When most guys are introduced as a head coach for the first time, they often remark that it’s a day they never thought would happen. But in his very first sentence as the new head coach of the Washington Capitals, Adam Oates put a twist on that thought.
“It’s an honor to be here today, a day I never thought would happen, where I’m a member of the Washington Capitals again.”
Oates went on to thank the men that sat with him on the podium: GM George McPhee, team owner Ted Leonsis and team President Dick Patrick, including sending a somewhat nervous-looking smile in Mr. Patrick’s direction at the end of the table (see video). He repeated that it was an honor to be named head coach in the NHL of the organization where Oates spent, in his words, ”the longest time I played in this league, for this organization.”
McPhee was effusive (as much as he ever is in public) about Oates and what he will bring (back) to the organization.
“You want intelligent guys running the bench,” McPhee said. “A guy like Bill Belichick in New England – he’s a bright guy — and you try to get the smartest guy in the room. I just think with Adam’s understanding of this game and his ability to articulate it, he can be that guy.
“He’s the guy with the most upside and he can really be a difference maker.”
Maybe I’m reading too much into things, but I find it an interesting take by a guy being handed the reigns of what could be an elite team in the league in his first head coaching job at any level. Obviously, Oates is tremendously excited to become a head coach in the NHL after serving just a three-year NHL coaching apprenticeship (under four different head coaches in two different organizations).
But I’m sure very few folks remember just how contentious Oates’ tenure here was between him, his agents and Caps management, starting from the very first day he was traded to D.C., along with Rick Tocchet and Bill Ranford (in exchange for Jim Carey, Jason Allison and Anson Carter). But being and old-timer, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that part of Oates really couldn’t believe he was back with the Caps.
In his side session with reporters after the televised press conference, Oates talked about the growth of the franchise, the increase in media attention, the new practice facilities and all the emphasis that Leonsis and the ownership group has put on marketing and the game day experience. But when asked directly if there was a “comfort level” returning to D.C., Oates paused for several seconds before answering. “Yeah, there is,” he said. “I played here a long time. It was fun flying in, driving to the rink, in a different capacity now that I’m not the visitor anymore. You know, good old feelings.” He then changed the subject somewhat, making jokes about the Caps old practice facility at Piney Orchard, D.C. traffic, and how he likes to tour the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier when friends come to visit.
Like I said, I’m probably reading too much into it. And let me be clear, I think the Caps made the right decision hiring Oates to oversee the next phase of the Capitals. He’s as exciting a young coach of any that was available. The only thing that his resume’ was missing was the job he now owns.
Asked what he felt like the most important thing he needs to impart to his new proteges, Oates replied, ”I really feel the game today is territory. You have to establish territory and protect it. I look at the Caps lineup and the talent level and I don’t see any reason why we can’t push the pace and be an aggressive team but at the same time not sacrificing defense. It requires commitment all over the ice.”
What is painfully obvious, though, to everyone that follows this team is that one of the primary reasons Oates is the new coach is his work on New Jersey’s power play. He turned a moribund squad into a top half of the league unit that especially excelled during their playoff finals run. Oates remarked that no coach wants to be “pigeon-holed” as an offense or defense only coach, and that he would stress attention to all three zones on the ice to put out a well-balanced club.
But questions about the power play specifically persisted. In fact, Oates was asked point-blank what he thought of Alex Ovechkin playing point on the power play, instead of on the half-wall or in front.
“I don’t see anything wrong with it,” Oates said, probably to the chagrin of a large number of Caps fans. “A lot of teams have forwards on the point. Obviously, there’s a lot of talent in the room and it’s something where we’ll look at all the options.” When someone followed up with a comment that Ovechkin has the size to play in front of the net, Oates quipped, “I know a lot of people say that.”
But Oates reinforced the idea that it’s often the “little things” that derail a power play. “I think sometimes power plays fail for a lot of reasons. It’s not necessarily where guys are standing.”
Another aspect of Oates’ new job title that he’s going to have to get used to is being compared to the men that last held the position before him. Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter both meant a lot to this franchise in different ways, and it’s inevitable that comparisons are going to be made as to the differences in styles of coaching. Hunter, in particular, was criticized in some corners — even by his players during the season — about not communicating directly with the players, something that Oates said is very important to him on several occasions during the press conference.
“I’m a true believer in communication,” Oates said. “When the players walk in and they see your work ethic, your intensity and your knowledge, they become believers. When you go out on the ice and show them things that can add to their game I think that just helps the cause. … But there’s no question that you have to earn their respect.”
Asked the difference between being an assistant coach in the NHL in and a head coach, Oates joked, “Well, I’m gonna find out.” He continued, “I think assistant coaches become a little bit more “buddies” to the players than with the head coach. But there is also still a line where you can call a player in and talk to him, man-to-man, and he leaves [the office] and you can go coach him. As long as you earn respect. And I think that’s the most important thing. When you respect each other and they respect you, you can go out on the ice and you can tell them they’re doing something wrong and it’s okay.”
McPhee and Oates both touched on a story from his playing days here, where he went to then coach Ron Wilson to suggest that sniper Peter Bondra be moved to the point on the power play. Oates insisted that he likes when players are assertive in their suggestions on how to play, but that there’s a place and way to do it. He feels the veterans have more leeway to offer opinions, citing himself as an older player, and Martin Brodeur of the Devils, the team Oates leaves behind after a Stanley Cup Finals appearance.
“I can’t be a hypocrite as a coach because as a player, that’s want I wanted. I wanted feedback, I wanted communication from the boss. I showed up for work. You can yell at me if you want, but I want input. So that’s the kind of coach I want to be.”
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.