I saw this coming in about the same way I saw predicted his hiring. I also reckoned that if he didn’t get a cup with these Caps, he was out. You can read Greg Wyshynski’s take on it here. I personally want to look at two factors that I think contributed to his lack of success.
1. Former NHL stars or highly sucessful players do not make good coaches.
2. Junior level coaches do not make good NHL coaches (at least not when going straight from juniors to the NHL).
I think a great player will always have trouble coaching, and I think it’s for the same reason it’s frustrating trying to explain to your grandmother how to use an iPad. There’s a disconnect between someone who clearly understood how to do something intuitively and someone who has to work to grasp it. I think it was more difficult than he anticipated to coach a team he hadn’t already groomed to his specifications (see: OHL coaching issues).
Wayne Gretzky was known for having a brilliant “hockey sense,” for somehow knowing exactly where the puck would be three steps before it was there, and knowing how the game worked on a level beyond anyone else. His legacy will also always have a footnote of “terrible coach.” Dave Tippett (.363 ppg over an admittedly long career) took over more or less the same team, which is now in their first-ever Western Conference finals.
I also think it’s not a good idea for a coach to go straight from juniors to the NHL. Brian Kilrea, one of the greatest junior hockey coaches of all time, spent two seasons as assistant coach of the Islanders (84-86) before heading back to the 67′s (side note: James Duthie’s biography of Brian Kilrea They Call Me Killer is awesome — it’s mostly Kilrea’s stories from a very long hockey career). A coach in the OHL gets to mold the players into the men he wants them to be, both in hockey and in life. He can emphasize the aspects of the game he finds important, which will be a product of how he played or studied the game (I’m assuming this is why he continued to give Wideman more ice time than he deserved, because Wides knew exactly what he was looking for). For a team of 15 to 20-year-olds, this is great. A great OHL coach finds the strengths and weaknesses in his players and can develop them. An NHL coach instead must figure out how to best use the assets before him. I think it’s fair to say Hunter didn’t effectively utilize his players.
There’s also the matter that, when teenagers are constantly on the road away from home, the coach has to act as a surrogate father. The way an OHL coach interacts with his players is not going to work when you have, say Mike Knuble and Roman Hamrlik, who are about 10 years younger than Hunter. I think Hunter expected a level of acquiesence that was unreasonable from NHL professionals.
I won’t miss Dale Hunter hockey, or the prospect of him tarnishing his legacy as a beloved Capital with a mediocre coaching career (bowing out after two playoff rounds is not bad at all). I’m not looking forward to a losing start to the season, as players get accustomed to a new coach and his peculiarities, but we had a great start this year, and look at where that got us.