Adam Oates’ Winning Coaching Philosophy: Be Professional

There are many ways we categorize coaches in the NHL: players’ coach, offensive-minded coach, defensive-minded coach—there’s a label for every situation. When a new guy steps into the head coaching position, he’s peppered with questions about his system, players’ positioning on the ice is put under a microscope, and media and fans become accustomed to his quirks and sayings.

But in the blizzard of new information, it can take awhile to find most vital ingredient.

Adam Oates’ team this year has been confusing.  The growing pains were the type only a mother could love.  The team had effort issues, system issues, personnel issues—things that can’t always be fixed in a season.  It wasn’t just one problem.  It was a veteran roster that had fewer answers than a freshman in calculus. And there was no silver bullet.

So when the Capitals began to turn things around, when the superstars began playing like fans hadn’t seen in a couple years, and when the team jumped to Nicklas Backstrom’s defense Tuesday in a way that would have made the toughest roster in the NHL proud, it was more inexplicable than if Arron Asham joined the Peace Corps. The roster remained roughly the same, but suddenly the system and the attitude were working in harmony.

It finally clicked for me after listening to Oates’ press conference Tuesday, his team fresh off its eighth straight win: a commanding 5-1 triumph over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“One of the things we talk about is that I expect those guys to be pros,” Oates said. “You can enjoy it tonight for sure, it was a good game. Tomorrow we focus on Ottawa. Just like when it doesn’t go our way, I don’t want it to linger, we treat that as [professionals].”

This isn’t the first time Oates has mentioned professionalism.  Like Dale Hunter’s “it’s a hockey play,” the phrase is a staple of Oates’ coaching. But it was the first time I realized how much of an impact it’s having on the Capitals’ success, as they finally start to absorb and live the attitude like their muscle memory absorbs the system and positioning on the ice.

It seems like such a simple thing. Guys should be professional in the NHL without having to be told, right? They’re adults with full-time jobs getting paid a lot of money to show up and play.

Perhaps they shouldn’t have to be told, but if you think about the person at your workpalce who breaks every rule, or who shows up in a dress code fit for anything but an office, all without repercussions, then you begin to realize it’s not such a radical concept for a hockey club, either, that professionalism is sometimes lacking.

The advantage of this professionalism for on-ice play is the kind that Dean Evason once observed about Nicklas Backstrom as an NHL center—you don’t get too thrown off your game by the highs and lows of the 60-minute drama. When you’re the calm in the storm, you’re usually the most focused part in the storm, too.  So when your team blows a 4-goal lead like the Capitals did in their home game Saturday, you don’t sink so low that you can’t concentrate on a comeback.

We talk a lot about culture in a hockey locker room. The Capitals have needed a change for some time.  And, frankly, I think the professionalism mantra of Oates has worked wonders for this organization. Almost exactly one month ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins were in the middle of a 15-game winning streak. At that time in Washington, winning streaks of more than three or four games seemed the things that fairy tales were made of.

The Capitals couldn’t string a streak like that together anymore in the regular season, since there aren’t enough games left, but their win Tuesday was decisive, even if it wasn’t a perfect performance.  While the initial 10 minutes were a good reminder that they weren’t playing a Southeast Division rival, the game was also an interesting measuring stick of the Caps’ quality of play when facing one of the East’s better teams. And by the middle of the second period, it really didn’t matter, because the score was 4-0 in the Capitals’ favor, and they never looked back, finishing the game with 5 goals to the Leafs’ 1.

This isn’t to say the team will never again look sloppy or like they don’t care sometimes. Old habits are hard to break. But it seems that Oates’ demand for professionalism is winning more often than it’s losing in the locker room.

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10 Responses to Adam Oates’ Winning Coaching Philosophy: Be Professional

  1. Matt Mueller says:

    I got a B in calculus freshman year…. I had about 85% of the answers

  2. Bob says:

    Caps looked great in last night’s win. Great to see them get a big win instead of another nail biter. Lots of these last few teams are going to be trying to knock them off before the end of the season and give the Jets a way into the playoffs, hope the Caps can keep up this level-headed/intense play through the end of the regular season.

  3. Steve Owen says:

    Elizabth, I’m still eagerly anticipating you eating “the verbal equivalent of a five course dinner”. Your “pucks and books” buddy should get his appetite ready as well. Your analysis from just a couple weeks ago was terribly flawed. Let’s Go CAPS!!!

  4. gs12 says:

    What’s shocking to me, is the sheer dominance the Caps are displaying. They are literally oozing with confidence, they are playing…playing. That is the keyword, they are the complete opposite of a team gripping the stick too tight. You can’t make the quick tape to tape plays like they are, if you aren’t having fun, and playing…not thinking. I only hope they have the resiliency to bounce back, when they face adversity, which they will. Ovie has taken this team on his back, and everyone is playing great. I only hope it continues through the playoffs!

  5. Patrick says:

    Easy Steve, things appeared bleak, to say the least. Fans pay big to attend games and deserve to be treated to a quality product. The Caps were not executing and we all felt slightly cheated, even those of us geographically removed from the Verizon Center. I have been a loyal fan for more than thirty years and have only been financially able to visit the district once. An amazing whirlwind trip that I will always cherish. (thanks again Mike Rucci & co.)
    The writers of this blog put together some of the most interesting , heartfelt, and informative articles centered around our beloved Caps. I come to this site before any other to get updated on all things RED!


  6. Mike Rucki says:

    Well said, Patrick! And you are welcome back any time, of course. 🙂

  7. Patrick says:

    Thx. The invite I extended to our section that weekend still stands, btw. Forever in your debt!
    Someday in the not so distant future I just might show up in DC, when I do, I’ll be sure to contact you.

    Rockin’ the Red in Manitoba!!!!!!!


  8. Steve Owen says:

    I appreciate the feedback. I never said I didn’t appreciate the “interesting, heartfelt, and informative articles”. I simply quoted back the writers own words. I continue to enjoy the blog but felt the writing was getting overly pessimistic. Surprised to see nothing on the big win in Montreal. It’s almost as if the writers don’t want to be proven incorrect? Doubtless there will be some glowing remarks after tomorrow night’s clincher. This team can go deep in the playoffs IF the bottom half of the team picks it up. Otherwise cut the chaff in the offseason so you’ll have enough money to re-sign Ribeiro.

  9. Patrick says:

    Steve, no hard feelings just don’t bite the hands that feed us!
    The Jets are my second favorite team in the NHL, but the Caps need to beat them to clinch so I am a bit torn. The Jets can win both of their other games, after my Caps take this one.
    No injuries that’s all!
    Lets go Caps!

  10. Steve Owen says:

    Agreed!! Hey Caps got to win this one tonight. If we lose we drop down to 8th, with game against Ottawa Thursday who could knock us out of playoffs and then we close it out against Boston. We DO NOT want to go that route. Looks like the “bottom half” read my comments and want to stick around, lol!

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