-- C. S. Lewis
You have three years of coaching experience as an assistant with two organizations. You have yet to stand behind a bench with your own team. But, you are given credit for a fair amount of success achieved by a Stanley Cup finalist, and there is one team that thinks that resume is enough to sign you to your first head coaching position… anywhere.
You take the reins in June, just before the draft and only a few weeks before your club holds its development camp with prospects. But, beyond that a lockout looms. In September, when you should be convening players and assistant coaches for training camp and the chance to install your hockey game-plan, the league makes good on its threat and locks players out for what would be a four-month hiatus.
In what might have been an inspired thought, you are sent to the minor league affiliate to act as “co-coach.” Two drivers, two chefs, two surgeons, two anything running the show is not often a good idea. If a win-loss record is a measure of that idea, then co-coaches was an idea that did not work as well as hoped. By the time the Washington Capitals announced in late November that Adam Oates would be relinquishing his share of the head coaching duties at Hershey, the Bears were 6-9-1.
Oates would return to Washington to assume his duties as head coach of the Capitals. The problem with that is that he did not yet have a team to coach, he did not have the luxury of a training camp (and might not get one, depending on how the labor talks between the league and players association worked out), could not install his system or philosophy with a club that would be seeing yet another changes in system and philosophy. Even if the 2012-2013 season was resumed it certainly would be of an abbreviated and compressed nature, leaving fewer opportunities for off-day practice to install his concepts on the fly. Add to that the fact that he was inheriting a team with a number of players with top-end talent that could cobble together fine regular seasons, but was one that made early exits a regular feature of its recent history.
If there was a coach who was being dealt a worse hand in his introduction to the NHL head coaching fraternity, the name of that coach escapes our memory.
It would have been nice for the Caps to come roaring out of the gate on January 19th, when the 2013 season finally got under way, but things did not work out that way. The Caps struggled early, going 2-8-1 in their first 11 games. But what might have looked like a struggle to some folks (us included), might have been the “getting to know you” part of the season. This wasn’t the sort of “getting to know you” from The King and I, though. It was more of the sort one saw in “Hoosiers,” when Norman Dale gets to know his charges and starts to impose his will on them, even when they push back.
That came early on. Oates deploys players in their natural positions. Right-handed shooters play on the right side, lefties on the left. That might make sense until one realizes that Alex Ovechkin – he of the 339 goals in just 553 games (an average of 50.3 goals per 82 games) – was a right-handed shooter who played his entire career on the left side. Oates intended to deploy Ovechkin on the right side, and when this did not go as well as hoped, Oates sent him back to the left side…with Joey Crabb and Jay Beagle. Skating with a pair of grinders was quite a difference from the Nicklas Backstrom/Mike Knuble sort of linemates he had when he was tearing it up on the left side in past years.
That “experiment” of playing with “north-south guys” lasted about as long as it took to figure out that Oates was going to do things the way he thought they should be done. In other words, until a February 1st game against Philadelphia in which Ovechkin was installed on a line with Mike Ribeiro and Wojtek Wolski. Ovechkin did not have a point in that contest, but he rattled off a five-game points streak thereafter, and he announced his presence with authority with a hat-trick/four-point night in a 5-1 win over the New Jersey Devils on February 23rd. Starting with that night Ovechkin (who would later be reunited with Nicklas Backstrom on the top line) scored 27 goals in his last 32 games, a 69-goal pace over 82 games.
It was a finishing kick in the regular season that ended with Ovechkin winning the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player for a third time. And in doing so, Ovechkin heaped praise on Oates for his role in that award. But it was not the only success story for Oates.
When the Caps finished first in the league in power play conversions in 2009-2010, they had the ingredients to make their power play a dominant one for years to come. However, in the next two seasons they finished 16th and 18th with the man advantage, not the sort of finishes one would have expected with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green on the power play. Oates installed a 1-3-1 scheme that made puck movement and clear shots the dominant features of the power play. Whether it was one timers from Ovechkin on the weak side, shots from the middle of the diamond from a Troy Brouwer or a Joel Ward, or Mike Green finding space between defenders for a well-placed shot, the scheme took full advantage of the playmaking skills of Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro to rise to the top of the league rankings once more. Ovechkin led the league in power play goals overall. Ribeiro led the league in power play assists, with Backstrom finishing tied for seventh. Mike Green finished ninth in overall power play points among defensemen despite playing in only 35 games.
Oates also got more out of some players than they had shown to date in their careers. Troy Brouwer might have been this season’s “David Clarkson.” Under Oates’ tutelage in New Jersey, Clarkson leaped from goal totals averaging about a dozen a year over his first four years to being a 30-goal scorer in 2011-2012. Brouwer, whose career high was 22 goals in 78 games in 2009-2010, scored 19 in 47 games in 2013, a 33-goal pace over 82 games. Much of that was how Brouwer was deployed on the power play, manning the middle of the diamond in the 1-3-1, where he tied a career high of seven goals in just 48 games.
There were others whose production improved under Oates. For example, Mike Ribeiro recorded 13 goals in 48 games, an 82-game scoring pace that was his best since 2009-2010. Mike Green, coming off a series of injury-plagued seasons, scored 12 goals in 35 games, a 28-goal pace over 82 games. Eric Fehr, who seemed to be headed toward an early NHL career exit due to injuries, had his career resuscitated under Oates with nine goals in 41 games, an 18-goal pace for a player getting mostly third and fourth line minutes. Joel Ward’s eight goals in 37 games matched his career best 82-game goal scoring pace (17).
In the end…
It was not all puppies and accordions for Oates and the Caps. The team was not able to shake its persistent tendency to exit the playoffs early, again doing so after taking a 2-0 lead in games. But one cannot help but wonder if the Caps finally got things right with this hire. With as much churning as was the case in coaching and philosophy over the past three years, it would have been understandable that the Caps would be slow coming out of the gate with having to take in another set of rules and principles under another coach. The surprising thing this season might be the quickness with which the Caps eventually grasped at least the rudiments of what Oates wants to do. It could have been (and we thought early on) that this would be a shakedown season of sorts, that it might take the bulk of the season – one without that full training camp and compressed schedule with fewer off days on which practices could be held – to make those principles of Oates hockey second nature.
There are times Adam Oates seems less “hockey coach” and more the “data-centered manager” who casts a critical eye on decisions made and how he can improve his and the team’s performance. It is a brave new world of coaching philosophy that one hopes will change the Caps’ fortunes from that of a franchise of persistent underachievement to one of sustained excellence. Oates has certainly taken a sure and solid first step.
Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post