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Hunter faces complicated to-do list as Caps coach

by Dan Rosen

Dale Hunter built a reputation as a gritty but effective player during his 19-year playing career in the NHL. He has been that same identity as a coach with London in the Ontario Hockey League for 11 seasons, using gritty and demanding, yet approachable, ways to bleed all kinds of success out of the Knights.

His next challenge in his hockey career is to get the talented, yet seemingly lost, Washington Capitals squad back on track.

This might be Hunter's greatest challenge; not only for the stage he's on as the coach of one of the League's most recognizable teams, but also because of the players he has to get through to, and the hungry hockey market he again has to win over, this time in a suit.

The Capitals are built to win right now, but Hunter has issues he must tackle head on in order to make things right in Washington. Here are six that must be handled right away:

1. Get on the same page as Ovechkin

No matter who the coach is, Alex Ovechkin is going to be the face of the franchise. The coach will not be able to co-exist with Ovechkin if the two are at odds, and it certainly appeared that Bruce Boudreau and the captain were no longer talking the same language.


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Boudreau slashed Ovechkin's ice time to fewer than 19 minutes per game, a tactic that backfired because Ovechkin hasn't had nearly the same type of presence as in past seasons. He has only 17 points in 22 games, not enough for a guy considered to be among the top five best players in the world.

Hunter could start his relationship with Ovechkin by placating him. He could increase his ice time, getting him back to more than 21 minutes per game, where he was for his first six seasons. Hunter could also put some new wrinkles into the Capitals sagging power play, potentially re-igniting Ovechkin's production in that way.

The fact that Hunter played 19 seasons in the NHL, including five as the Capitals' captain, should also give him some added credibility if he talks to Ovechkin about finding new ways to attack the net.

2. Find a middle ground between D and O

The stats would suggest Washington's goaltending has been a problem, but it goes beyond that to team defense. The Capitals are struggling to keep the puck out of the net because they're not doing enough in front of Tomas Vokoun (2.82 GAA) and Michal Neuvirth (3.82 GAA).

Hunter has to get the forwards to think two ways, both about what is in front of them and behind them. He has to get the defensemen to play tougher in front of the net, to force the puck away from the middle, out of the dangerous areas, all the while looking to push the forwards into a transition game.

Boudreau's system change last season to focus on defense worked to a point. Sure, the Capitals got better at keeping the puck out of the net, but it came at the price of scoring. They've been scoring more this season, but it has come at the price of playing solid defense.

Hunter has to get them to find a happy medium.

3. Fix the power play

There's no reason for the Capitals power play to be No. 17 in the NHL, clicking only 16.3 percent of the time.

With guys like Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, Dennis Wideman, Troy Brouwer, Marcus Johansson, Mike Knuble and, when healthy, Mike Green, the power play should be borderline lethal every single time it gets a chance.

NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told that Hunter's teams in London have had the best power play in junior hockey for many years. Whatever Hunter was doing to make the Knights' power play work he ought to try with the Capitals because the special teams' advantage they can gain could be huge in the long run.

4. Figure out Alexander Semin

Alexander Semin
Left Wing - WSH
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 10
SOG: 49 | +/-: -3
OK, so this one isn't going to be that easy; but it's essential if the Capitals are going to have immediate success under Hunter.

Semin is a puzzle. Some days he can look like the most talented player in the world and other days he can be an average winger that a coach could forget about. He's been mostly the latter all season, enough for Boudreau to make him a healthy scratch last week for the first time since he was a rookie.

According to his former bosses in London, Hunter is known for being a guy who wants to get to know his players and figure out what makes them tick. He'll gain instant credibility and be lauded as a genius if he can figure out Semin and get his season turned around.

5. Insert his personality into the team

Intimidating with talent alone is not enough in the NHL. Teams also need to intimidate with their physicality and a lunch-pail mentality. Look at Pittsburgh, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston for proof.

If Washington wants to get into that class, Hunter needs to put some of himself into this team. He is, after all, the only player in NHL history to put up 1,000 points and 3,000 penalty minutes in a career.

The Capitals have enough gritty, physical, feisty guys (Ovechkin, Laich, Jason Chimera, Troy Brouwer, Mike Knuble, Joel Ward, Karl Alzner) that it should come easily with some prodding by Hunter.

6. Improve the focus

Washington is the worst team in the NHL with a .444 winning percentage (4-4-1) when it scores the first goal in a game, but it has an NHL-best .615 winning percentage (8-5-0) when it gives up the first goal. The numbers would suggest Washington should always just concede the first goal, but during the course of an 82-game season that's not typically a recipe for success.

If anything, those statistics should serve as a wakeup call to the Capitals. Too often do they find themselves playing catch-up, and when they do get a lead they're not doing enough to hold it or build on it because they're taking untimely penalties, their power play is giving up more goals than it is scoring and they're guilty of lapses that turn one goal against into three in a matter of minutes.

It all goes back to what can only be seen as a lack of focus, which is haunting this team. Hunter has to stop that right now by getting the Capitals to show the killer instinct they used to display.

When they score first, they need to score again. They can't afford to give up the first goal much longer.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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