The Washington Capitals went into this season — like the past couple — with dreams of winning the Stanley Cup. With this mix of talent and experience, everything seemed to be in place for a Cup run that would make star player Alex Ovechkin and coach Bruce Boudreau heroes around town.
Instead, Monday morning brought the firing of Boudreau and the hiring of another hero in Capitals lore, Dale Hunter. The new coach will feel the same high expectations to turn around a struggling team and achieve its lofty goals.
“I think this team is capable of being a very good team and competing for a Cup. That hasn’t changed,” said general manager George McPhee.
He said he made the move because the team tuned out Boudreau’s voice as its fortunes plummeted after a 7-0 start. “I’m certainly disappointed with the way we’ve played lately, but we still have a winning record and it’s time to start getting more wins.”
The burden on Boudreau is now lifted. His time with the Capitals ended during a 6:15 a.m. Monday meeting with McPhee at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington after more than four years of service and zero appearances in the Eastern Conference finals, let alone the Stanley Cup Finals. Boudreau, who went 201-88-40 in the regular season but just 17-20 in the playoffs with the Capitals, said in a text message Monday that he didn’t want to talk and would prefer to address the situation later in the week.
Players, especially those who knew Boudreau from his days with the Hershey Bears, expressed regret for not doing what they needed to do for their coach — and their 3-7-1 stretch getting him fired.
“Yeah, the world of sports kind of sucks in a way that he takes the fall for stuff that we do,” forward Brooks Laich said. “It’s not him that took a penalty or missed his assignment or turned a puck over. It’s the guys in this locker room.”
Those guys haven’t changed, and Mr. McPhee said another move is not on the horizon.
That means it’s now up to Hunter, the man whose giant banner hangs at one end of the rink at the Capitals’ practice facility and whose status as a captain in Washington needs no embellishment.
Hunter, 51, has never lost touch with the Capitals since retiring as a player in 1999. He has taped and watched Capitals games even as he trekked from city to city via bus as coach of junior hockey’s London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. He owns the Knights along with his brother, but he has the same kind of feeling about the Capitals — because his connection here is longer than even that of owner Ted Leonsis.
“Definitely, this has been my team — I shouldn’t say ‘my team,’ it’s Ted’s team, but it feels like my team,” said Hunter, who played parts of 12 of his 19 NHL seasons with the Capitals. “This is kind of where I played a lot of hockey. I’ve been cheering for the Caps since I left here. I guess I’m one of the ones rooting for them still right now.”
Hunter’s first strides on the ice at practice Monday were greeted with rousing cheers, something not often seen when a team hires a coach. His No. 32 hanging in the rafters at Verizon Center as one of the team’s four retired numbers and his status in Washington mean he commands instant respect from players.
“He’s a legend here,” Ovechkin said. “He played here, was the captain and he knows how to win the games and how to play.”
This is different because of his playing days, and his reputation as a hard-nosed captain likely will filter to his new role. He said he wants his team to be hard to oppose and he doesn’t believe in “run-and-gun hockey.” Hunter is the 15th coach in franchise history and the fourth consecutive one to take the job without any previous NHL coaching experience.
Despite his history in a Capitals uniform, Hunter still faces an immense challenge — refocusing a team that has gone astray to the point where it cost Boudreau his job. The onus is on players to move forward and prove that those Stanley Cup aspirations are still within reach.
“We have to. That’s our job,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “We get paid to win hockey games and to show up every night and compete and do all the intangibles that indicate a winning team. If this isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.”