Washington Capitals Head Coach Adam Oates will only have a limited amount of time to prepare for a grueling 48-game NHL schedule once the CBA is ratified by the NHLPA this weekend, but all indications point to his staff being prepared.
For a first-time head coach, Oates sounded like a veteran who had been holding the reins for years when he spoke to the Washington media prior to the AHL Showcase in December. As an assistant coach for the New Jersey Devils the last few seasons, Oates certainly has experience, but many have said he, along with the other new coaches, may struggle because of the limited time for him to prepare.
Good thing for Oates and the Caps though, he has been preparing from the beginning.
“We watch the Hershey games and we talk about it and we’ve watched a little of [the Caps], we pick something different everyday to just to try to stay in our routine,” Oates said. “We talk about it, make sure we are connecting and if [end of the lockout] does happen and it’ll happen quick, we’ll be ready.”
Oates is a former Capital who played center in Washington from 1997 until 2002. With over 18 years of professional experience as a player, including one lockout shortened year, Oates is familiar with how this sort of thing works for the team. Of course, it does not mean he still is not a little up in the air about a few subjects, one of which is his constant concern for his current players and the potential for injuries, something almost inevitable in hockey, while they played overseas.
“You’re glad they’re maybe playing and in shape, but you don’t want them to be developing any bad habits depending on the system their playing or the coach they have, or how intense they are,” Oates said. “And you obviously don’t want them to be hurt.”
The new bench boss was not as lucky as some other teams in the NHL though. Star center Nicklas Backstrom reportedly sustained what has been dubbed a “neck injury” after being checked from behind during a KHL game while playing with Dynamo Moscow. Some have said his classification is “week-to-week” and he is currently scheduled to meet with an undisclosed ”specialist” in Michigan this week.
However long he might be out, the loss of Backstrom will hurt – he is clearly the driving force on the top line and the team struggled without him last season. Oates will be pressed into duty early to find his replacement if the talented Swede is sidelined for an extended period of time. As Oates said though, preparation is everything, and he certainly knows what kinds of options he has in the Caps’ system.
While in Hershey he said the hardest part may have been learning his own players, but over time Oates learned what he had at his disposal. Little did he probably know at the time, what he learned may be more crucial to his team’s success than he first expected.
Of course, learning personnel is not the only thing Oates picked during his time in the AHL.
“Tough to kind of put your finger on exactly what I learned. It was more, you know, like last year I was in the finals as an assistant coach standing right there beside the head coach trying to be in his mind and all of the sudden you’re the guy standing right there,” Oates said. “So the speed you know was the same, but just maybe getting used to barking out, talking more than you would as an assistant coach [was a part of the learning.]“
In addition to learning the coaching ropes himself, he used the time to get acclimated to his new coaching staff of Calle Johansson, Tim Hunter and Blaine Forsythe. He talked before the Showcase how he and Johansson used the time to bond together and learn about each other’s coaching styles. It could be a huge source of any early success they may have.
“You know it was funny, I really feel like we think the same way. There would be a lot of times in the game I’d look down there and he is already looking at me because we saw the same play, saw a play the same way, kind of a mental communication there,” Oates said of his time with Johansson. “I think it was good, he hasn’t been on a bench in a while, so I think it was good for us to be together.”
With the start of the season just over a week away, Washington’s hockey subculture will slowly start to come out of their lockout induced hibernation to again return to the Verizon Center to cheer on the home team. Oates will have the Caps prepared just enough, so they are ready to challenge for the Stanley Cup. Just about the only thing Oates hasn’t been prepared for though, is how the hockey culture has changed.
“I had to go to a function on Capitol Hill and I could not believe how many people were Caps fans compared to when I was here before where no one would have known you,” Oates said of hockey in Washington. “People just talking about hockey last night, people knew all the names of the players … it is obviously becoming a good event to go to every night and people are excited about it.”
Just wait until he is on the home side of the ice when the fans scream out the first “unleash the fury” of the season.