The Tree of ’98 Bears More Leadership Fruit: Adam Oates Now Coaches the Caps

A new leader in Washington

Outside of his winning the Stanley Cup, it’s difficult to fathom a figure in hockey ever enjoying a day a rival to Adam Oates’ yesterday. The “lesser” of his feats Tuesday was earning his first-ever head coaching job, for the team he once captained, in Washington. That word arrived around mid-day yesterday, and a couple of hours later Adam Oates was among an exceptionally elite class of performers who’ll be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame this fall.

If ever a former elite Washington athlete deserved the Prime Rib’s biggest cut and its most expensive red to wash it down as salute to a dandy of a day, it was Oates on Tuesday.

It was, obviously, an incredibly special day for Oates, but his hiring by George McPhee also seems to signal a perpetuation of a most welcomed recent trend: drawing upon central figures from the Capitals’ lone Stanley Cup finalist club, of 1998, for leadership and player development duty today. That was a special Capitals club not simply because of its stirring springtime success but because of its unique combination of skill and toughness and grit. Coach Oates has perhaps two assistants positions to fill; could we see him tap as aids even more vets from that club?

We’ve summoned a few OFBers from summer R&R and polled them for reaction to the big news.

Empty Maybe: It will not come as a surprise to the reader that I was not asked by the Washington Capitals to help out in their search for a new head coach. For this, we can all be thankful. Had I, however, been in one of the meetings between Capitals management and then-coaching position applicant Adam Oates, I would have only had one question for the interviewee: How are you a different leader now than you were when Trevor Linden was traded to the Caps?

That’s it.

I don’t question that Oates is one of the smartest hockey minds in the game. I don’t question his strategy or tactics. I feel he
will bring an up-tempo system, I hope he will connect with his offensive stars, and I imagine the Caps’ power play just got better. I
do worry a bit about his leadership. I point out that I wasn’t in the room at the time Oates was a member of the organization. I don’t know what it was like on a day-to-day basis with the talented playmaker as captain, and I don’t know if his troubles with management(s) affected anything on or off the ice. I do hope that Oates is a strong leader who has evolved since the Linden incident, and I hope the Caps new boss helps settle down a locker room that has seemed wanting for leadership in the past. I hope the Caps got the man to do the job, but it is not crazy to wonder if Oates was the proper fit for where the organization is at right now.

Elisabeth Meinecke: I lack just a bit of perspective when it comes to Adam Oates — he started playing in the NHL the year I was born!

Despite the outside criticism Dale Hunter took for his unflappable demeanor behind the Caps bench, it became fairly clear talking to the guys on the roster that Dale’s demeanor was actually an asset in helping them develop. I wonder how much George McPhee took that into account when selecting Oates — the recent image I have in my head of Oates is one particular incident of him going nuts on the New Jersey bench during the 2012 playoffs. In fact, I took note at the time because, among all the speculation that he might coach the Caps, it reminded me a bit more of where the team had been, not the direction they seemed to be going. But perhaps Oates will blend that perfect cocktail of the 2009-2010 Caps and the 2011-2012 Caps that everyone has been craving. And, having tasted the Cup finals yet again in his career — and so recently — might help him guide the Caps through what’s been an incredibly bumpy postseason history.

Mike Rucki: My first thought was, “Well, their passing will improve, but now they’ll never shoot the puck . . .”

But really, Oates could be just what the doctor ordered for this talented but fractured bunch. Oates is known as an excellent communicator, a strong tactician, good with star players — and as an offensive-minded coach who doesn’t forget the D. Also:

  • Nicklas Backstrom will now be tutored by one of the best pivots ever to play the game.
  • Oates worked really well with Ilya Kovalchuk in New Jersey; one can reasonably expect similar success with the Caps’ Captain.
  • His work improving the Devils power play had much to do with their two-games-from-glory run this post-season. The Caps could use a bit more PP consistency, and certainly have the talent to be  among  the best in the league.

Yes, he’s never been a head coach, at any level — so this decision isn’t as safe as, say, Marc Crawford might have been. But hiring Adam Oates is nothing like the still-baffling Cassidy move; Oates’ skill-set suits the 2012-13 Capitals, and Washington seems to suit him as well.

pucksandbooks: In late June 2012 what can we possibly say with any certainty about the prospects of success for new Capitals coach Adam Oates, who’s never coached a hockey game at any level as a top bench boss? Perhaps just this much: The likelihood is strong to overwhelming that the new electee to the NHL Hall of Fame, and first-line pivot for the only Capitals club to reach the Stanley Cup finals, will enter his new team’s room this autumn and command immediate and deep respect much as did his immediate predecessor, Dale Hunter. That’s a real good start.

Oates, seriously slow of foot and seriously meek of shot velocity as a player, amassed 1,420 points in little more than 1,300 games, playing the consummate thinking man’s game. In his time as a Capital, he quaterbacked the power play to aesthetic heights seldom achieved by Capitals clubs before or after. The hope today of course is that what we saw some 15 years ago with the extra-man unit of Bondra, Oates and Gonchar can, under Coach Oates, find a rival with the Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green unit. We can surmise that Oates will impart significant knowledge in the Capitals’ room — especially with regard to the power play. But we cannot possibly know to what extent his Capitals will adopt his creed, or answer his between periods pleadings, whole-cloth,  as they did with his predecessor. Time will tell.

But by all accounts Oates was a “fast riser” in the assistant ranks, and in plying his trade the past couple of seasons with the Devils — merely one of hockey’s most  accomplished organizations — he played a key strategic and developmental role for a team widely believed to be in year two of a multi-year rebuild but instead gutted its way all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. The Devils players he left behind spoke of him in universally glowing terms.

Oates’ designation isn’t nearly as wholesomely nostalgic as was Hunter’s. Hunter bled Capitals’ red; his allegiance to the organization was unwavering. And it was rabidly renewed in the all-too-brief six months of his return. Oates was a holdout early on in his tenure in D.C., one which ended rather famously when his father spoke up and informed his son that his selfish labor stance was injuring the family name. And in 2001 Oates was stripped of his Capitals’ captaincy when he complained about his diminished role and demanded (again) a trade. He got it the following spring. Still, this is hardly an ordinary hire.

This morning I won’t join the chorus loudly wondering why McPhee has tapped a fifth consecutive coach making his NHL head coaching debut behind the Washington bench. Instead, I’m wondering if Oates, unlike his NHL-novice predecessors, will be accorded by the GM, at long last, a balanced and well conceived roster brimming with players skating in positions appropriate to their experience and skill level. In the spring of 2009 Bruce Boudreau assigned Jeff Schultz and Mike Green the task of shutting down Sidney Crosby. Soon thereafter Sergei Fedorov left town; the Caps went without a legit second-line center until last Friday night. This summer, assuming Alexander Semin has played his last game as a Cap, the team genuinely needs two top-6 forward replacements. But late this June the GM publicly testifies to being “fine” with his club as is. Accountability for roster construction can’t ever evade the manager, can it?

And speaking of accountability, Oates will be the fourth head coach for Alexander Ovechkin. His play, and perhaps his commitment, has been waning for consecutive seasons. Oates will bring the “up-tempo” style Ovechkin longed for under Hunter. If he can’t resurrect his game under this coach, what’s left to try next?

This entry was posted in Adam Oates, Alexander Ovechkin, Bruce Boudreau, Capitals' greats of the past, Dale Hunter, George McPhee, Hockey Hall of Fame, Hockey Heroes. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Tree of ’98 Bears More Leadership Fruit: Adam Oates Now Coaches the Caps

  1. Geo says:

    I think within what were supposedly the final candidates, Oates made the most sense and I was pulling for him. 🙂

    Most would not call Crawford a “non-risky” choice given his history of conflicts with players. I know some fans wanted GMGM to simply throw up his hands, put a mountain of money in front of an old warhorse who won a Stanley Cup in some decade (Crawford, Keenan, Bowman et al). Or they want somebody who’s going to scream and cuss out players, coaches and refs alike (John Tortorella Jr. i guess).

    But if you want someone who (in theory) can “reach” the star players, who’s going to have instant respect and not be seen a minor leaguer (ala Boudreau, and perhaps the Norfolk Admirals’ Cooper), who’s more about instructing and teaching players than just abruptly deciding someone’s flawed and shoving them on the bench for several games with no explanation (ala Hunter), etc., then Oates seems like a smart choice… on paper. 🙂

    I’ll be interested to see whom his assistants might be. Do they want a staff where everyone is well-liked (which apparently worked for NJ this season), or do they want at least one more grizzled assistant who can be a “bad cop” when necessary? That sort of thing will be interesting to see.

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