Tavares learned a lot playing for Dale Hunter

by Ben Raby / NHL.com
WASHINGTON -- It has been three months to the day since former Capitals captain Dale Hunter was named the 15th head coach in club history.

Hunter has since compiled a 19-17-4 record, while attempting to transform the once offensively potent Capitals into a more conservative defensive hockey team.

"I like the way he coaches," general manager George McPhee said Monday. "Certainly I think we're a team that's much better defensively. We haven't given up much under [Hunter] and you've got to be stingy defensively."

Hunter has been challenged in recent weeks for his handling of goalies Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth and for his scratching healthy veterans Roman Hamrlik and Mike Knuble.

Tonight against the Islanders, Hamrlik is expected to be a healthy scratch for the fourth straight game, Knuble for the third straight game.

"If you play well you're going to stay in the lineup," Hunter said. "And especially down the stretch here, we need who is playing the best to be in the lineup to win games."

Islanders leading goal scorer John Tavares is familiar with the concept. Tavares played 38 games for Hunter's London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League in 2009.

"The biggest message that I remember he used to send is that if you weren't playing well or doing things the right way, or if you were making mistakes and not working hard, then you usually just didn't play," Tavares said.

Tavares was already the projected first pick in the 2009 Entry Draft when he joined London in an OHL trade from Oshawa. But the 18-year-old recalls being treated no differently than any of his teammates while playing for Hunter.

"If he had that trust in you and you played the game the right way, then you were going to be counted on for a lot of responsibility," Tavares said. "He wanted to make sure that you were not taking things for granted, that you were doing the right things out there and that you were working hard."

In 38 combined regular-season and playoff games under Hunter, Tavares had 42 goals and 71 points. But it was his play away from the puck, Tavares says, that benefitted most from Hunter's tutelage.

"Not only were you going to be counted on offensively, but in defensive situations as well," he said. "That's where he really helped me understand that I could be a better player on both sides of the puck and he had a lot of faith in me that way and it definitely helped me prepare for the National Hockey League."

The Knights were the OHL's Midwest Division champions in 2008-09, but were eliminated in five games by the eventual Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires in the conference finals.

"It was a lot of fun," Tavares said of playing for Hunter. "He taught me a lot even though I was there only for a short period of time. He had a lot of trust in me and gave me a lot of opportunity when I went there. … I had a great time, we had a great team, and I really excelled and learned a lot from him and I'm happy to see him get the opportunity at this level."