Roughly one-quarter of the way through the 2007-08 season, the Washington Capitals found themselves sporting a 6-14-1 record, already 14 points out of first place in their mediocre division, and with their playoff hopes fading fast before Thanksgiving turkeys were even carved (Sports Club Stats pegged their odds of making the playoffs at under 2.4%).
Desperately in need of change in both attitudes and fortunes, the Caps replaced Glen Hanlon behind the bench with Bruce Boudreau and the team went on an improbable regular-season run that ended with them clinching the Southeast Division title on the last day of the season, 61 games later.
Fast forward five-plus years and the Caps found themselves similarly situated one-quarter of the way into the shortened 2013 season, with a 2-8-1 record, already seven points out of first place in their mediocre division, and with their playoff hopes fading fast before Valentine's Day roses were even purchased (Sports Club Stats pegged their odds of making the playoffs at under 2.2%).
This time, the needed attitude change had presumably been made before the season started, when the team hired yet another first-time NHL head coach in Adam Oates. What they were waiting on was a change in fortunes... and they got it. Since then, the Caps have gone 20-9-1 and have ascended to the top of the soon-to-be-euthanized Southeast Division.
Oates's Caps erased a seven-point deficit in the standings in 26 games (thanks in no small part to implosions of varying degrees in Raleigh and Manitoba), and are poised to claim one final Southeast Division title for the franchise that has dominated the "Southeasy" since its inception.
What Boudreau did and what Oates has done (with work left, to be sure) isn't necessarily directly comparable. For one thing, the hole out of which Oates had to dig wasn't left by his predecessor... at least not literally. But the similarities exist, leaving some to wonder if Oates's rookie season as an NHL bench boss might end the same way Boudreau's did - with a Jack Adams Trophy.
Whether or not he's deserving of that recognition (or even consideration for it) is for the voters to decide. But what's patently clear to those who have been watching the Caps this season is that Oates has done a terrific job and looks to be the proverbial high reward for the high risk George McPhee took in hiring him.
So what has Oates done that's been so impressive? Here are five things:
1. He seems to have fixed Alex Ovechkin.
When Dale Hunter walked away from the Caps last May, we noted that his replacement had his work cut out for him. "[P]riority number one for the new guy - perhaps even above winning, as crazy as that sounds," we wrote, "is maximizing the team’s return on investment in Alex Ovechkin."
It didn't come quickly (or, rather, it didn't come as quickly as some in the media might have expected), butcareer and reputation have been resurrected over the past month or two, and while the player obviously deserves the overwhelming majority of the credit for that, the impact the "other" AO - his coach - has had can't be overstated.
Strategically, Oates has flipped the superstar winger from the left to the right side and convinced him to let others carry the mail, making him a once-again big-time scorer at even-strength, while at the same time posting him up on the half-boards (rather than the point) on the power-play, which has resulted in more power-play goals and goals-per-minute than any other player in the League. Heck, he's even become - dare we note? - a bit more aware defensively.
But Oates's impact on Ovechkin goes far beyond X's and O's and into the relationship the former has invested in and the latter has seemingly been seeking for a while now. Mike Wise discussed this point at length last week, but a couple of quotes stood out:
"Last couple years, I score goals, but nobody give attention to it, you know," Ovechkin said. "Everybody look at only bad ways what I did. Everybody try to find my mistakes on the ice. But when I talk to Oatsie, and he told me good thing about what I did last year, it’s give me more energy than I used to have with ‘Hunts.’
"Yeah, it’s not a secret I don’t have that kind of relationship with last coach," he adds. "[Oates] give me chance to show who I am on the ice. And I’m going to use it how many times ever I can. When I have the trust, I have to use the trust."
"He sees the personal side," Ovechkin said of Oates. "He give me lots of attention. We look at the video, we look at everything to help my game grow. Especially when he move me to right side. It was pretty hard time, but now I get used to it.
"Look at the video this year and look at the video last year. If I have 5 or 10 touches in the game last year, it will be nice. But right now I have, like, more than that, almost double [the touches]. That’s why I have confidence. That’s why I feel the puck more, that’s why I feel the puck when I have to shoot and when I don’t have to shoot."
That's investment. And it's paid off. There's a lot right with Alex Ovechkin right now, and it's a stretch to think that much of it happens without Adam Oates. If Oates's plan has been to turn Ovechkin into his old pal Brett Hull, he may be well on his way.
2. He seems to have fixed the power play.
Integrally related to the first point, Oates's implementation of the 1-3-1 power play has been a revelation, propelling the Caps' extra-man unit to the top of the League in efficiency. Mike Ribeiro, Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer are all among the League's leaders in points-per-60 at 5-on-4, and the power play has been even better on the road than at home, aiding in securing many a much-needed road win down the stretch.
Interestingly, the Caps are in the middle of the pack in shot rate on the power-play, and, indeed are taking fewer shots per minute than last year's impotent squad. But the difference is more than simply "puck luck" - the shots are coming from closer-in this year than last. A (relatively) healthy Mike Green has helped. So has Ribeiro's ability and creativity. But Oates has turned a highly-skilled unit into something even greater than the sum of its parts, and that's impressive unto itself - with a League-average power-play, the Caps would have something in the neighborhood of eleven fewer goals so far... and a more difficult path to the post-season.
3. He actually communicates with - and on behalf of - his players.
"I don't know. You should ask him." That's Roman Hamrlik on why Hunter was scratching him last season.
"There's nothing to talk about." That's Mike Knuble on why Hunter was scratching him last season.
"I just told them they're not playing tonight and get ready to play (in the future)." That's Hunter on why he was scratching Hamrlik and Knuble last season.
After Hunter stepped down, Knuble was asked for his thoughts on the type of coach that should succeed him:
"Maybe they need to find somebody who can communicate well with the players yet not coddle them," Knuble said. "Maybe a style between Bruce and Dale."
(Knuble always has had a high shooting percentage, hasn't he?) Enter Oates, who has been just what Knuble described - a communicator who hasn't sacrificed accountability to relate to his players. Back to the Wise piece:
Oates said his motivation to communicate transparently with his players came from his own 19-year career: "I guess most of it comes from what I wanted as a player. I wanted a coach to talk to me. I wanted a coach to tell me when I did wrong and when I did right. I didn’t need to be fawned over. But to just know, ‘Yeah, good job, man.’ And I wanted more. I was always a guy who wanted [more]. Give me more. So I want to be that guy. I want to be that guy for every guy, not just Ovi, but every guy."
That's a marked departure from a head coach who "talked with [a fellow former captain whom he was healthy-scratching] two games into the benching and then never again." Whether it's his outspoken defense of his captain in the face of over-the-top criticism, concern that the backup goalie feels he's an important part of the team, going over the previous night's game with a fourth-liner or any of the other examples onlookers have seen or never will see, Oates has cultivated relationships with his players, and with it, trust. One more quote from the Wise article:
"Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, you were a good player.’ They don’t realize I also struggled in the league too," Oates said. "I got benched. I played on the fourth line. I got humbled. I got traded. I got hurt. I got old. I can talk to anybody."
And he has.
While the bar set by his predecessor in this area was set low enough that a worm could hurdle it, Oates seems to have a firm grasp of how to handle player-coach relations. It's easy for media and fans to look past this critically important aspect of the job; fortunately, Oates hasn't overlooked it.
4. He's gotten what he's wanted without a fight.
There are essentially two ways to make someone do something he doesn't want to do: force him to do it or make him change his mind and think he wants to do it. Oates ran into a bit of this early in the season when he wanted Ovechkin to switch positions, taking the generational talent out of his comfort zone and asking him to take a leap of faith. The leap lasted eight difficult and, at times, embarrassing periods before the coach relented.
"I know [left wing is] what he’s used to. I still think he should be a right winger," Oates said at the time. "But I also want him to be happy and get something out of his game."
So happiness was to be skating back on the left side... of fourth-liners Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb. Four unproductive games later, Ovechkin was back on the right wing and paired with a legitimate playmaker in Ribeiro, and the results have been getting better with nearly each passing week.
Glad you came to that decision on your own, Ovi.
It may not have been Tom Sawyer getting his pals to paint the fence for him, and it's largely speculative, but Oates didn't turn the issue into an international incident, and Ovechkin didn't have to mutter under his breath or bite his lip. Ultimately, of course, both men got what they wanted.
And perhaps that's similar to how Oates got what would appear to be a quintessential "Oates guy" in Martin Erat at the deadline - by trotting out left-handed grinders like Matt Hendricks and Aaron Volpatti as first-line left wings (nominally, at most) instead of more-skilled righties (like Eric Fehr), Oates showed McPhee that he didn't have the pieces he needed to do what he wanted to do. It wasn't too long before the team made the move for Erat, a legitimate top-six forward who, perhaps most importantly, shoots from the port side.
And could a reunion with Backstrom have been used as a carrot for Ovechkin?
If Oates is making power moves like these with barely a ripple in the off-ice pond, it speaks to his demeanor and disdain for drama (perhaps a lesson learned from his playing days), to say nothing of a cunning effectiveness (and effective cunningness), all of which bodes well going forward for a team that has had more than its fair share of off-ice distraction over the past handful of years.
5. He's done what he's done on the fly.
When Adam Oates was hired, he was the fifth-consecutive head coach in Washington who had no prior NHL head-coaching experience. But Oates one-upped the other four by not having any head-coaching experience at any level. He also got a ridiculously short training camp (thanks to the third of Gary Bettman's lockouts) to teach his systems to players who had last played "Hunter Hockey" or in Moscow or Anchorage or wherever. And the players he was teaching weren't even "his" - they were inherited, for the most part, brought in to play one of the many styles that this somewhat schizophrenic franchise had foisted on its players (and fans) in recent seasons.
And yet Oates has succeeded in putting the wings on the plane while it was already barreling down the runway... and now it's flying.
All of this isn't to say that Adam Oates has been perfect. He hasn't been. And there's plenty of work to be done (the team's possession numbers, second-line production, penalty kill and defensive depth are all a bit troubling). But he's overcome a steep learning curve and has a team that was left for dead two months ago on the verge of opening a playoff series at home, with its similarly left-for-dead captain in the conversation for League MVP. It's impressive. And even if the Caps fall short of the post-season, this season will not have been without its successes, among them comfort in the fact that the Caps have things headed in the right direction, with the right man behind the bench.