Well, that didn’t take long.
A little over an hour after I filed this morning’s column saying that the biggest question for the Caps this offseason would be coach Dale Hunter’s status, he told general manager George McPhee that he was heading back to his family and the junior hockey franchise he runs in London, Ont.
Hunter’s record after replacing Bruce Boudreau on Nov. 28 wasn’t spectacular. Washington was 30-23-7 on his watch before splitting 14 playoff games – albeit against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins and Eastern Conference’s top-seeded New York Rangers — and ending up short of the conference finals for the 13th consecutive season.
But Hunter, the eighth Caps coach with whom I’ve dealt during my 25-plus years as a Washington sportswriter, did have a major effect on the franchise. As I wrote this morning, Hunter transformed the Caps from the freewheeling offensive juggernaut of the Boudreau years to a taut, defensive-minded team.
If not for Joel Ward’s accidentally high-sticking New York’s Carl Hagelin with just 22 seconds left in Game 5 of the conference semifinals that led to two quick New York goals, the Caps, not the Rangers, might well be facing New Jersey in the conference final.
However, knowing Hunter, whom I covered as a beat writer from 1990-93, I believe that he probably would have made the same decision even if Washington had won the Cup. The barrel-chested son of an Ontario wheat farmer has never liked the big city and the media spotlight. Now it’s up to his successor to build upon the foundation of responsibility and selflessness that Hunter installed amongst the Caps.
But who will that successor be?
Unfortunately for McPhee, Phoenix coach Dave Tippett, a gritty former Caps forward like Hunter, is under contract with the Western Conference finalist Coyotes through next season. Former Caps assistant Randy Carlyle, whom Boudreau replaced in Anaheim on Nov. 30, would be a good choice, too, but the 2006 Western Conference winner replaced his former Washington boss, Ron Wilson, in Toronto in March.
I can’t say if Caps assistants Dean Evason, who has never been a head coach on the pro level, or Jim Johnson, whose head coaching resume consists of 22 games with Norfolk of the American Hockey League, are worthy of the top job.
During his nearly 15 years in Washington, McPhee hasn’t always made the conventional choice of coaches. He brought assistant Wilson with him from Vancouver in 1997 but replaced his buddy in 2002 with the little-known Bruce Cassidy. And when the Caps were floundering under Cassidy in the fall of 2003, McPhee promoted assistant Glen Hanlon, making the rare decision to put a former goalie in command behind the bench.
Former Caps coach Terry Murray guided Philadelphia to the Cup finals in 1997 and built Los Angeles into the defense-first team that his in-season replacement, Darryl Sutter, has within three victories of this year’s finals. But Murray turns 62 in July. Would McPhee consider him too old to be able to convince the offensive-minded Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin — if the latter returns — not to neglect the other end of the ice?
There is one stealth candidate who, like Hunter, Tippett, Carlyle, Wilson, Evason, Johnson and Murray, has Caps ties. Coaching his team on an interim basis, he just won the OHL championship on Friday. And now he’s out of a job since his boss is coming back. His name is Mark Hunter, Dale’s younger brother, who played his final seven NHL games for Washington and is the co-owner and GM of those title-winning London Knights.
Don’t think the Caps can replace one brother with the other? That’s what then-GM David Poile did to raised eyebrows in January 1990 when then-assistant Murray replaced his older brother Bryan behind the bench. Less than four months later, the Caps were skating in their first conference finals.
And, of course, Wilson, who guided the Caps to their only Cup finals in 1998 and has a 9-8 record in playoff series with Anaheim, Washington, San Jose and Toronto, is available, too. His return to D.C. would complete a circle for McPhee.
However, there’s no need for McPhee, who hasn’t hired a coach during an offseason in a decade, to make a hasty decision. The draft, with which Hunter is willing to help, isn’t for a month and training camp doesn’t start until September.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March.