Everyone knew the Washington Capitals needed a different approach when Dale Hunter announced he wasn’t returning. Defensive, shot-blocking hockey had some success, and Bruce Boudreau’s previous style of run-and-gun hockey had a little, too.
In new coach — and newly minted Hockey Hall of Famer — Adam Oates, the Caps hope to pull from the best of his NHL playing days and experience as an assistant.
“Just from knowing Oatesy, I think he’s going to be a nice balance between Bruce and Dale,” associate goaltending coach and ex-teammate Olie Kolzig said in a phone interview. “Because he was such a good two-way center, he is obviously going to hold guys accountable in their own end and play responsible in their own end. But at the same time, he had that offensive ability, and I think he’s going to have an uncanny way of communicating with guys like [Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Mike Ribeiro] and all these guys we count on to score goals.”
Oates spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils after one year with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He became the fifth straight coaching hire by general manager George McPhee without previous NHL head coaching experience, following Hunter, Boudreau, Glen Hanlon and Bruce Cassidy.
Those men had varying degrees of success in Washington, and while there’s no way to no for sure how Oates will evolve as a head coach, those around him aren’t worried.
“Obviously he knows the game very well, he understands it very well. Honestly there’s no reason for me to think he’s not going to do well,” Devils forward Dainius Zubrus said. “All the stuff that he worked with the players here and the stuff he was trying to teach and the way he was approaching this, it was great.”
Zubrus and others with New Jersey have lauded Oates for his teaching abilities, such as bringing a laptop into the locker room after games to show what went right and wrong.
“He’s going to be a guy that communicates,” Comcast SportsNet analyst and former player Alan May said. “So what’s going to happen is, if you don’t like what someone’s doing, he’s not going to push him to the end of the bench. He’s going to show players what to do.”
Oates, 49, has been known for improving the power play, dating to his time as a playmaking center. If he helps the Caps improve in that area and also brings the Devils’ aggressive forechecking style, it just might be the recipe for maximizing the talents of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Mike Green and others.
But not to the detriment of defense.
“Everybody thinks Adam will be offensive coach,” ex-Caps teammate Peter Bondra said. “He’s a detail guy. I think he’ll work really hard to get everyone on the same page on the team and continue what Dale Hunter and Bruce Boudreau did the last couple years.”
“It’s not blocking the shots and it’s not dump and chase. Any system where I played I learn a lot. I’m [an] offensive guy,” he said from the NHL Players’ Association executive meetings in Chicago. “I’m very happy to hear the Caps sign that kind of guy who likes offense. You play offense, but you don’t forget about defense.”
Oates, who, along with McPhee, was not made available by the Capitals until an introductory news conference Wednesday, spoke briefly about his new gig as part of an unprecedented day. Just hours after being named coach, his selection to the Hockey Hall of Fame was announced.
“Absolutely fantastic day. I don’t know if that’s ever happened before,” Oates said. “I’ve got to go out and play lotto, I think. Just two huge honors. Obviously, I’m very excited about the coaching job and to be called from the Hall of Fame, it’s just a special, special day.”
Kolzig wondered “What took them so long?” about the selection committee needing until now to elect Oates, who recorded 341 goals and 1,079 assists during his 19-year NHL career.
But his ascent to NHL head coach happened quicker than perhaps most expected. He beat out ex-Chicago Blackhawks assistant Mike Haviland and Norfolk Admirals (AHL coach Jon Cooper, the other finalists, despite not having head coaching experience at any level.
“The one thing about Oatesy, he is such a hockey mind, he’s a very meticulous person. He’s sees the little things that not everybody sees,” Kolzig said. “Nine times out of 10, it works. Those are little things that I think are really going to set him apart as a coach.”