Less than 48 hours after being eliminated from the 2012 NHL Playoffs, the Washington Capitals now face another tremendous setback.
First-year head coach Dale Hunter, hired in December to replace Bruce Boudreau as the Caps' bench boss, has stepped down from his position.
Hunter informed general manager George McPhee of his decision Monday morning, just hours before the team met for the final time this season. According to McPhee, Hunter wanted to spend more time with his family and return to London, Ont., to help run the family business, the London Knights.
"I've been home for awhile there [in London]," Hunter said. "Everybody is a part of the team there, the farm is there, so we're all a part of it there and something you've just got to go home."
That's all well and good for Hunter, who, in all likelihood, is still flush with cash and fame after retiring from his accomplished 19-year NHL playing career in 1999.
But for the Capitals, it's just another painful step backwards for this frustrated franchise.
Washington's 14 playoff games this spring was their highest total since the 1998 postseason, but the result was just as disappointing as always—a seventh-game loss to the New York Rangers, marking their fifth consecutive playoff appearance without an Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
But now, Washington and GM George McPhee will have to find a new head coach for the second time in just six months.
They'll need to hire someone who can not only build on the tentatively-positive momentum from Hunter's tenure but also help to solve the club's precarious free agent situation this summer, which includes multiple stars in danger of hitting the open market.
At the moment, there are far more questions than answers circling around America's capital city. Hopefully, however, a few smart decisions over the next several months can transform that growing uncertainty into an optimistic outlook for the Capitals.
Resolve the Expiring Contract Chaos
On paper, the Caps have only seven pending UFAs (unrestricted free agents) this summer, but that little number doesn't tell the real story.
Among those will be longtime first-line winger Alexander Semin, offensively adept but defensively questionable blueliner Dennis Wideman and inconsistent yet experienced and talented goalie Tomas Vokoun.
All three are star players with important niches in the team's composition, but not a single one can be signed without a lingering doubt or two.
Semin's work ethic and reliability are often called into question, while Wideman's minus-41 rating over the past two years sours his impressive scoring totals and Vokoun, even at the cheap price of $1.5 million, faced more than his fair share of injury troubles down the stretch.
Household name defensemen Mike Green and John Carlson will be entering RFA status, as well—and while the Caps are at little risk of unintentionally losing them to another team, they'll still need to wrestle with the multi-million dollar contracts both are expected to demand.
It's completely unclear as to how McPhee and the franchise's front office will manage to sort out their jam-packed agenda of negotiations, but taken firm control of this contract-laden chaos is certainly a necessity.
Hire a Team-First Coach
One of Dale Hunter's best original selling points was his team-first mentality and motivational personality—something the Capitals' superstar-filled roster had always been severely lacking.
And while Hunter's time in D.C. did seem to pull the team together more than before, a number of the Caps' more selfish players won't hesitate to resort back to old habits if given the chance.
B/R's Tom Urtz Jr. listed a plethora of potential coaches who could fill Washington's new opening behind the bench earlier today, but the options for the job vary greatly in both drawbacks and strong suits.
Choosing a new head coach with a persona as similar to Hunter's as possible will be critical, though, for Washington to move past their former teamwork-lacking problems and successfully control the domineering egos of several headline stars.
Find an Identity—and Stick With It
In the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, the Capitals finished as one of NHL's top three offenses both times, won the Southeast Division both times and proceeded be rapidly eliminated from the playoffs both times.
In their 2010-11 campaign, the Capitals finished fourth in the League in defense, won the Southeast Division and proceeded to be rapidly eliminated from the playoffs.
In their now-concluded 2011-12 year, the Capitals focused on offense during the regular season, squeezed into the playoffs, changed over to a defensively-centered strategy in the postseason and proceeded to lose in the second round yet again.
Where are the Caps heading next?
Truly, no one knows—and for the Capitals' long-term outlook, that's a big problem.
Throughout their offseason of frenzied activity, McPhee and the rest of Washington's organization will have to choose a franchise identity within which they can thrive—and then stay the course through thick and thin.
Offense, or defense? That question will have to be answered soon.
Mark Jones is a Bleacher Report featured columnist for the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL. In three and a half years with the site, he has written more than 370 articles and received over 490,000 total reads.
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