Monday, November 28, 2011
Dale Hunter's task not new, but it is difficult
By Pierre LeBrun
If there's a coach who knows at least to some degree what Dale Hunter faces as he takes over a contending yet underachieving team, it's Todd McLellan.
The Sharks' head coach took over a talented club in San Jose in the summer of 2008, yet one that was looking to get over the playoff hump.
McLellan has helped take some heat off the Sharks, but back-to-back trips to the Western Conference finals still falls short of the ultimate goal in San Jose.
A conference final berth would be an improvement in Washington, where the Capitals have failed to get past the second round since 1998.
A November slump doomed coach Bruce Boudreau, so Hunter now inherits Alex Ovechkin's mercurial bunch. It's a daunting task that's somewhat similar to what McLellan faced three years ago.
"There's similarities and there's some differences in the two," McLellan told ESPN.com on Monday. "The similarities are the stage or the evolution of where the team is in; the expectations are high. They're looking to close the gap at the top end. They have mature players. They have some superstars that are in the prime of their careers. The fans' expectations are that they're not looking for growth, but rather they're looking for the finished product."
They're still looking for that finished product in San Jose, but they're much closer than they were before McLellan got there. They've knocked out the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings in back-to-back years -- no small achievement -- and captain Joe Thornton has played his best playoff hockey, one of the most notable improvements under McLellan.
Hunter's No. 1 challenge will be maximizing the all-world talent of Ovechkin and getting him back on track in the regular season but, more importantly, getting him to deliver even more come playoff time.
Whether Todd McLellan returns as coach of the underwhelming Sharks won't be determined until he meets with GM Doug Wilson.
Where the stories in San Jose and Washington diverge is the timing of the coaching changes.
"The differences are that I had a summer to prepare," McLellan said. "I got to know and create some relationships with some of the star players. Maybe Dale, as a former Capitals player, has those, I don't know."
For McLellan, that time in the summer was instrumental. He reached out to key players and indicated what was expected individually -- it was the basis for important relationships.
Hunter has none of that time; he'll have to forge those relationships on the go. Still, getting through to those key players will be critical if Hunter is to foster a different mindset.
"I remember taking Jumbo [Joe Thornton] for lunch, and we talked about a lot of things," McLellan said. "I had a relationship with Patty [Marleau] from our junior days, but I rekindled that." AHe had similar chats with Dan Boyle and Rob Blake.
It was about building trust with his players. And now that begins for Hunter in Washington.