From Alzner to Ward, we took a look at and graded the 2012-13 season for every player who laced 'em up for the Caps for a significant number of games during the campaign, with an eye towards 2013-14. Now that we've covered the players, it's time to turn our attention to the man behind the bench, Adam Oates.
Head Coach / Washington Capitals
[Since a coach's season is hard to quantify beyond the numbers above, we figured we'd have a roundtable discussion on what Oates did well and what he may not have done so well. Feel free to weigh in on any of these points in the comments.]
When Adam Oates took over behind the bench last summer, he had little coaching experience and was something of an unknown. What were your initial impressions of him and how have they changed (if at all)?
J.P.: What I knew (or thought I knew) was that the Caps had themselves a thinker and a communicator, someone who would have a plan, the confidence to execute it, and the ability to verbalize his directions. I thought he would have the bona fides to get buy-in from the players from whom that would be most important, and an approach to the game that would be a welcomed breath of fresh air. And I expected a learning curve for a guy who had never been a head coach at any level and didn’t get the benefit of an NHL preseason or much input into the team’s roster, given his late hiring date.
What I didn’t expect was a coach who was quite as invested in establishing personal relationships with his players (most notably, of course, with his captain), but just about everything he’s done so far has been positive, from cultural change to x’s and o’s, and that’s certainly unexpected... and quite the pleasant surprise.
So impressions haven’t changed much, but expectations have. He’s off to a strong start, but this is a League of adjustments and he hasn’t had to make many yet - how he reacts when he’s forced to, tactically and otherwise, will be the next insight into how good a coach he really is and can be.
Becca: Honestly when Oates was hired my only impression of him was as a very smart - but very inexperienced head coach. And admittedly I wasn't thrilled with the move; I was never a huge fan of his as a player (although obviously I recognized how talented he was) and between his inexperience and what I heard from some Devils fans I wasn't sure he was the right guy for the job.
I've never been so glad to be so wrong. I never expected him to do what he did with this team - and with his captain - but he made both of them fun to watch again and made it seem like perhaps the best days were ahead, a feeling that has kind of left the area in the last few years. His communication skills alone are such a dramatic change from either of his predecessors, both in the fact that he communicates at all (ahem, Hunter) and the fact that when he does so, he is well-spoken and seemingly always teaching (love you, Bruce).
It wasn't a perfect rookie debut as a coach but given the circumstances under which he arrived - the shortened training camp, lack of preseason and a roster largely formulated for another coach's vision - he so far exceeded my expectations of him and yet still made me think he can get better.
Geoff: Oates’ coaching career got off to an ugly start, the team picking up an abysmal three points through the season’s first month (seven games). The tough first steps put Washington in basement of the Eastern Conference with the playoffs a far cry away. Luckily for Capitals fans Oates proved his worth through the final 41 games, the Head Coach and his team playing strong hockey when the chips were down in DC.
Without the benefit of a real training camp Oates was behind the eight-ball to start, and the early returns affirmed everyone of the need for a proper preseason when starting out in your first year. I represented many Caps fans while watching Adam’s stoic face pace behind Verizon Center’s benches in the first month, frustrated by a lack of production, perplexed by line combinations, and thirsty for points. The season’s first month yielded little positive momentum. We had seen Oates’ success in an assistant’s role in both New Jersey and Tampa Bay, the optimistic of us counting the days down until everything clicked.
Given how the next three months played out my opinion of Oates changed very little because despite the rough start, we knew what the man’s HHOF mind is capable of. As the players began to iron out wrinkles and understand the new coach’s nuances Oates’ brilliance began to show, starting with a resurgent Alexander Ovechkin flying down the right wing.
Rob: I didn’t have much of an idea what to expect from Oates. I was disappointed that George McPhee once again went to a coach with no NHL head coaching experience, but recognized the trail of success Oates had been involved in. Coming off a run to the Stanley Cup as an assistant coach, you had to know he knew what success looked like, but it’s always tough to understand the contributions of an assistant coach. Adam Oates was inducted into the Hall of Fame last summer, but great players don’t always make great coaches. Still, he clearly had a smart hockey mind, so I was willing to be patient. His work this season has shown that he’s as smart a coach as he was a player, and I think what surprised me the most was his ability to communicate.
Kevin: Like Rob, I was disillusioned with the prospect of the Capitals continuing to whiff their way down the next rung of the inexperienced coach’s ladder. I didn’t necessarily establish any immediate expectations of Adam Oates, but once the season kicked off, my first impressions were positive. He seemed unflappable, articulate, and had quite obviously built a mental bridge of sorts between his days in a jersey and his days in a suit. For me, Oates had a few extra links on his chain leash from the get go, for all the reasons identified above— new system implementation, new personnel, new coaching staff, and no legitimate training camp to preheat the oven with.
Aside from his work with Alex Ovechkin, where do you think Oates was most successful this season? Where could he improve next season?
Geoff: Washington’s 26.8 success rate with the man-advantage points to one thing: an above average coach running executable (and repeatable) systems.
Everyone and their mothers are counting on the Capitals’ power play to regress to the mean but I believe that shortchanges the power of a high hockey intelligence. Oates built his production as a player on the power play, feeding soft passes to Cam Neely and Peter Bondra for the better part of a decade. While undersized and outmuscled, the extra ice rewards quick thinkers that can take advantage of a numbers advantage by isolating your superb scoring threats. Oates did so proficiently for 19 years while wearing skates, I’d expect success to follow with the man advantage again next year.
The Capitals finished the regular season outside of the top ten in faceoff percentage, something that I’d imagine is a black-eye for a HHOF centerman. Having Joel Ward (58.5), Jason Chimera (58.3), and Matt Hendricks (56.8) pace your team in FO% does not constitute a successful season down the middle.
J.P.: Yeah, the power play is obviously the biggie (and we’ll see how repeatable that success is, or how he adjusts when it runs cold), insofar as on-ice stuff goes. And really, despite a strong first season behind, there’s tons of room for improvement in everything from puck possession to penalty-killing. This team needs to be better at even-strength (and not just in results, but in the numbers that underlie them), because over-reliance on a power play, no matter how deadly it is, is no way to go through hockey life.
Kevin: The power play, quite obviously, was Oates’s greatest success. Its league leading 26.8% success rate was greater even than the 25.2% posted by Bruce Boudreau’s 2009-2010 juggernaut, though it’s worth noting that rate was put up over a full 82 game season. Although the success is likely not sustainable - especially with the likely departure of Mike Ribeiro, the goal line quarterback, and through the roof shooting percentages from Alex Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer - the implementation of the 1-3-1 was a brilliant success, and a swift one at that.
On the other side of the special teams fence the grass isn’t so green. The Caps were the 4th worst penalty kill team in the league, and their meager 77.9% (36 PPG allowed) went a long way in negating the good done by the power play. I don’t know the details as they pertain to Oates’s responsibility with the special teams unit, but as the big man behind the bench now, certainly no small amount of weight rests on his shoulders to get it fixed.
Rob: As has been mentioned, the penalty kill is the biggest need of improvement next season. I think the team could also use more consistency and will need to become more productive and dangerous at even strength. A deadly power play is nice (and that’s assuming it holds up), but these Caps have been burned all too many times by a deadly power play that went cold in the spring.
Becca: I'll agree with most of what has been said above in regards to the power play, but as far as improvements go I'd maybe add in the need to perhaps work his magic on some of the other players. I think we saw the resurgence of a select few who one would expect to thrive in such a system, the Ovechkins and Greens having great years (at least in the second half); now I'd like to see him put his focus on someone like Marcus Johansson and even Backstrom, who was great down the stretch but largely benefitted from Ovechkin's hot streak and then disappeared in the playoffs.
I'd also like to see what he can do with someone like Dmitri Orlov, or even Tomas Kundratek, for a full season. Both are puck-moving defensemen, blueliners who should thrive in an Oatesian system, yet both were eventually relegated to the AHL and going forward it seems like they could help out. As much as Erskine stepped up in the regular season last year, I'd love for him not to be the go-to option on defense if/when one of the top guys goes out - or simply because he shoots with the correct hand. Being a right-handed vs a left-handed shot shouldn't take precedence over talent, speed and skill.
After seeing it play out over a partial season, what aspects of the roster as currently constructed make it a good fit (or a bad one) for the system Oates is trying to use?
J.P.: First and foremost, this team needs to figure out what it’s doing about its second-line center and fourth defenseman. Up front, there aren’t too many guys you look at and say, "He simply doesn’t fit what Oates is trying to do here." There’s a mix of playmakers, shooters, puck possessors, two-way players and so on that should be able to keep this team competitive. (Obviously you’d like a bit more skill, but so would 29 other teams.)
It’s a bit of a different story on the back-end, however. Past the top-three of Mike Green, John Carlson and Karl Alzner, the team doesn’t seem to have the ideal mix of capable defenders who are decent puck-movers right now to transition from defense to offense as quickly as Oates would like. What’s more, while there are plenty of third-pairing-capable blueliners, the second-pairing is saddled with one of them on a nightly basis right now, and that needs to be rectified.
Geoff: I like the roster Oates has to work with because of the patient pass-first centers (contingent on Ribeiro’s re-signing) at his disposal on the top two lines and both power play teams. Nicklas Backstrom and Ribeiro are practically players from Oates’ own mold, two All-Star pivots looking to use their instincts to get the puck to heavy and willing shooters like Ovechkin, Mike Green, and Troy Brouwer. Oates succeeded on NHL ice for two decades because his creativity gave him the time and space needed to make strong passes to dangerous teammates. Having two strong and creative centers to lead scoring lines gives Oates the chance to add a bit of a personal touch to their roles.
Kevin: As mentioned above, the presumed departure of Mike Ribeiro creates holes on both the second line and on the powerplay. Ribeiro’s skill sets are not the easily replicated kind, so Oates and George McPhee are either going to have to stick their hands in the bare waters of free agency, or give someone on the team— looking at you Brooks Laich— a makeover. Or, leave Brooks alone, and makeover his own gameplan, which a good coach should be plenty adept at.
In what makes a good fit, moving Alex Ovechkin to the right side and rejuvenating him was a dash of speed to an otherwise mundane cocktail of a lineup. If that first line returns to the consistent threat they were during the Boudreau "glory" years, it takes a ton of pressure off the lines below, and allows Oates the flexibility he might need with next year’s group of skaters that aren’t necessarily locked into their spots— notable members of which include Mathieu Perreault and Brooks Laich.
Rob: I think the defensive corps needs the most work. On the Devils team that Oates was a part of, the defensemen were not extraordinary, but they were reliable, mobile and generally good with the puck. The Caps had a recent ECHL player getting regular minutes and John Erskine in the top 4. That’s not a recipe for success in any system, and certainly not one that focuses on quick decisions and accurate puck movement.
Finally, how would you grade Oates’s overall performance in his rookie season as a head coach?
Becca: I'd say a solid B+. Definitely areas to improve upon but as a first-time coach in the NHL he did a tremendous job with what he was given, both in terms of roster and schedule. He found a way to reinvigorate the team and make them play an exciting style of hockey centered around aggression and speed - but not at the expense of defense as they've done in the past. The power play worked, the penalty kill improved as the season went on, and the playoffs - or at least the first part of them - showed us what this team is capable of in the postseason. With a full training camp and tougher competition next season, I think there's a lot too look forward to with Oates at the helm.
Geoff: The guy had a tough start to overcome (and unfortunately a familiar finish) but did so in impressive fashion, and I’ll give him a B for his first year’s worth of work. On pace to fail the course in early February the tide turned in Washington and results came as the players got familiar with the coaching team. The final two months of the 2013 season were as exciting a time to be a Caps fan as I can remember and I expect the success to start early in ‘13-’14.
J.P.: It’s so hard to say, given the short season and the anomalies it’s likely produced. For example, the Caps had the sixth-highest 5v5 PDO in the League this year. What happens if and when that regresses? Or is Adam Oates such a great coach that it won’t? Regardless, he took a team that barely had a pulse in February and won his Division and coaxed a Hart-winning season out of his captain and a tremendous campaign out of his starting netminder along the way. Adam Oates received the sixth-most points in coach-of-the-year voting, and deserved every vote he got, if not more. He gets a very strong B+ from me, that would’ve been higher with a Caps win in Game 6 or 7 of the Rangers series.
Kevin: It’s tough to get the taste of bile out of my mouth from the Rangers’ series loss. Whether Oates was outcoached by John Tortarella, whether he was stymied by the lack of powerplays that had kept his team above water all year long, or whether being Lundqvist’d was the 2013 version of being Halak’d, it seemed that Oates deserved a better end. That said, he had two games— including a game seven in his own barn— and was unable to get his team to close the door.
All in all, I’m excited going forward, and if the changes in on-ice product Oates was able to achieve in a stunted season is indicative of what he might do in the long run, color me excited.
Rob: The context of the season makes it so difficult to judge; the highs were higher than the team deserved and the lows were too low. Given the hole that the team dug, there has to be credit for winning the division, even if the Southeast rivals did all they could to help the Caps. That’s not much of a shock, though, as we’ve all seen the Caps pick up lots of ground in the division in short order before. The most impressive aspect of Oates’ season was definitely the work with Ovechkin. It was paramount that Ovechkin’s production turned around from the last two seasons, and after a slow start, it looked like a third straight season of disappointing scoring from the Captain.
As JP noted, the short season created anomalies, so I wouldn’t expect 82 games that looked like the second half - but if Oates has Ovechkin in the running for a Richard Trophy on an annual basis then he’ll be worth whatever GMGM is paying him. I give him a solid B+.