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Yesterday, the Capitals announced that head coach Dale Hunter would not be returning for the 2012-2013 season. Many fans are upset with Hunter, saying he quit on the team because we failed to win the Stanley Cup, but I respect his decision and wish him luck with the London Knights.
If you put yourself in his shoes, you can see why the transition from coaching in the Ontario Hockey League to coaching in the NHL would be difficult: In the junior leagues, you are coaching malleable teenagers, eager to do anything Coach says to have a shot at making the NHL. In the NHL, you are coaching grown men set in their ways, who may be less than enthusiastic when, for example, a new coach comes in and tells a offense-only superstar that he has to learn to backcheck if he wants to play a lot of minutes. I think it’s time to put the past behind us, thank Hunter for his services, and look towards next season and beyond. There aren’t a huge number of veteran coaches available, but there is one great coach who is currently unemployed: Ron Wilson.
Wilson has 1401 games under his belt, with a 648-561-101-91 career record. He ranks 4th for most games coached and 6th for most career wins; he is also the only man who has coached the Caps to a Stanley Cup final, as he did in 1998 during his debut season in Washington. As a coach, I would consider him to be on a level with Pat Quinn and Mike Keenan. He may not have won a Cup yet, but he certainly has the proven track record and the experience to get us over the hump.
Many people will undoubtedly look at Wilson’s more recent work as the head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs and say that he is a coaching has-been, but such an assessment would be unfounded and unfair. Scotty Bowman himself could not have coached the teams the Leafs have iced in the past five years to anything other than mediocrity. They say that if you have “the goalie,” it’s 75 percent of your team, but if you don’t, it’s 100 percent; Wilson never had anything close to passable goaltending in Toronto, which is why the Leafs sucked and general manager Brian Burke was left with no choice but to fire him before this past season even ended. In DC, on the other hand, we do have “the goalie,” and his name is Braden Holtby.
Wilson was criticized this past season for “ruining” Dion Phaneuf with his conservative, “keep it simple, stupid” coaching style, but I think his style will serve us well. His style is sort of a happy medium between the “run and gun” Bruce Boudreau style and the “best offense is good defense” Hunter style. Wilson will be willing to give Ovechkin big minutes, but will also ensure that the team is responsible in their own end. He places a premium on speed, and I think he will be able to get more out of younger players like Marcus Johansson.
The last time that Wilson coached in Washington, he had a .540 coaching record, and the team made the playoffs 3 out of 5 seasons. He was fired following the 2001-2002 season, in which the Caps missed the postseason by just 2 points. Under his tenure, the Caps averaged 17.724% on the power play, 85.232% on the penalty kill, 221.4 goals for, and 213 goals against; all of those stats (except for goals for) are better than the stats for the 2011-2012 Caps. Overall, the current incarnation of the Caps roster is stronger than the roster was when Wilson last coached here, because we have more depth at forward and a great young defensive pairing in John Carlson and Karl Alzner. If Wilson was given the opportunity to coach them now, I think the Caps would win the Southeast Division in a walk, and definitely finish near the top of the Eastern Conference.
The Capitals have all the pieces to be a legitimate Cup contender. The only thing missing is the glue to put those pieces together, and I believe that glue is Ron Wilson.