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.