Switching coaches on the fly in the middle of a season presents plenty of challenges. Dale Hunter has made changes to just about everything since taking over the Washington Capitals on Nov. 28 — perhaps none with more of a tactical difference than on defense.
With assistant Jim Johnson helping oversee the transition, Hunter and the Capitals have said goodbye to the traditional zone defense of players covering patches of the ice in favor of a man-to-man system that several players said puts a premium on responsibility.
"You've got to win your battles. If you're one-on-one, you have to win that," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "Me and [John Carlson] were battling for the puck right at the end of the [Ottawa Senators] game [Dec. 7] in the faceoff dot, and I lost my guy and he goes in and scores a goal. That's the way it is."
The simplicity of one-on-one defense has benefits and its drawbacks. It's a disadvantage to be implementing the system in midseason, but with a veteran group — and even a smart 20-year-old rookie in Dmitry Orlov — the adjustment hasn't been that hard.
"It's definitely not easy, but we've all played hockey in here our whole lives, pretty much," Carlson said. "It's tough, but once you get used to it, you practice a few days and watch some video, and everyone gets the gist."
Video is a big part of Hunter, Johnson and Dean Evason coaching the Caps, but playing this man-to-man in practice — similar to a matchup zone in basketball — requires more exertion than a zone.
Of course, there's extra work that can have an upside, like not needing to close quickly on an opposing player when he gets the puck.
"It's a little more demanding to play a guy constantly one-on-one. But it allows you to be a little more aggressive, I think, in the D-zone," defenseman Dennis Wideman said. "When they get a cycle going, instead of the guy having the gap of three or four feet, you should be kind of right on him — so it should give you a little better opportunity to snuff out the cycle a little bit quicker."
Johnson preaches gap control, which means a defender keeping his man close enough to make a play and not get burned. But Wideman said this new system requires knowing when to step up on a guy with the puck and when to allow for some space.
Earlier in the season, the Capitals had defensive breakdowns where opponents found room between the forwards and defensemen to score a goal or make a smart pass. In this system, it's easy to pick out who was at fault — something that can be a teaching tool for everyone.
"You definitely see on video. It's not like you can say, 'Oh, I thought there was a guy behind me' and get away with it. Obviously, that's your guy. You've got to be on him," Alzner said. "It makes you take more responsibility, which is really good to see. When guys come to the bench, they come into the dressing room, 'Guys, it was my fault. I should've had him.' And it's over."
So much has been discussed about accountability, which is why Johnson doesn't just put the onus on defensemen to play the man-to-man effectively.
"I look at it as it's a group of five guys on the ice," he said. "When you play it cohesively as a unit of five out there, you'd be able to turn pucks over. We spend less time in our end; now we start transitioning the puck and generating chances off the transition."
That's how — in Hunter's system — offense is created from defense.
But so much of it is mental.
"I've noticed in a couple shifts, my first shifts of the game, where my head for whatever reason isn't completely there yet, and I get run around in my own zone," Alzner said. "It's something that you have to be prepared for mentally every single night. But if you are, it's hard to play against."
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