Photo credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta
Ever since Ron Wilson — the only coach to the take the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup Finals — was dismissed after the 2001-02 season, George McPhee has consistently hired head coaches with no NHL experience, with varying degrees of success. While Bruce Cassidy (2002-03) and Glen Hanlon (2003-2007) put up a miserable 125-169-55 record after a combined five seasons, Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter had better luck, taking the Caps to the playoffs for five straight years and racking up a 231-111-47 record, the best five-year stretch in the history of the team.
Former Capitals captain Adam Oates, who was introduced to the media Wednesday, continues the trend and is the fifth straight hire without any previous experience as an NHL head coach. However, McPhee is confident that he found what he calls “a real difference maker.”
“You want intelligent guys running the bench,” McPhee said. “A guy like Bill Belicheck in New England, he’s a bright guy, and you try to get the smartest guy in the room. And I just think, with Adam’s understanding of this game, his ability to articulate it, he can be that guy.”
In three seasons as an assistant coach for both Tampa Bay and New Jersey, the 49-years-old Oates — who said it took him “only five seconds” to accept McPhee’s offer — helped guide his teams to a 120-101-23 record. In New Jersey, the team saw a 10-win improvement during his two years behind the bench, going from missing the playoffs entirely to the Stanley Cup Finals this past season.
What impressed McPhee the most about Oates was his preparation for the game, both as a player and a coach and in his creative problem solving. ”I’ve never had a player play so many games without making a mental mistake,” said McPhee, emphasizing that Oates was always mentally prepared and focused.
“I remember [Adam] coming up to Ron [Wilson] and I about six games into a season,” McPhee began. “He said, ‘Have you ever thought about putting Peter Bondra on the point on the power play?’
“We said, ‘Not sure, how’s he going to get it up the ice. He said, ‘It doesn’t matter, we need the shot back there and I can get him the puck.’” Peter Bondra ended up having the most power play goals in the league that year with 21.
So what can we expect from a Caps team led by the recently inducted Hall of Famer? While scouting Washington in case the teams met in playoffs, Oates saw a team — coached by defensive-minded Dale Hunter — committed to the finer details of hockey.
“I don’t see any reason to change that,” Oates said. “I really feel the game today is territory. You have to establish territory and protect it.”
Offensively, however, Oates would like the team to be more aggressive and utilize their skill. “[Ovechkin] still might have to dump it in and block a shot once in a while,” McPhee quipped.
The new coach and the sassy general manager will now spend the coming weeks hiring the rest of the coaching staff and signing free agents. Free agency begins this Sunday, July 1st.
Regardless of all the new tasks in front of him, Oates’ good luck the past few days has not been lost on him. “I wanted to go play golf and get a hole in one,” Oates said of his utterly fantastic day yesterday.
Well now, at least, he’ll coach a certain Russian superstar that actually’s gotten one before. I SWEAR GAH!