Since he arrived in Washington as Bruce Boudreaus replacement, it has been the elephant in the room no one has wanted to discuss.
Will Dale Hunter return as head coach of the Capitals next season?
Given the success of his junior team, the London Knights, does he want to?
Do the players, specifically Alex Ovechkin, want him back?
And what about team management? Does general manager George McPhee want to extend what is believed to be a one-year deal for the 51-year-old coach? If so, at what cost?
All of those questions will be addressed after what has already been a remarkable season for the Capitals. But as they await Saturday nights decisive Game 7 against the Rangers in New York one question has been answered quite resoundingly.
The players want Hunter back next season.
Why wouldnt I? center Brooks Laich said. Absolutely. Hes been great. I don't have anything to do with that. I'm not concerned about that right now. I just want to keep winning.
With each playoff victory, Hunters support has gained traction in the Capitals locker room.
It would be very, very tough, Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said when asked what would happen if Hunter decided to return to London, Ontario, where he and his brother own and operate the Knights.
The way were playing hockey right now is a good way to play hockey and you dont really want to mess with it. I would say, yes, we need him to come back if you want us to continue to play this style of hockey.
Hunter and the Capitals are one win away from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since Hunter led them to the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals as a player. The reason, the players say, is the coach who for years was resistant to McPhees overtures to coach the Capitals.
Youve got to give Dale credit, Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. He hasnt strayed away from his game plan from Day One. He obviously knows what it takes to play in the playoffs. He played for a long time. I like our game, I like our system and guys have played it well.
That is not to say the Capitals did not had their share of growing pains. Early in Hunters tenure there was a resistance to his defense-first, low-risk approach to the game and Laich and Alzner admitted there were locker room shouting matches among the players.
Our struggles may have made him look not as good as we know he is, Alzner said. Its extremely tough to change a system in the middle of the year. Last year it looked so easy with Bruce Boudreau because it was minor tweaks we did. This is a completely different thing and it was tough, but everyones seeing the product of it now.
The biggest challenge for Hunter might have been getting Ovechkin and Alex Semin to buy into a system in which their offensive creativity is stifled.
I think we understand now that preventing a chance against is more important than trying to create a chance for, Laich said. Its a game of mistakes and if we can be solid defensively and not give them anything, sooner or later the other team might break down and give us a chance and then we have opportunistic scorers. Thats a different mentality than we had here before.
I just think Hunter has done a great job finding the balance and still allowing our skill players to be creative but within the confines of the system.
Laich pointed to Ovechkin scoring a power-play goal and blocking three shots in Wednesday nights 2-1 victory in Game 6. He noted Semins willingness to chip a puck off the boards and into the offensive zone instead of making a high-risk pass through the middle.
The whole bench is just saying, Good play, good play, Laich said, because its something that were not used to seeing.
Hunter said his coaching style is not much different with the Capitals than it was with the Knights when he coached in London for 10 years. He said the players willingness to change old habits for the sake of winning is what has made the Capitals a threat in the playoffs.
When you come here, youre coaching these guys, trying to get them to play as one, Hunter said. The guys come in, they want to win. Its easy to coach a team when they want to win and they put team ahead of the personal goals.
Alzner said Hunter drives home his points with the greatest motivational tool a coach has at his disposal playing time.
Maybe its harder to do it than it is to say it, but if a guys not playing well, you just dont play him, Alzner said. Thats just the way it works. All the players know. We dont want to see a guy go out there whos not working or a guy who is working not get rewarded.
And then there is Hunters surprisingly calm demeanor behind the bench. For a guy who played the game with such emotion, piling up more than 3,500 in penalty minutes, Hunter has been remarkably serene in the most emotional of circumstances.
Laich said that is something he certainly didnt expect when he heard Hunter was replacing Boudreau.
Id never met him, but heard about him and knew the type of player he was, Laich said. When I found out it was Dale Hunter I kind of took a breath and thought, This is going to be real serious.
I cant speak enough, hes been great. Its almost like having another veteran in the locker room is what it feels like. You can draw on his experience, hes willing to open up and share it. Hes been through these battles.
And now another awaits. Game 7 in Madison Square Garden. The only NHL game being played. A berth in the conference finals hanging in the balance.
And yet another question.
Could this be Hunters final game behind the Capitals bench? Or is this just the beginning of a long coaching run by a Capitals legend?
No one knows, Alzner said. You never know with the guy. He doesnt show much emotion at all. Well all find out together in the summer.