Before Brian Burke settled on Randy Carlyse to replace Ron Wilson in 2012, I thought the one guy who would be well-suited as the next Head Coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs is London Knights’ Head Coach Dale Hunter. Hunter and Burke both have a similar approach to the game. They are cut from the same cloth. With Carlyse gone, and the Maple Leafs in search for a permanent replacement, now is the time for Hunter to step behind the bench of the NHL club.
There are obvious connections. Brother Mark is currently the Leafs’ Director of Player Development, current Leaf Nazem Kadri played his junior career with the Knights under Hunter, and Team President Brendan Shanahan is a Knights’ alum. The Leafs also play some of their pre-season games at Budweiser Gardens, the Knights’ home arena. But there is more to it than that.
What Hunter will bring to the organization is some feistiness and passion that we have not seen from a Leafs head coach since Pat Burns. He will command respect on the bench and in the dressing room. Hunter has ways of handling the media and will not let them get under his skin. In fact, he has done a good job to use the media to get under other people’s skin. I have witnessed that during the 2013 OHL Finals. His Knights were down 3-1 to the Barrie Colts in the series when after Game 4 he used mind games to deflect his team’s deficiencies. That helped turn that series around and the Knights ended up winning the J Ross Robertson trophy as the league champions. Hunter is not one to throw his players under the bus. They know that he has their backs and because of that they will go through a brick wall for him.
Another quality Hunter has is that he and his brother have been able to turn the fortunes of an organization around in a short period of time. The Knights were floundering in the years prior to the Hunter brothers purchasing the team in 2000. Since then they have made the Knights into a constant winner. Under the Hunter regime, the Knights have won 3 OHL Championships and 1 Memorial Cup title. Plus, there are dozens of players currently in the NHL that were developed through the Knights’ system including Stanley Cup winners Corey Perry, Patrick Kane, and David Bolland.
OK, we’ve established that Hunter has what it takes to be the next head coach of the Leafs. The next question is: if he is offered the job, will he take it? People will point out that Hunter had a head coaching stint with one of his old NHL teams, the Washington Capitals, in 2012. After finishing the season, he left that job with the Capitals and went back to the Knights. I think the reason Hunter walked away from that coaching job was because he had no say in player personnel. By virtue of his brother Mark in the Maple Leafs organization, Dale would get that opportunity in Toronto. Another thing to consider is Moneypuck. Is old-school Hunter the kind of coach who will be influenced by analytics?
Sure Hunter is pretty comfortable where he is now as Team President and Head Coach of the Knights. He has enjoyed plenty of success in London, why would he want to move? But I also think Dale is someone who likes a challenge. Turning the fortunes of the Maple Leafs around, and end a Stanley Cup drought that is going on 48 years, would definitely be a challenge. Plus, there is the appeal of coaching an Original Six team. To borrow a line from “The Godfather”, it is an offer he can’t refuse.
Some would say Dale Hunter is not on the Leafs’ radar. The same was said when Mark joined the organization earlier this season. Here’s a bold prediction: Dave Nonis will be fired sometime between now and the draft, Mark is installed as the general manager and Dale becomes the head coach, and, unless the Leafs get the first overall pick, they will take Mitch Marner of, guess where?, the London Knights at the draft. We’ll check back in few months.