When the Washington Capitals replaced Bruce Boudreau as coach with Dale Hunter Nov. 28, they were 12-9-1 and tied for eighth overall in the Eastern Conference.
It was believed Hunter, the Capitals former hard-nosed captain who’d gone on to a successful coaching career in junior hockey, was just the guy to put them back on a winning path.
More than two months and 34 games later, the Capitals have made little improvement under Hunter, with a record of 16-14-4 since he took over, sitting one point out of a playoff berth at ninth overall.
Following their shocking first round upset loss to the Montreal Canadiens in 2010, the Capitals management and coaching staff believed improving their defensive play would improve their Stanley Cup chances.
The Caps were an offensive powerhouse that led the league in goals only two years ago, but Hunter has continued the emphasis on a more defensive game that began last season under Boudreau.
When the Capitals dominated the regular season and won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2009-10, they were 16th overall in goals-against per game, 18th in shots-against and 25th on the penalty kill.
This season, they’ve made no improvement in those categories, sitting 19th in goals-against per game, 18th in shots-against per game and 25th on the PK.
But their offensive production has suffered. They’re currently 13th in goals per game and 12th on the power play, down substantially from when they were first in both categories two years ago.
The change in Washington’s system has been cited as one reason for the decline in superstar left winger Alex Ovechkin’s offensive production.
A 50-goal, 109-point player two years ago, Ovechkin scored 32 goals and 85 points last season and is currently on pace for only 65 points, which would be the worst production of his career.
Right winger Alexander Semin’s numbers have also suffered, dropping from a career-best 40-goal, 84-point performance in 2009-10 to a 22-goal, 50-point clip now.
Injuries have also played a part in the Caps’ struggles.
Semin’s been hampered by shoulder and arm injuries, while first-line center Nicklas Backstrom has been sidelined with a concussion since Jan. 3 and is out indefinitely.
The absence of puck-moving defenseman Mike Green, sidelined with a groin injury, remains a significant problem.
Often chastised by critics for his shoddy defensive play, Green was invaluable in the Capitals’ rise to prominence as a Cup contender, with 70-plus point performances in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Their scoring punch has been diminished without his superb offensive skills from the blueline.
With fewer than two weeks remaining until the Feb. 27 trade deadline and the Capitals in danger of falling out of playoff contention, there’s growing anticipation GM George McPhee will shake up his roster with a trade or two.
Semin, because of his pending unrestricted free agent status, has been a fixture in the rumor mill for months, but unless McPhee can replace him with another good scoring winger or additional offensive depth, the 27-year-old won’t be moved.
Veteran right winger Mike Knuble’s numbers are in significant decline this season (only three goals), which lead to him being a healthy scratch in recent games and fuelled talk of shipping him to a Western Conference team, perhaps in a package deal for more depth at forward.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many teams in sell mode heading toward this year’s trade deadline, so McPhee has a limited number of trade partners right now.
He does possess an additional first round pick in this year’s draft that he received from Colorado in return for goalie Semyon Varlamov, but it is risky to shop that asset for a rental player to help just clinch a playoff berth.
Even if McPhee could add another scorer or two, there’s no guarantee the Caps will significantly improve their offensive production, which has been stifled under their defensive system.
Perhaps the best solution would be to stop trying to change their offensive thoroughbreds into defensive plow horses and turn them loose to do what they do best.
It may not guarantee playoff success, but at this point, it would be better to make the playoffs on the back of offense than miss trying to play it safe with defense.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.