George McPhee insisted the firing of Bruce Boudreau and hiring of Dale Hunter wasn't about Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals' captain whose production and performance have been lacking this season.
But at $9 million this season and more than $95 million left on Ovechkin's contract, there's no doubt that something needs to give with the superstar left wing. And that turning Ovechkin's season around is Hunter's biggest challenge.
"[Ovechkin will] see how [Hunter] coaches and what he's going to demand out of him. We're going to see, I believe, Alex play as hard as he ever has," assistant coach Dean Evason said. "Alex is still a great player, obviously. ... He's just got to get back to working the way that he always has to allow him to be successful and score goals."
Ovechkin and the rest of the Capitals should expect to take on the personality of their coach, according to Evason. As many have pointed out, that means consistency in work ethic and effort. It also means Ovechkin improving his production and perhaps even his leadership abilities.
He went into Thursday night's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins with eight goals and 10 assists - on pace for just 29 goals and 36 assists. Hunter alluded to wanting Ovechkin to be more assertive offensively.
"He's got a great shot, and we need shots. But he's got to get openings to do it," Hunter said. "No, no. it's his shot, too. It's his shot and guys going to the net and getting the rebound. ... You get more rubber at the net, the better things happen."
Hunter said Ovechkin needed to be stronger on the forecheck, and it likely would help the left wing's all-around game to develop more of a backchecking presence. This new system is about producing offense from stringent, aggressive defense, which means Ovechkin playing better in his end.
Hunter said this first week Ovechkin is "buying into everything," as far as adjusting to a new system.
"He's a legend here," Ovechkin said of his new coach. "He played here, was the captain and he knows how to win the games and how to play."
Hunter being the captain in Washington from 1994-95 to 1998-99 certainly can't hurt Ovechkin's development in that department. McPhee made it clear Monday that the team was not removing the "C" from the face of the franchise.
And while Hunter preached more team leadership, his experience will be vital in Ovechkin's maturation process as captain.
"Definitely, I can help him," Hunter said. "It's responsibility, because you're dealing with other players and you're the go-between between the coaches and them. Don't have it all on your shoulders. He shouldn't have it all on his shoulders — winning and losing, or getting the players to play right, or dealing with the players."
Monitoring and managing that responsibility is Hunter's job now as he tries to turn things around for Ovechkin — because the Caps likely will follow how their captain plays.
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