September 23, 2014

What went wrong with the Washington Capitals, Part 2: Coaching

The Washington Capitals were officially eliminated from the playoffs last week, something few fans and analysts anticipated at the start of the season.

By failing to reach the postseason for the first time since 2007, the Caps were clearly one of the more disappointing teams this season. This is part two of a three-part series looking into what went wrong for the Caps. Last week, we looked at general manager George McPhee.

This week, we’ll look at the man behind the bench, Adam Oates.

One reason why this season was such a disappointment is because of the success Oates had in his first season as coach. After a 2-8-1 start to the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, the Caps rallied to win the Southeast Division and make their sixth consecutive postseason.

This was especially impressive given the fact that Oates did not have the time in the offseason or a camp to instill his new system and coaching style with the team; he had to take control on the fly and the team responded.

Oates’ initial success made everyone believe the team would thrive in his second year with a full offseason.

That didn’t happen.

So a first-year head coach was able to take over an NHL team with no offseason and lead them to the playoffs, but in his second season the team flounder even with a normal offseason schedule. Doesn’t that seem backwards to you?

Indeed Oates took a huge step back this year with baffling personnel decisions, a stubbornness to change or acknowledge those things that weren’t working and his complete inability to give this team any sort of identity.

Oates got things started early in the season with his handling of Tom Wilson.

Wilson averaged less than eight minutes a game even though McPhee made clear at the beginning of the season that he wanted him to receive significant minutes.  About the only thing Wilson has been allowed to do this season is fight.

Part of the reason he was brought to the NHL was to protect him from players targeting him in the OHL to make a name for themselves. Luckily Oates was there to protect him from those 18 and 19 year olds by throwing him to the wolves in the NHL.

If we are going to talk about personnel, we have to talk about Jay Beagle.

Perhaps the most curious move Oates made this season was moving Beagle to the top line to play with Alex Ovechkin at a time when the team was in desperate need of points.

Just one year ago, Oates stuck Ovechkin with Beagle and Joey Crabb when Ovechkin wanted to move back to left wing. It was a not-so-subtle hint to Ovechkin that if he did not commit to the switch to right wing, he would be stuck with a line he could not produce with.

In one year Beagle went from a ‘punishment’ center to the actual top center. Take a guess as to how well that move worked.

Ovechkin’s line was allowing more goals than it was producing and Oates added Beagle, a more defensively responsible forward, to the top line in an effort to fix the problem.

Dale Hunter’s solution for this was to simply bench Ovechkin, so I applaud Oates’ effort to find a more viable solution, but this move was doomed from the start.

Beagle is a ‘defensively responsible’ forward because he can’t produce offensively. At all. His career high in points is nine, set this season. Even though he played more games this season (62) than he has in any other season in his career and spent time playing with the best scorer in the world, he still managed only nine points.

What really bothers me about this move other than the fact that it didn’t work was that it vilified both Beagle and Ovechkin. Beagle is everything you want in a fourth line player; he works hard, he has an imposing frame which he’s not afraid to use, but he is a horrendous option for the top line. Continually throwing him on the top line where he doesn’t belong exposes his flaws and does not endear him to the fans. He does his job well, but by asking him to do more than he is capable of Oates made Beagle look and feel like a detriment to the team. That’s not fair and it’s not right.

Ovechkin also came under intense scrutiny in the back half of the season as his plus-minus continued to drop, but he can’t improve his plus-minus if he’s skating with someone who can’t produce offensively.

Did the top line allow as many goals with Beagle? No, but they didn’t score any either.

Ovechkin did not score a single point while skating with Beagle. Instead of allowing more goals than they were scoring, the top line just stopped scoring.

And yet Oates would not back down. This experiment should have lasted only a few games, but it went on for two weeks. When asked, what did Oates have to say? “I thought that line hasn’t hurt us.”

What team was he watching?

It was this kind of stubborn refusal to acknowledge any of his team’s struggles or make necessary changes that made this season so frustrating.

The team needed a top six forward and Oates kept Martin Erat on the fourth line until he was traded. The roster is very weak on the left side, but Oates put Dustin Penner on the fourth line after the team traded for him. Oates kept Dmitry Orlov cycling back and forth between Washington and Hershey so many times that he demanded a trade. Oates rode Philipp Grubauer into the ground and refused to play Michal Neuvirth even though that was the only way to raise his trade value. Oates continually played Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer on a line despite the fact that they are two players with two similar playing styles and did not produce offensively together.

McPhee’s hands were also tied in terms of building a roster given Oates’ insistence on playing each player on their shooting side, thus limiting McPhee’s options. Even when he did bring in players that seemingly fit what the team needed, Oates refused to use them.

McPhee may be at fault for not bringing in players that Oates would want to use, but Oates is at fault for not utilizing an optimal lineup.

You can’t convince me that it is better for the team to have Beagle on the top line and Erat and Penner on the fourth. I can’t quantify what giving players like Erat and Penner more time would mean in terms of the standings, but the Caps ended up only three points behind Detroit for the final wildcard spot. Keeping good players on the bench for much of the year could very well have been the difference between a playoff berth and an early summer vacation.

The only way Oates could have justified his puzzling line combinations would be if these players better fit the team’s identity, but there’s a major problem with that argument:  the team doesn’t have an identity.

Can anyone tell me what this team’s identity is? Are they a run-and-gun offense? A defensive stalwart? Grinders and hard-workers? A trap team? A two-way team? Opportunistic? They are none of these.

The fact is even after 82 games I don’t know what they are.

The ultimate failure of Oates this season is that he was never able to instill an identity into the team, unless you believe that identity was bad-turnovers leading to odd man rushes and a complete reliance on the power play. Given that this isn’t Oates’ first season with the team, that is a particularly egregious failure.

The only way you could characterize the Caps this season is by what they did poorly. They could not hold on to two-goal leads, constantly allowed goals after scoring, could not score at even strength, and literally could not win without scoring three goals or more, going 0-25-7 when scoring two goals or less.

These are mental and systematic mistakes that all reflect on the coaching.

Given the roster Oates was handed to start the season, the Caps should be in the playoffs. Is it a championship caliber roster? No, it had some holes, but it was better than how they played.

Oates is a great assistant coach, but that may be his ceiling. He was hired because he was the architect of New Jersey’s power play and had ideas on how to resurrect Ovechkin’s offensive prowess. He accomplished both feats and put together a productive third line, but he did little else.

Ovechkin, Brouwer Jason Chimera and Joel Ward all had great offensive numbers under Oates’ tutelage. Ovechkin even led the league with 51 goals this season.

Before you hail Oates as an offensive genius, however, consider this: 24 of Ovechkin’s 51 goals were scored on the power play where he continues to play on the left side. Nearly half of his goals came on the side Oates moved Ovechkin away from.

Oates didn’t fix Ovechkin, he fixed the power play.

Oates can believe in whatever theories or ideas he wants, but the results from his first full season as a head coach have been downright awful. He is the definition of a meddling coach, tweaking everything from playing side, stick curves and even goaltending style. When things went bad this season he blamed everyone else throwing players like Ovechkin and Jaroslav Halak under the bus all while sticking to his guns on the questionable decisions he himself had made.

In his first season, Oates showed Caps fans a lot to be hopeful for, but that was just not the case in year two.

Next week, I’ll take a look at the players to see what went wrong on the ice.

About J.J. Regan

JJ Regan is a Contributor to District Sports Page. He is an aspiring sports journalist currently earning his master’s degree in interactive journalism from American University and has his own website at regansports.com. He is also a digital freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Washington and Baltimore. JJ follows all D.C. sports but specializes in the Capitals. You can follow JJ on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

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  1. [...] discover what went wrong this season, we’ve already looked at general manager George McPhee and head coach Adam Oates, but now it’s time to look at the guys who actually lace of the skates and take to the ice, the [...]

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