It was a surprise announcement that was no surprise at all.
Nobody in the hockey industry really expected Dale Hunter to be back next year as head coach of the Washington Capitals. That it would be a less-than-one-season deal was speculated upon immediately after he took over from Bruce Boudreau, and that turned out to be the case.
Maybe he took it in the first place as a favour to GM George McPhee, and maybe it was Hunter's whim to give the NHL coaching gig a try and he didn't quite find it to his liking. He knew he could leave the OHL London Knights in the more than capable hands of his brother, Mark, which immediately opens up a new question.
Will Dale Hunter immediately now return to the Knights and coach them in the Memorial Cup this month in Shawinigan?
Nothing says he can't. That said, the Knights look powerful indeed, whether its Mark or Dale doing the coaching. A collision with Edmonton or Saint John looks inevitable in the MemCup final, and it should be one heck of a tournament this year.
Hunter's departure does make it a lot easier for McPhee to bring back star winger Alex Ovechkin, that's for sure, and at the end of the day you really couldn't say that Hunter made the Caps any better than they were under Boudreau. Yes, they upset the defending champion Bruins in the first round, but they're out in the second round again and he was about a .500 coach during the regular season.
What Hunter was able to do was convince/persuade/force the Caps to play a hardnosed, defence-first style of hockey for about a month, and that's no easy trick with any team, let alone a Washington team that has been a run-and-gun outfit for years.
He found a goalie, Braden Holtby, who got hot, and Ovechkin was willing for the short-term to accept fewer minutes and block shots rather than take them. In the Game 7 finale against New York, however, Ovechkin was completely ineffective as an offensive weapon, and with all that money and all that term tied up in the Russian star, it didn't make a whole long of long-term sense to hogtie him in a system that is unlikely to ever be a good fit for his skills.
The Caps will be an interesting personnel study going forward, and they'll have to find a coach who will fit with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. Alex Semin won't be back, Evgeny Kuznetsov isn't coming to North America and one sensed a new leadership core consisting of players like Karl Alzner, Jay Beagle, Jason Chimera, Troy Brouwer and Holtby was assuming control of that team in the post-season.
What choices will McPhee make? Will the NHL return after the conclusion of CBA talks with the same choking defensive style as has dominated in the playoffs, or will the game be released from bondage again?
Personally, it was far more fun to watch Boudreau's Caps than Hunter's Caps. Neither proved more successful than the other. So it will be intriguing to find out which style McPhee believes is the future.