WASHINGTON – Neither John Tavares or Michael Del Zotto knew very much about future Capitals head coach Dale Hunter when they were traded to Hunter’s London Knights in January 2009.
Tavares and Del Zotto came to London from the Oshawa Generals in an Ontario Hockey League trade that involved six players and six draft picks.
Their time with Hunter was brief — London was eliminated from the OHL playoffs three months later — but it didn’t take long for Tavares or Del Zotto to learn that behind the bench, Hunter meant business.
“The biggest message that I remember he used to send,” Tavares recently told the Capitals Radio Network, “is that if you weren’t playing well or doing things the right way or if you were making mistakes and not working hard, then you usually just didn’t play.”
Hunter’s message apparently hasn’t changed since he was named Capitals head coach on Nov. 28. In the 43 games since, Hunter has made healthy scratches out of 40-goal scorer Alexander Semin and veterans Mike Knuble and Roman Hamrlik.
“He’s going to play his top guys especially if they’re playing well,” said Del Zotto, now a New York Rangers defenseman. “Another great thing about him is that if you’re not playing and you’re one of the big guys, he’s not afraid to come after you. I think that’s pretty important — you can’t just let guys roam around and do whatever they want, they have to buy into the structure and buy into the team and he’s not afraid to put his foot down.”
In Sunday’s 1-0 loss against Philadelphia, Hunter showed that not even Alex Ovechkin gets a free pass, sending the Caps’ captain out for just one shift in the final 12 minutes of the second period.
“It wasn’t a benching,” Hunter insisted after the game. “I definitely was matching lines. It was one of those things that he wasn’t the right match up. I didn’t want him against [Jaromir] Jagr and Jagr’s line.”
While it’s true that Hunter has made line matching an important part of his game plans, when your leading scorer takes just one shift over a 12 minute stretch in a one-goal game, eyebrows are sure to be raised.
Combine that with the fact that an Ovechkin turnover led to the game’s first goal and it’s natural to draw the conclusion that Hunter was sending a message not only to the captain but to the entire team.
“People get sat,” Caps forward Matt Hendricks said. “Maybe you know for what reasons- to learn a lesson, I don’t know- but it happens in hockey. I thought we kept playing hard without him.”
Added teammate Karl Alzner: “You don’t play to have everyone even in minutes. You play whoever is going- it doesn’t matter if they’re guys that are normally your fourth liners or your first liners- you have to go with the hot hand, just like you would with goalies.”
Tavares can speak from experience. Already the projected first overall pick in the 2009 NHL entry draft when he was traded to London, the OHL’s all-time goal scoring leader recalls being treated no differently than any of his teammates while playing for Hunter.
“If he had that trust in you and you played the game the right way, then you were going to be counted on for a lot of responsibility. He wanted to make sure that you were not taking things for granted, that you were doing the right things out there and that you were working hard.”
Catch the Capitals and Hurricanes Tuesday at 7:00 pm. Coverage begins with Caps Pregame at 6:45 pm on Federal News Radio, WFED 1500AM, and online at wfed.com.