Navigating a shortened 2012-13 season should prove challenging for every NHL coaching staff. That's especially true for a Washington Capitals staff built from scratch when Adam Oates was named the team's coach in June.
Short on experience, Washington's coaches have been working to build on the chemistry they established 15 years ago during the most historic playoff run in franchise history.
With Oates and assistant coach Calle Johansson spending time in Hershey with the Capitals' American Hockey League team over the past few months, assistant Tim Hunter made weekly visits to spend time with the staff.
"We had four months to get to know each other and tweak our system and how we're going to play," Hunter said. "Everyone's in the same boat with a shortened season and training camp. The only negative I see is that we have a new system and there's not a lot of familiarity with the players and coaches."
If the Capitals coaches manage to find quick chemistry, it won't be an accident. Hunter served as an assistant coach in Washington for five years before coach Ron Wilson took his staff with him when he got the San Jose Sharks' job in 2002. In Hunter's first season as an NHL coach (1997-98), the Capitals enjoyed a playoff run that saw the team make its only Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Hunter's alternate captain and star center on that team -- Oates -- is now his boss.
Oates isn't the only familiar face from that team rejoining Hunter in the nation's capital. Johansson was a vital player, as was associate goaltending coach Olaf Kolzig.
"Another guy who was coaching with us in Washington when we started was Tim Army. Tim is now an assistant coach for Joe Sacco (with the Colorado Avalanche), who was on that team as well," Hunter said. "It's really full circle."
Hunter's first season behind the Capitals' bench proved to be a rebirth for hockey in D.C. It started with the announcement that Washington's vacant general manager position would be filled by George McPhee, who remains with the club 15 years later. Following the opening of the team's new arena, then known as the MCI Center, veterans Oates, Johansson and Kolzig led the Capitals to their only Stanley Cup Final, where they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
The Caps faltered the following season and it would be 11 years before the team won another playoff series.
Hunter said he sees similarities between his current roster and the one that captured the Beltway's heart in 1997-98.
"This team is ready to play to their makeup. Their makeup is a good, young, fast team," Hunter said. "And we're going to play a game where they're going to have a lot of fun playing it and practicing it."
Despite many familiar faces, there will be one glaring difference in Hunter's second stint in Washington. After serving as an assistant to Wilson for 13 straight seasons, Hunter will be manning an NHL bench without his mentor for the first time in his coaching career. And with a staff featuring a first-time head coach and an assistant with no NHL coaching experience, Hunter's tenure under Wilson should prove invaluable.
"Ron allowed me to find my way and do what I felt was necessary. That's how I'll be able to help Adam. I'll just be able to sprinkle in my experience along the way," Hunter said. "It's great to be back. George has done a tremendous job retooling this team and making it a contender for the long haul -- not just a one-hit wonder, like what we were in the beginning."
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