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Players want Hunter back, but will he return?


Players want Hunter back, but will he return?

Since he arrived in Washington as Bruce Boudreaus replacement, it has been the elephant in the room no one has wanted to discuss.

Will Dale Hunter return as head coach of the Capitals next season?

Given the success of his junior team, the London Knights, does he want to?

Do the players, specifically Alex Ovechkin, want him back?

And what about team management? Does general manager George McPhee want to extend what is believed to be a one-year deal for the 51-year-old coach? If so, at what cost?

All of those questions will be addressed after what has already been a remarkable season for the Capitals. But as they await Saturday nights decisive Game 7 against the Rangers in New York one question has been answered quite resoundingly.

The players want Hunter back next season.
Why wouldnt I? center Brooks Laich said. Absolutely. Hes been great. I don't have anything to do with that. I'm not concerned about that right now. I just want to keep winning.
With each playoff victory, Hunters support has gained traction in the Capitals locker room.
It would be very, very tough, Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said when asked what would happen if Hunter decided to return to London, Ontario, where he and his brother own and operate the Knights.

The way were playing hockey right now is a good way to play hockey and you dont really want to mess with it. I would say, yes, we need him to come back if you want us to continue to play this style of hockey.

Hunter and the Capitals are one win away from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since Hunter led them to the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals as a player. The reason, the players say, is the coach who for years was resistant to McPhees overtures to coach the Capitals.

Youve got to give Dale credit, Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. He hasnt strayed away from his game plan from Day One. He obviously knows what it takes to play in the playoffs. He played for a long time. I like our game, I like our system and guys have played it well.

That is not to say the Capitals did not had their share of growing pains. Early in Hunters tenure there was a resistance to his defense-first, low-risk approach to the game and Laich and Alzner admitted there were locker room shouting matches among the players.

Our struggles may have made him look not as good as we know he is, Alzner said. Its extremely tough to change a system in the middle of the year. Last year it looked so easy with Bruce Boudreau because it was minor tweaks we did. This is a completely different thing and it was tough, but everyones seeing the product of it now.

The biggest challenge for Hunter might have been getting Ovechkin and Alex Semin to buy into a system in which their offensive creativity is stifled.

I think we understand now that preventing a chance against is more important than trying to create a chance for, Laich said. Its a game of mistakes and if we can be solid defensively and not give them anything, sooner or later the other team might break down and give us a chance and then we have opportunistic scorers. Thats a different mentality than we had here before.

I just think Hunter has done a great job finding the balance and still allowing our skill players to be creative but within the confines of the system.
Laich pointed to Ovechkin scoring a power-play goal and blocking three shots in Wednesday nights 2-1 victory in Game 6. He noted Semins willingness to chip a puck off the boards and into the offensive zone instead of making a high-risk pass through the middle.

The whole bench is just saying, Good play, good play, Laich said, because its something that were not used to seeing.

Hunter said his coaching style is not much different with the Capitals than it was with the Knights when he coached in London for 10 years. He said the players willingness to change old habits for the sake of winning is what has made the Capitals a threat in the playoffs.

When you come here, youre coaching these guys, trying to get them to play as one, Hunter said. The guys come in, they want to win. Its easy to coach a team when they want to win and they put team ahead of the personal goals.

Alzner said Hunter drives home his points with the greatest motivational tool a coach has at his disposal playing time.

Maybe its harder to do it than it is to say it, but if a guys not playing well, you just dont play him, Alzner said. Thats just the way it works. All the players know. We dont want to see a guy go out there whos not working or a guy who is working not get rewarded.

And then there is Hunters surprisingly calm demeanor behind the bench. For a guy who played the game with such emotion, piling up more than 3,500 in penalty minutes, Hunter has been remarkably serene in the most emotional of circumstances.

Laich said that is something he certainly didnt expect when he heard Hunter was replacing Boudreau.
Id never met him, but heard about him and knew the type of player he was, Laich said. When I found out it was Dale Hunter I kind of took a breath and thought, This is going to be real serious.
I cant speak enough, hes been great. Its almost like having another veteran in the locker room is what it feels like. You can draw on his experience, hes willing to open up and share it. Hes been through these battles.
And now another awaits. Game 7 in Madison Square Garden. The only NHL game being played. A berth in the conference finals hanging in the balance.
And yet another question.
Could this be Hunters final game behind the Capitals bench? Or is this just the beginning of a long coaching run by a Capitals legend?
No one knows, Alzner said. You never know with the guy. He doesnt show much emotion at all. Well all find out together in the summer.

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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

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The Caps are a bad faceoff team, here’s what they’re doing about it

Tuesday’s practice was a lot like every other for the Caps until the end. After working on the power play, the team gathered at one end of the ice and began working on faceoffs. It was not just the centers, but wingers and defensemen alike got into the action with every win celebrated by loud cheers from teammates.

It should could as no surprise to see faceoffs as a point of emphasis for Washington considering just how much the team has struggled with them in the early season. The Caps rank 30th in the league in faceoff win percentage at only 43.8-percent.

“Yeah, there's little details that can help our game,” Lars Eller told reporters after practice. “The more you have the puck, easier the game is gonna be for you. We have a little more time in between games than usual during the season here, so we have the time to work on something like that, which can be little things that makes the difference.”

The team as a whole watched video on faceoffs prior to practice and then worked as a five-man unit during the drill. The main point of emphasis head coach Todd Reirden wanted to drill into his players was that faceoffs are not simply the responsibility of the centers alone.

“The days of it just being center vs. center and a clean draw being won back are a rarity now so it's important to have all five guys helping, something we watched video on earlier today,” Reirden said.

“You ask any centerman if they have a good group of wingers that can help them out on draws, that makes a huge difference,” Nic Dowd said. “I've been lucky, I have [Devante Smith-Pelly] on my right and I'm a righty so I win all my draws my backhand side so a lot of pucks go his way and he wins a lot of draws for me. That's huge. You have a guy that's sitting over there that's sleeping, you could go easily from five wins to five losses and then that's your night. It makes a big difference.”

Faceoffs were always going to be more of a struggle for the Caps this season with the departure of Jay Beagle who was, by far, the team’s best faceoff man for several years. Whenever the team needed a big draw, Beagle was the player relied upon to win it. With him gone, it is no surprise to see the team struggle.

But the Caps don’t like the idea of keeping possession off a draw just 43.8-percent of the time.

“It's essentially like the ref is creating a 50-50 puck and you snap it back, you get possession, now you're forechecking and it makes a huge difference,” Dowd said. “You play against those top lines, they want to be in the O-zone. Well, if you lose the draw, now you're playing D-zone, you win the draw now you're playing O-zone. So effectively, you've shut down their shift.”

There is a school of thought suggesting that perhaps the importance of winning faceoffs is overrated and a team’s faceoff win percentage is not overly important. Eller himself admitted as much to reporters.

What no one can argue, however, is that while some faceoffs may not matter all that much, there are some that are hugely important in a game. The Caps recognize that. For them, being a strong faceoff team is not necessarily about improving the team’s win percentage, but more about being able to win those critical draws.

“It's something that for the most part the players understand and a neutral zone faceoff with 14 minutes to go in the first period is not nearly as important as one that's 5-on-6 at the end of the game,” Reirden said. “We all know that. It's important to put the right people on those situations and give them the best chance to have success.”

“A center ice draw, I could see where guys could make the argument, well you lose it you still will play hockey and stuff could still happen,” Dowd said. “But I think the game is such a possession game now that any opportunity you can win a 50-50 puck whether that's a faceoff or a board battle, it makes a huge difference.”




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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

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The case for 'Making Hockey Fun Again,' and the Capitals’ place in it

Like it or not, the NHL is becoming younger, louder, and more personable. And as its young stars begin to gain leadership positions, the demand from a younger subset of fans grows larger: Make hockey fun again. Let players have personality on the ice and off, be it through social media engagement, game-day fashion, or creative goal celebrations.

Some say that hockey was always fun. True, to an extent. 

Minute per game minute, you arguably can’t find a faster, more action-packed major sport. But among the North American leagues, and internationally, the NBA still dominates on Twitter activity and in its social media. 

One of the biggest factors that helped basketball succeed in the social age wasn’t the NHL’s commonly preached conformity.

The NBA found huge success in marketing its star players as larger-than-life, letting them have public personas that tied into larger, richer narratives spanning careers, teams, and decades.

Superstar Auston Matthews, the up-and-coming 21-year-old face of American hockey, has taken note, citing NBA star Russell Westbrook’s individuality as a source of inspiration in a recent GQ feature

He’s well met by former USA National Team Development Program teammates Jack Eichel, who was recently named captain of the Buffalo Sabres; Dylan Larkin, Detroit’s hometown darling who’s stepping up as an assistant captain for the Red Wings; and Matthew Tkachuk, who’s also wearing an A in Calgary.

It’s not only the born and bred American youngsters who are ready to stand out. The team responsible for the resurgence of the debate about how much fun is too much is none other than the Washington Capitals, whose summer celebrations led to the ban of the legendary Cup Stand.

Though the publicity of their championship celebrations was revolutionary, the Capitals hold more promise in amount of fun per sixty. After a title win, their petty grudges are only transforming into a bold sense of self-confidence.

Alex Ovechkin is already a superstar on a mission to grab the attention of all the boys and girls and babes in the hockey world. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s interviews and celebrations reveal a player growing into the spotlight, ready to embrace a downright devious kind of skill against his opponents. Braden Holtby is already a league-recognized style icon whose meticulously chosen plaid suits and well-groomed beard have woven into the hype of game-day coverage. And Nicklas Backstrom is finally smiling on-camera.

(This isn’t even mentioning highly polarizing figure Tom Wilson, whose aggressive approach on the ice has earned him the marking of a player everyone hates unless he’s on their team.)

If the NHL wants to appeal to new viewers, it can gain ground by marketing its stars outside of a bland, monotone mold for success. 

With high-scoring, chaotically delightful games that happen almost every night all across the continent, an audience needs something to anchor them.

Individuality isn’t a bad place to start.