When Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee made the coaching switch to Dale Hunter on November 28th he stated that his team was not responding anymore to Bruce Boudreau. Specifically, McPhee talked about how poor the Caps were playing defensively and the GM knew that if he didn’t do something, his club was going to have little chance of competing in the post season this spring.
Enter Caps legend Dale Hunter, who not only brought a new voice and an unrivaled work ethic to the locker room, but a different defensive approach. Out went total zone coverage in the Capitals end and newly installed was a system focused on taking away gaps with man to man coverage down low. For most fans, this might not seem like a big deal to be able to implement. After all, we watch college basketball and see teams switching from zone to man and back again, many times in the same contest. But hockey is a different game and despite what one might think intuitively, this new system that Hunter has put in is quite a change. It is not a true man to man, because you’ll never see a defensemen following a forward out to the blue line, which would make a team easy to attack, but once the matchups are established down low the defensemen and third forward stick with their man while they are below the faceoff dots.
On the surface this is a Caps team that is 5-5 under Hunter and to those who are quick to resort to knee jerk reactions you’ll hear that “This is the same team just with a different coach.” But a closer look at the numbers shows that statement to be woefully incorrect. Through 22 games under Boudreau the Caps allowed 73 goals or 3.32 a tilt while scoring 3.18 per game (70 goals). In the 10 games under Hunter, the Caps have given up only 24 goals or 2.4 per game while scoring 2.5 per game (25 goals). In those 10 games, on seven occassions they’ve given up two goals or less. Keep in mind that the two teams that went to the Stanley Cup Finals last season, the Canucks and the Bruins, were first and second, in goals allowed per game at 2.20 and 2.30, respectively. So those who like to throw around the old adage that “Defense Wins Championships” sure look to be right.
In order for the Capitals to be truly successful in Hunter’s coaching scheme, the players obviously have to buy into it, understand it, and then execute it. It is focused on taking away any gaps the opposition might have in the Washington zone and by being aggressive on a body it has the capability to create more offense via quick transitions.
“It’s not that much different than what I was playing in Montreal. Now that Huntsy is here we are more desperate and it is more man on man in our defensive zone. He’s looking for good defense creating good offense. From my experience it’s a good thing because everybody works hard in the defensive zone,” said 20 year NHL veteran Roman Hamrlik, who was on the 2010 Canadiens team that knocked off both the Capitals and Penguins in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
For others, like Karl Alzner and Mathieu Perreault, the approach Hunter has implemented is definitely different for them.
“It’s been a pretty big change, it’s tough to go from zone to man on man because you always go back to that zone coverage. When you don’t know where your man is you just kind of wait back and sometimes you lose that guy and if one person loses them then you can get in trouble. In the Colorado game, I thought Colorado did a good job of cycling and picking us and when you get picked it is tough. So it’s a different system to learn but I think once you get it it is really hard for teams to win against you. You have to make sure you battle hard and that is what Huntsy really likes is that guys being accountable and making sure they do their job. If everyone is doing their job I don’t think there is a better system than that,” started Alzner on the change, “I’ve played bits and pieces of it before, but never full out on man on man and so for me, still, I sometimes I forget off faceoffs to follow my guy and I just kind of just stay in front of the net. Which, if you’re gonna be out of position, be out of position in front of the net. But sometimes you forget about it but you have to just keep reminding yourself what to do.”
“For a centermen it’s quite a difference because once you get your man you have to stay with him instead of just being in good position and keeping an eye on your guy. You gotta be right on him. It took a few games to get used to but I think now guys are getting the system pretty good. Whoever is first back goes, so everybody has to be able to play down low. For me I’d rather always be down low but the guys I play with Hendy, Knubs, or Beags, those are all guys that can play down low, so it is no big deal. Whoever gets there first, just go down low and then we fill in the wing spot,” said Perreault on how it works in the defensive end.
One of the most important things in any team sport is communication. Hamrlik and Alzner both think that Hunter’s system puts a premium on talking on the ice.
“It’s all about communication and reading the play. You can just stay with your man or you can switch with the forward, you call switch and the forward takes the high guy. It’s simple but it’s all about communication. Talking is a big help,” said Hamrlik on the importance of communication in the new scheme.
“It’s tons, you have to be talking the entire time, which is good though because you want to be talking, even if we’re playing zone, and I think this way it just forces you to do it a little bit more or else you are going to get scored on. So it’s good, it just helps everybody out and even when we do turn the puck over we are so used to talking and calling switches and stuff then you are going to be so used to calling for the puck and letting guys know who is open and then we are going to get out of the zone like last game,” added Alzner when asked if there is an increase in communication with Hunter’s system.
Clearly the players understand it and are buying into the new plan but the execution takes some time, which is a reason why Washington’s offense slowed down initially due to the increased focus on defense. Tuesday’s game against Nashville seemed to be an encouraging sign as the Caps dominated early on and created scoring chances off of their defense.
“It’s getting better, I don’t think it is going to change overnight, but it’s getting much better. There are still lots of things we can work on out on the ice to get better every day as a team. I think the defensive zone is much better. It’s all about communication, have good position, don’t lose too many battles, one on one in the corner. Trust, let’s say I play with [Dennis] Wideman then I have to trust that he is going to do his job or the goalie’s gonna stop the puck, stuff like that,” said Hamrlik when asked how far along the team is at executing the defensive system.
The execution will come with practice and repitition, especially if the players think it will work. With the goals against improving so rapidly, it looks like the players have bought in. But going forward teams will start having film to digest of the Caps playing the new system and will devise ways to try to defeat it. Will it still be effective?
“Yeah, it is good, there are some teams that are good at playing against it and then there are some teams that don’t really know what to do against it. I think you have to know who you are playing against and you can always play versions of the man on man, but personally I think it is pretty tough to play against,” finished Alzner.
It’s only been 10 games and despite the fact that the Caps are only .500 under Hunter, you can see a progression on the ice, especially on defense. The number of odd man rushes against is way down and there aren’t any more questions about effort. In this system, if you aren’t working hard you will be exposed pretty quickly and everyone will be able to see who made the mistake, because this style is predicated on winning the one on one battles. So far the Capitals have embraced Hunter’s system and if they keep that up, the desired results, lots of victories, will come.