Each coach the Washington Capitals have hired in recent years has brought something different to the table. Bruce Boudreau made a moribund club exciting by teaching it, in almost Don Coryell fashion, to Unleash the Offensive Fury. Dale Hunter was brought in last November to instill toughness and responsibility, and the Caps’ gritty play in the postseason suggests they’ve progressed in that area.
And now here comes Adam Oates to finish the job by infusing the players with, to hear George McPhee tell it, his second-to-none intelligence. Boudreau’s abandon, Hunter’s snarl, Oates‘ smarts. A team with those qualities would stand a pretty good chance, you’d figure, of winning the Stanley Cup.
That’s certainly what the Capitals‘ brain trust is thinking — that Oates, the former Caps center, is the last step in the process, the coach who’s going to take the franchise to its first championship. Ted Leonsis, the Job of professional hockey, hasn’t necessarily run out of patience, but he understands, as he said at Wednesday’s “Welcome back, Adam” news conference, that “we’re at the point where we have to do better in the playoffs. We have to win the Stanley Cup.”
And they do, of course. The pot has been boiling for seven years now, and the Capitals still are trying to get out of the second round. Alex Ovechkin, meanwhile, is no longer the frisky colt who, at 22, scored 65 goals and terrorized the league. Let’s face it, the Caps’ future doesn’t seem quite as glorious — or as infinite — as it did a few seasons ago. In fact, if you listen closely, you can hear the creak of a window beginning to close.
There’s still time, though. And it’s up to Oates to make the most of that time. He’s walking into a much better situation than most rookie head coaches do. The Capitals, after all, came within a game of the conference finals this past season, and Adam, watching with great interest as a New Jersey Devils assistant, saw “a much bigger commitment [on their part] to do the little things and play the system and play the correct way of hockey. … I think the team is very close. And hopefully we can add a little bit here and there and [make] some adjustments and take it to the next level.”
If there was anything that undid the Caps in their series against the New York Rangers, it was the occasional needless risk that backfired, the sloppy line change — the mental mistake, in other words. That’s the kind of lapse Oates “never” was guilty of as a player, McPhee said (which is one of the reasons he was voted Tuesday into the Hall of Fame). “If a mistake was made,” GMGM went on, “it was a physical mistake. He was always on [his game].”
Oates also was full of ideas during his Capitals days (1997-2002) — and eagerly shared them with his bosses. McPhee recalled him suggesting one year in a hotel lobby that Peter Bondra be put on the point in the power play. Coach Ron Wilson tried it, George said, and Bondra ended up leading the league in power-play goals. Another time, Adam pushed to have Chris Simon, a rough-and-tumble type, added to his line. Simon went on to have his best offensive season with Adam feeding him.
Oates‘ mind was always working, and his unselfishness on the ice made everyone around him better — whether it was Brett Hull in St. Louis, Cam Neely in Boston or Bondra in Washington. Now he just has to get the Caps to play the same way. To put as much thought into the game as they do blood and sweat. To sacrifice (e.g. give up the puck) for the good of the whole.
“He helped New Jersey to play with more pace and still be defensively responsible,” Leonsis said. “But the team was more fun to watch, and the players really enjoyed it.”
That, in a nutshell, is what the owner is looking for from his new coach. He doesn’t want the Capitals to be so focused on defense that their offensive skills wither — as was the case under Hunter (and even in the latter stages of Boudreau’s term). He wants the team to be “fun to watch” again. He wants a system installed that the players can “enjoy.” Is that too much to ask?
Not at all. The Caps may never score 318 goals in a season again (as they did in 2008-09), and Ovechkin’s days as an Unstoppable Force appear to be over. But Oates might be able to get more out of Marcus Johansson, the swift young center, and he could probably teach everybody a thing or three about two-way hockey, which he excelled at.
Best of all, he doesn’t own a junior hockey club in Ontario, and you don’t get the sense he’s just taking the Capitals out for a spin. He’s come back to Washington, 14 years after he lost in the finals here, to try to figure out a way to go one step further — however long it takes. Just wondering: Is there room in this town for two AOs?