holtby as Bert07 is (and his criticism isn’t reasonable) he would be here defending the man instead of putting him down as his most recent comment did.

Posted by PuckStopsHere on 04/27/12 at 03:23 PM ET

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As a caps fan I was mad at some of the goals he let in and surprised and happy with some saves he made at key moments.
Caps have done a fantastic job blocking shots, something I am sure Dale had nothing to do with. Your article about his a complete joke and rightfully you were called out on it.

Posted by bert07 on 04/27/12 at 03:36 PM ET

Bossy_Rules's avatar

I agree. The Caps are winning despite Dale Hunter.  Their D hasn’t been that outstanding, their goalie bailed them out.  They were horribly outshot but prevailed due to luck and their goalie outplaying the other teams goalie.  That’s the way it goes sometimes.  What kind of defensive system has Hunter had them ‘buy into’ that has them getting only 45% of the total shots at 5v5 in close games?  Odd system.  If he is trying to be outshot badly then I’ll buy that the team has ‘bought in’. 

LUCK LUCK LUCK LUCK - Its a HUGE part of hockey people!

Posted by Bossy_Rules on 04/27/12 at 07:50 PM ET

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imageThe Puck Stops Here was founded during the 2004/05 lockout as a place to rant about hockey. The original site contains over 1000 posts, some of which were also published on FoxSports.com.

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