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Puckin' Around With Spector

Capitals and Hurricanes Captains Must Step Up.

The Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes made headlines Monday with the firings of Bruce Boudreau and Paul Maurice as their respective head coaches.

Former Capitals star and London Knights coach Dale Hunter replaced Boudreau, while former Montreal Canadiens star and assistant coach Kirk Muller took over the reins from Maurice.

It remains to be seen how the players adapt to their new bench bosses, but if they know what’s good for them, they’ll do so quickly and positively, because the “blame the coach” card has been taken off the table.

Since this season began, the captains of both teams have played poorly, which have been significant factors in their respective teams’ performances.

Hurricanes captain Eric Staal is off to a horrible start, on pace for a mere 35 points, which would be his lowest offensive output since his 31-point rookie effort in 2003-04.

With the exception of his 100 points in ‘05-‘06 and 82 points in ‘07-‘08, Staal has averaged between 70-75 points per season.

It’s been suggested he’s got personal matters on his mind, especially concern over his brother, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, recovering from a concussion he received from a check by Eric in a late-March game last season. The loss of winger Erik Cole to free agency this summer might also be a factor.

Whatever the reason, Staal isn’t playing at his best, and when that happens, the Hurricanes struggle to score.

Of course, their problems run deeper than Staal. They lack offensive depth, sitting 23rd overall in goals-per game, with the second worst power-play. Defensively, they appear to have an expensive bust in Tomas Kaberle on their hands, have the third-worst goals-against per game, given up the fifth-most shots, and ranked 22nd overall on the penalty-kill.

Overall, the Hurricanes are a mediocre club whose late surge last season fooled many of their fans into believing they might be a playoff contender.

This season will be considered a grace period for Muller as he evaluates this team, thus the burden to improve falls squarely upon the players, especially Staal.

He’s the captain, the on-ice leader, the go-to guy, the inspiration for his teammates. As Staal goes, so goes the Hurricanes.

Unless he’s nursing an unreported injury that has hampered his play, he needs to show the leadership that comes with wearing the “C” on his jersey if the Hurricanes are to make any real improvement over the course of this season.

The Capitals, on the other hand, are a much better team than the Hurricanes, predicted by some heading into this season to be a Stanley Cup contender.

Their struggles throughout November were blamed on Boudreau - just as they were during their December meltdown last season and their humiliating sweep from the second round of the 2011 playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning - because of his decision to change his team’s style of play.

In 2010, Boudreau saw his “run-and-gun” team make a disappointing first round exit from the playoffs at the hands of the lowly Montreal Canadiens, and resolved to make his team more defensively responsible for the playoff grind.

The problem, however, was superstar captain Alexander Ovechkin appeared to be chafing under the new system. An offensive thoroughbred, Ovechkin’s production declined over the course of last season, finishing with less than 90 points for the first time in his career. This season, he’s on pace for a career-worst 70-point effort.

As time went on this season, it appeared Boudreau “lost the room”, to the point where he admitted, prior to his firing, he didn’t know why the Capitals were losing.

Critics of the Capitals believe Ovechkin and his teammates - especially his pal Alexander Semin - simply quit on Boudreau, labelling the Capitals captain a “coach killer”.

But Boudreau is gone now, and in his place steps Hunter, who as a player had an aggressive, “take-no-prisoners” style which made him the first player in NHL history to notch 1,000 career points and 3,000 career penalty minutes.

As a Junior coach, Hunter had considerable success with the London Knights, winning the Memorial Cup in 2005, and running up over 400 career victories.

Like Muller in Carolina, this season will be a grace period for Hunter, as he evaluates and adjusts his new roster.

Capitals GM George McPhee claimed the hiring of Hunter got his players’ attention. How much of an impact that has will be determined over the course of this season.

Hunter takes over a team which was fifth overall in goals-per-game, but gave up the second-most goals-against per game. Their once-lethal power-play was17th overall, their penalty-killing a weak 23rd overall.

It’s now up to the players, but especially Ovechkin, to prove to their fans, critics and the rest of the league they’re willing to play for Hunter. If they’re hoping for a return to the old “run-and-gun” style, they can probably forget it, as Hunter reportedly isn’t fond of that system, leaving them no choice but to adjust and improve, or face more withering criticism.

Butting heads with Hunter won’t do Ovechkin or his teammates any good, as instead it’ll only enhance the now-growing perception the Capitals are stocked with selfish prima donnas unwilling to do the necessary work to reach their potential as Cup contenders.

If the rest of the team buys in, but Ovechkin and Semin continue to struggle offensively, it’ll deepen the opinion around the league they’re only out for themselves. If it’s only Ovechkin struggling, the cries of “What’s wrong with Ovechkin?” will surely increase.

The focus now will be upon Ovechkin, the face of the Capitals as well as their captain, to lead by example, buy into Hunter’s system, and help his team get back on track toward realizing its potential.

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About Puckin' Around With Spector

I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.

I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.