With Bruce Boudreau out, how will Alex Ovechkin respond?
McPhee has handed over the keys to one of the league's most talented and successful teams (during the regular season, anyway) to a man who has never coached a single NHL game and has no experience coaching adults despite building and coaching a wildly successful major junior franchise with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. McPhee has tinkered and toyed with this enigmatic Capitals lineup since bringing in Boudreau during Thanksgiving weekend in 2007 but has never quite hit on a combination that could translate terrific regular-season accomplishments into sustained postseason success.
Taking a chance on Hunter is in some ways an endgame then for McPhee. The move will mark the end of the team's confounding playoff futility or be the end of the line for the Capitals in their current form.
Now that McPhee has made this play, the team's direction will fall at the feet of its captain, Alex Ovechkin.
This doesn't mean the Caps' play of late (a 5-9-1 stretch since a blazing 7-0-0 start) is solely Ovechkin's fault. It's not. The defense has been hampered by the loss of Mike Green (who knew the oft-maligned puck-mover would be so critical to the Caps' success?) and the sudden aging of offseason free-agent acquisition Roman Hamrlik. The goaltending has been mostly average and often worse than that. As of Monday, the Caps were 29th in goals allowed per game and 21st on the penalty kill.
But where the rubber hits the road for this team is with No. 8.
Ovechkin has eight goals (38th in the league) and 17 points (54th). He has scored just once at home this season and is a minus-7. Perhaps most telling: He is averaging just 18:47 in ice time, 68th among NHL forwards. The team's franchise player isn't even leading the Caps' forwards in ice time (Brooks Laich is with 18:49).
One of the knocks on Boudreau after a series of disappointing playoff turns -- the last of which was a four-game sweep against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round this past spring -- was that he wasn't hard enough on his good players, that he cut guys like Ovechkin, Green, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom too much slack.
This season, Boudreau introduced a kind of meritocracy to the running of the Caps. In some ways, it was beautifully simple. If you worked hard, you got rewarded; if you didn't, you paid the price.
That shift in philosophy was never more evident than against Anaheim on Nov. 1, when Boudreau kept Ovechkin on the bench late in the game when the coach pulled his goaltender for an extra attacker. Instead, Boudreau chose to go with, among others, Jason Chimera, Joel Ward and Laich, the Caps' best line that evening. The Caps tied the game, and Ovechkin was on the bench when overtime started, although he did provide the principal assist on Backstrom's overtime winner.
Television cameras showed a ticked-off Ovechkin seething in the final moments of regulation and using a derogatory term against Boudreau. Was that the moment Boudreau lost the franchise player? If so, it speaks volumes about Ovechkin's character.
For years, Boudreau has staunchly defended Ovechkin, even when the star winger appeared to try to do too much in the playoffs and often came up short like the rest of his team.
So now that Boudreau has taken his exit, if you can't play for him, then who can you play for?
If the idea is hockey life will be somewhat easier under Hunter, that thinking seems to be plain wrong. It can only be guessed that one of Hunter's mandates when he takes over Tuesday night against the St. Louis Blues is that there will be no pampering of any Caps players, including their biggest star.
This, needless to say, stands as a terrific challenge for Hunter. The NHL is not full of terrific junior-to-the-bigs success stories. Brent Sutter has been a disappointment since he made the coaching jump from a successful junior career to New Jersey and then Calgary. Peter DeBoer has never managed to get an NHL team to the playoffs after he was the hot coaching commodity coming out of juniors a couple of years ago. Even Guy Boucher, who guided Tampa Bay to Game 7 of last season's Eastern Conference finals, made a brief pit stop in the American Hockey League after building a solid résumé at the junior level.
If the learning curve will be steep for Hunter, what Ovechkin shows moving forward will be interesting. McPhee insisted Monday that Ovechkin will continue to be team captain (whether he deserves to be captain is a whole other issue). Maybe this change will be the catalyst for Ovechkin to return to the form of scoring championships and memorable drives to the net. Or maybe we'll see more of the same perimeter play, the fanned shots and lackadaisical back-checking.
Many have been quick to label Ovechkin as a "me first" player, a rare talent who lacks the leadership DNA and the kind of will to win that defines his peers, such as Chicago's Jonathan Toews or archrival Sidney Crosby. Toews and Crosby endured coaching changes (Crosby twice) before winning championships. In both cases, those changes had little to do with those players' production, either before or after the changes were made.
Even if McPhee told reporters that Monday's move wasn't singularly about Ovechkin but rather the entire team playing poorly, the star's waning production and inability to produce in Boudreau's system were likely contributing factors to the coaching change.
In that sense, the burden on Ovechkin to define himself as a player and leader, and not a coach killer, has never been greater than it is now.