The two biggest decisions that Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee would face in the summer of 2012 were made for him hours apart Monday.
In the morning, Dale Hunter, who had coached McPhee's roster for all of 74 games dating back to November 29, walked into McPhee's office and told him, essentially, "It's been real, it's been fun, but it hasn't been real fun."
The first departure is easy to discuss and dispose of. Dale Hunter did not need to be an NHL head coach -- neither monetarily nor, it seems emotionally. When Hunter accepted George McPhee's offer to replace Bruce Boudreau this past November, he did so on the understanding that he would see out the season. However, Hunter also reserved the right to pack it in if it all became too much for him.
Exactly what aspect or aspects of the season proved to be the tipping point is not clear. Neither Hunter nor his radical defensive realignment looked out of place behind the bench or on the ice. But the travel, the packed schedule, and all the other ancillary duties required of an NHL bench boss take a toll on any man, even those who do need the job. It's no coincidence that Hunter's final press conference as Caps coach was the only one that didn't resemble parental interrogation of a sullen teenager ("How was school, Dale?" "We're battling. We're making hockey plays.").
It's fast become accepted fact among Caps followers that the team needs a coach with Stanley Cup experience to lead them over the last part of the trail. The natural division of opinion has followed in short order. Are you a Craig McTavish guy or a Paul Maurice gal? Does the name Jacques Martin make you go "Ooo, la la?" How about Ron Wilson, Part II? (Not likely, if Bob McKenzie is to be believed.)
If McPhee is willing to wait to get his man, and he is apparently willing to do just that, he could do far worse than placing a call to the New Jersey Devils to ask if Larry Robinson is available. A winner of six Stanley Cups as a player with Montreal, and another as a head coach with New Jersey (jumping on late in the 1999-2000 season in place of the fired Robbie Ftorek), Robinson was once described by his Montreal teammate Ken Dryden as a player with "a game rooted in defense, opportunistic on offense, limited, economic, and dominant." Sound a little too close to Hunter Hockey for your liking? Then you should know that Robinson is no complete stranger to offense, recording 144 points in 227 career playoff games, no small total for a defenseman.
Replacing a coach is a relatively straightforward thing. Replacing someone like Alexander Semin is less so. Semin's two previous one-year deals, the first with a cap hit of $6 million and the second with a cap hit of $6.7 million, had been relatively private dealings done in midseason, with the team's release announcing the agreement the first inkling many outsiders had of any negotiation, much less an agreement.
The decision of Semin's agent to agitate for a free-agent deal in the media almost certainly spells the end for his client in Washington; as the case of Eric Belanger and, most recently, Matthias Sjogren proved, McPhee can be quite cold-blooded when it comes to matters of personnel.
Semin is one of seven free unrestricted free agents set to come off the books July 1. Washington currently has no cap space to speak of, as can be seen here. In addition to Semin's $6.7 million cap hit, we can also safely deduct the $1.5 million hit of Tomas Vokoun, who appeared to cut his own path out of town on Monday as well.
If all seven depart, which is a real possibility (the others, for the record are Mike Knuble, Jeff Halpern, Keith Aucoin, Dennis Wideman, and Dany Sabourin), that plus a few other cap breaks will free up roughly $20 million of cap space, space that McPhee could use, if he so desires and once he's done cursing himself for the Brooks Laich and Joel Ward contracts, to go for at least one marquee free agent this summer.
A prime candidate would be Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter, who would be a clear upgrade over Wideman (and is also two years younger). Other, more cost-friendly options on the back end include Florida's Jason Garrison, Philadelphia's Matt Carle, and Chicago's Johnny Oduya.
The pickings for a potential second-line center, that seemingly perennial hole in the Captals' lineup, are slim. If McPhee really felt frisky (and didn't feel like shipping assets in a trade), he could sign Olli Jokinen (age 33, and late of Calgary) to a short-term deal. The premier offensive free agent this season, New Jersey's Zach Parise, would be the perfect replacement for Semin in the hearts and minds of all Caps fans, but he's played himself into a massive contract this playoff season, one that McPhee would probably not be inclined to give.
All these decisions will have to be made against the uncertain background of the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement, which expires September 15. Negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA have been more or less suspended through the playoffs because the league doesn't want fans distracted by the prospect of a lost season a la 2004-05. The prospect is there, and will be something that George McPhee has to take seriously.
So as McPhee left his office at Kettler on Monday, here was what he was looking down the barrel of: not only the need to bring in a new coach, not only the need to sign better, complementary all-around players, but the very real prospect that not merely one, but two years of the Caps window could close by the time Washington reconvenes for their next season.
Say a prayer, George. You'll need to.