As we’ve done in year’s past, District Sports Page staff and a couple friends in the industry conducted a roundtable to rate the recently completed Washington Capitals season. Obviously, with the changing of the guard over the weekend, the season was in no was satisfying of satisfactory, and our grades this season really reflect where our contributors to the roundtable sit with regards to the changes necessary to make the Caps true contenders again.
Our panelists: Dave Nichols, Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page; Katie Brown, beat writer for DSP; J.J. Regan, contributor to DSP; Sky Kerstein, 106.7 The Fan; Harry Hawkings, RockTheRed.com.
Part III: Rate the coaches (with grade an explanation):
DAVE: F. This team got progressively worse in the two years Adam Oates was in charge. It’s not even a question. The puck possession was abysmal, the systems were almost indecipherable, the rigidity was patently absurd, and the personnel mismanagement was shockingly amateurish. I’m also choosing to believe the power play’s return to the top of the chart was regression to mean with the talent available.
Ever since Bruce Boudreau was dismissed, the Caps puck possession has taken a nosedive, bottoming out at the end of this past season. You simply cannot regularly win games giving up more shots at even strength than you take. The bigger the differential, the worse of a team you are. It’s just math. And the Caps were one of the five worst teams in terms of puck possession in the league.
For long stretches of this season, it seemed the Caps preferred method of getting the puck out of their own end was to fumble it around, then bat it to center ice and hope to be able to dump it to get a line change. Preferring players skating on their strong hand is okay in theory, but when you rigiditily insist upon it and it forces you to play John Erskine in a second-pairing role (among many misaligned), you need to re-think what you’re doing.
Oates tried to make natural wingers into centers and centers into wingers. For two seasons, he ignored George McPhee’s biggest trade deadline acquisition, banishing first Martin Erat and then Dustin Penner to the Siberia of the NHL — a fourth line assignment with Jay Beagle. Then, for periods in both seasons — including down the stretch this season when fighting for their playoff lives — he moved Beagle up to center the greatest goal scorer in this generation. Surprisingly, Alex Ovechkin did not have a single point — let alone goal — while being centered by the offensively challenged Beagle.
Maybe the biggest dereliction of duty came by wasting a season of Tom Wilson’s entry-level contract so Wilson could earn more penalty minutes fighting than he was allowed to skate at even strength.
The bridge-burning Oates did in the media with Ovechkin, Holtby, Halak and Green was simply unbecoming of an NHL head coach.
Oates has a reputation as having an incredibly gifted hockey intelligence. He was one of the greatest playmakers this game has ever known. He was also known as a stubborn, selfish and petulant player, wearing out his welcome when coaches got fed up with his schtick. Hopefully the damage he did here isn’t permanent and can be overcome by the next administration.
KATIE: D-. At first, the changes Adam Oates was making seemed to make sense, even if they were a bit puzzling. It devolved into Oates needing to tinker with literally everything – including goaltending – to the team’s detriment. Do I think the Capitals would have been better off if he’d let his assistants do their jobs instead of trying to fix things that weren’t broken? Yes. Let the goalie coaches do their jobs. Let the defensive staff do theirs. That’s why you hire assistant coaches in the first place, right? I don’t have much to comment on as far as the assistant coaches because I don’t think they hold much responsibility for many of the things that Oates wished to do during his tenure as head coach.
What Oates was able to do with the Capitals’ power play and with Alex Ovechkin was terrific, but he struggled in just about every other area. There is something to be said about sticking with things, even if they don’t work instantaneously, but even the worst coach in the NHL could realize that pairing Alex Ovechkin, an elite player, with Jay Beagle, a minimally skilled fourth line player, wasn’t a good idea. It took Oates six games to separate them. Now, maybe he was trying to get Ovechkin to be more defensively responsible, but that is not the correct way to do it.
Oates was stubborn and inflexible, and instead of modifying his system to accommodate and accentuate the skills of players in order to have the greatest possible chance of success, he tried to squeeze them into ill-fitting holes, which often backfired. Not to mention breaching the confidentiality of private conversations with players, in Halak’s case. No matter what transpired, the bottom line is that he shouldn’t have aired that dirty laundry to the public. There was dissonance between George McPhee and Oates, and it was never clearer than in the mishandling of Martin Erat and Dustin Penner. McPhee deserves the credit for acquiring quality players in an effort to help the team win, futile as it may have been, but Oates let personal bias, or perhaps just ignorance, dictate his utilization of these players.
J.J.: D-. The only things keeping this grade from an F are the power play and the third line. The Caps were tied with Pittsburgh for the best power play percentage in the league and the third line looked fantastic. Otherwise, Adam Oates laid an egg this season.
In his second season as head coach, the Caps lacked an identity and were awful at even strength. Oates was also responsible for bizarre personnel decisions, the Jay Beagle debacle, pushing a goaltending philosophy counter to the strengths of the team’s top netminder, and switching multiple players away from their natural positions. He also stubbornly refused to adapt when the team struggled under his theories.
Given that Oates had a full offseason and training camp to work with, I expected the team to get better in his second season, not worse. I’m not surprised he was let go.
SKY: D. Defensively they were awful. Adam Oates was stubborn in making adjustments. Alex Ovechkin went a career high 15 games without an even strength POINT in the most important part of the season because Oates was so worried about his +/- that he put Jay Beagle with him. Oates never even put Dustin Penner with Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin and that’s the only reason he was brought in here for!
Also Oates was neurotic with his right shot being on the right side and left shot being on the left side…many other teams are in the playoffs right now that don’t have that problem. Also Calle Johansson might not have had the greatest players, but you can’t just blame the players for being a disaster on the defensive side. The Caps never won a game in regulation/overtime under Oates at the helm in two seasons in the regular season when scoring two or fewer goals.
HARRY: I give the coaching an F. Coming in to this season I had tentative optimism that Adam Oates would learn from his mistakes and start to maximize the talents of his players instead of putting them in situations in which they were destined to fail and then criticizing and benching them for said failure. I was wrong.
Oates’ decision to consistently bury Martin Erat despite his status as one of the team’s top possession players made one of the worst trades of George McPhee’s tenure worse, culminating in a salary dump at the trade deadline.. His insistence on playing Aaron Volpatti, who was quite literally one of the five worst players in the NHL this year in terms of possession, for almost half the season, was inexcusable.
His role in keeping Tom Wilson up with the big club, therefore burning a year of his valuable entry-level contract, was also made worse by the fact that he buried Wilson with bad players and ice time almost every night. This forced Wilson to fight to try and make a name for himself.
His meticulous and obsessive desire to control everything on offense, defense, and in goal – detailed by Katie Carrera in a lengthy post around the end of the season – alienated players. Lastly, as the season came to a close, Oates’ line juggling became a punch line. such as Mikhail Grabovski on the wing, Jay Beagle with Alex Ovechkin, and Dustin Penner on the fourth line made no sense and didn’t put anyone in a position to succeed.
One of Oates’ deputies, Calle Johansson, was also likely directly responsible for this calamitous season as his defensive system and rules are not suited to this roster. The only coach who seemed to have a good year was Blaine Forsythe, as his primary responsibility – the power play – remained great. I’m legitimately starting to wonder if it’s him, not Oates, who deserves credit for turning Ovechkin around.