ARLINGTON, Va. – For all of Bruce Boudreau’s success with Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals—no coach in the modern NHL reached 200 victories as quickly—he failed to take them far in the playoffs.
And now, suddenly, the regular season was becoming problematic, too. Players were tuning out the talkative coach nicknamed “Gabby,” general manager George McPhee said, explaining why Boudreau was fired Monday and replaced by Dale Hunter, who never has been so much as an assistant in the NHL—or even in the AHL, for that matter.
Hunter does have serious bona fides as a player, though, particularly in Washington, where he played from 1987-99 and was a captain.
He is one of only four Capitals whose jersey number is retired, which is why a 15-by-25-foot banner of Hunter wearing his red No. 32 was hanging on a wall behind one end of the ice while he led his former-and-now-current team through practice Monday.
“It won’t be too hard to follow that guy,” Capitals forward Brooks Laich said.
Hunter was greeted by applause and loud cheers from more than 100 fans when he skated onto the ice for Monday’s session. He’ll make his debut behind the bench Tuesday night against the visiting St. Louis Blues.
“I imagine I’ll have some butterflies in my tummy,” said the 51-year-old Hunter, who has a scar running across his chin.
He played 19 NHL seasons and is the only player in league history with 1,000 points and 3,000 penalty minutes. His career total of 3,563 penalty minutes ranks second in league history.
“He had talent and he was tough,” McPhee said. “And he was downright mean sometimes.”
Hunter has coached the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League for 11 seasons, going 451-189-23-24. Like Boudreau, who was promoted from Washington’s minor league affiliate in the AHL to replace Glen Hanlon, Hunter is getting his first NHL coaching job from McPhee.
“Coaching’s coaching, and he’s been coaching at a good level and at a high level,” McPhee said. “The same questions were asked of Bruce when he came here, and he had an outstanding record.”
Promoted from the AHL’s Hershey Bears four years ago on Thanksgiving Day, Boudreau went 201-88-40 in the regular season but 17-20 in the playoffs—exiting in the first or second round each time. This season he tried a new approach, emphasizing accountability and a willingness to bench top players, team captain Ovechkin included.
The Capitals started 7-0—a franchise record for consecutive wins to begin a season—but have struggled since. They have dropped six of their past eight games, including a 5-1 loss Saturday to a Buffalo Sabres team missing nine regulars.
“For whatever reason, as a team we weren’t really responding well enough or as good as we should have been,” defenceman Karl Alzner said. “And it’s kind of, ‘Where do you go from there?'”
Boudreau departs with the Capitals 12-9-1 and tied for eighth in the East, the same distance from 14th in the 15-team conference as second place—five points.
“This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce. When you see that, as much as you don’t want to make a change, you have to make a change,” McPhee said.
“Bruce came in here and emptied the tank. He gave it everything he could and did a really good job, but the tank was empty,” McPhee added. “When that happens, you get a new coach, where the tank is full and see if it makes a difference.”
Boudreau was one of two Southeast Division coaches let go Monday:
The last-place Carolina Hurricanes fired Paul Maurice and replaced him with former all-star Kirk Muller. While Muller never has been a head coach in the NHL, he has worked as an assistant in the league and coached in the AHL.
Boudreau turned around a moribund franchise when he was hired in 2007, leading the Capitals to four consecutive division titles and one Presidents’ Trophy, along with winning the league’s coach of the year award in 2008.
He installed an offensive philosophy thatmeshed well with Ovechkin and the team’s other go-go young players such as Alexander Semin and Mike Green, but he was never able to get Washington close to the Stanley Cup that everyone associated with the team declared as its goal.
“Before he got here, we were a last-place team,” Laich said.
During a lengthy losing streak last season, Boudreau got his players to adopt more of a defensive mindset, but that didn’t work in the spring. The Capitals were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round, leading some to suggest it was time to part ways with Boudreau.
McPhee said he began talking to Hunter a week ago about the possibility of returning to the Capitals. On Monday morning at 6:15 a.m., McPhee met with Boudreau and delivered the news.
“Sometimes it’s like having the same teacher for five years. How would you have liked to do that in high school? It’s hard sometimes,” McPhee said. “So you make the change and hope that a new voice and a new way of doing things and a new focus gets the best out of these players.”
One player who hasn’t been at his best last season or this: Ovechkin, a two-time league MVP who scored only 32 goals in 2010-11—less than half of his career-best 65—and who has only one goal in the past eight games.
“I don’t think this has anything to do with Alex Ovechkin,” said McPhee, noting that the team’s highest-paid player will remain its captain. “I think it’s got everything to do with this team not playing well.”
Notes: Boudreau’s assistant coaches—Dean Evason, Bob Woods and Blaine Forsythe—will remain in their posts under Hunter. … Green skated for about a half-hour before Monday’s practice. He’s missed 14 of the past 15 games with a right groin injury.
AP Sports Writer Joseph White contributed to this report.