Ultimately, the success of Dale Hunter as coach of the Capitals will be determined by the play of Alex Ovechkin and, to a lesser extent, Alex Semin.
While it would be far too simplistic to say the poor defensive play of Ovechkin (minus-7) and Semin (minus-3) was the primary reason for Bruce Boudreaus dismissal, it is imperative that both players improve their overall play if Hunter hopes to guide the Capitals out of the woods.
If you look around the league, if your top players arent playing at the top of their game, every team is going to struggle, said former Capitals defenseman Mark Tinordi. Youre paying three or four guys to be the top players on your team and youre paying them a lot of money.
Hes gonna have to figure out which guys are his top guys and get them playing their better.
Does Hunter have the personality to do it? Can the 19-year NHL veteran draw more out of Ovechkin, who has 10 years and more than 950 million remaining on his contract, and Semin, who is working under a one-year, 6.7 million deal?
Sure he can, said Tinordi, whose son, Jared, played under Hunter for the London Knights. Hes a smart guy. He knows what hes doing.
Ovechkin said everybody was shocked by the news of Boudreaus firing on Monday, adding he was a great coach and a great guy. He described his relationship with Boudreau as a good one, and one he hopes will continue long after Boudreaus departure
He cared for the team and each person, Ovechkin said. I think we respond to him as players, but it is done and we have to move forward.
Hunter will need to find a way to get Ovechkin and Semin to play well in all three zones, something none of their coaches has been able to do on a consistent basis since they arrived in Washington.
Through 22 games Ovechkin has eight goals and nine assists while averaging a career-low 18:46 a game. Semin has five goals and five assists in 16:23 of ice time.
Everybody wants to play 25 minutes a game, but everybody has a role and you have to establish that, Hunter said.
Everybody in their career goes through slumps in every sport. (Ovechkin) has been scoring, but we have such a high level for Alex that we always expect more. Theres always pressure on him, but its a team game. Alex is a big part of it, but we need to play better as a team.
As a former captain of the Capitals, Hunter said he believes he can help Ovechkin become a better conduit between his teammates and the coaching staff.
I can help him, Hunter said. Its not all on (his) shoulders. We have a good group of guys in there that care about winning and losing and its going to be more about team leadership and team wins.
Indeed, Hunters success with the Capitals will be judged by the number of wins he puts up, both now and in April. But it starts with the man wearing the C.
Hes a legend here, Ovechkin said. You can see at practice, everybody was flying around and concentrating. It was a real good practice.
What they say is (he) is a straight-up coach. Like if he wants to say something to you, he is going to say it. I think it is good.