Photo credit: Chris Gordon

Now that hockey is back, The Marek vs Wyshynski podcast is part of my daily routine. If you can make it through the pro-wrestling chatter (for the record: Mandible Claw > Stone Cold Stunner), I recommend it– particularly on days like today, when Jeff Marek shared a former coach’s insight into Adam Oates’ system for the Caps.

The long and short of it is that the Caps are too dumb to play Oates’ style of hockey. Let’s get into it.

Citing an unnamed former coach he spoke to at Sportsnet, Marek said the following about 40 minutes into Wednesday’s episode [MP3]:

I spoke to a former coach yesterday while I was at work who feels this way about the Washington Capitals and Adam Oates. He said to me, “I think what Adam Oates is doing is too sophisticated and confusing for this team. It makes sense to Adam Oates because he could play that way, he could do all those things, he could think the game that way. But I don’t think that that sophistication is right for this team. Maybe what Oates has is a system that is too complicated for the Washington Capitals to grasp.” That was this guy’s theory on what’s happening with Adam Oates and the Capitals.

Greg Wyshynski then appropriately asked Marek to clarify: did he mean the system was “too complicated to learn in so short a time, or too complicated for a group of dummies?” The answer seemed to be the latter.

The argument Marek was representing (but not advocating personally) was that Oates is “coaching too smart for the Washington Capitals.”

Certainly, Adam Oates is a whip-smart guy. He had a top-tier tactical brain for the game as a player, and he is the team’s most articulate coach in forever. But my takeaway from this opinion isn’t that this anonymous coach thinks Oates is too smart, it’s that he thinks the Caps are too dumb.

Let’s talk about intelligence for a second. Intelligence is the collecting and applying of knowledge and skills. To become a professional athlete of any kind requires exceptional intelligence, and ipso facto, every single player on the Capitals is pretty damn smart. Now, that doesn’t mean that they’re gonna drop semiotic theory on you or rattle off the difference between doric and ionic columns, but it does mean that they are surpassingly smart in the domain of hockey. Intelligence is contextual like that.

Instead of the Caps being incapable of ever getting it, perhaps Oates’ system will simply require longer than other systems to learn. Maybe it’s a complicated system, or maybe it’s just contrary to the one they had under Hunter.

Photo credit: Chris Gordon

Photo credit: Chris Gordon

Or the one they had under Boudreau.

Or the one they had under Boudreau before that.

Because yeah: these guys have adapted to four distinct systems in less than three years. Boudreau’s firewagon was a world away from Hunter’s hey-let’s-lose-half-our-games style, and both seem unlike Oates’ system– with its “overload” defense and what I think is a focus on neutral-zone possession. Whether Oates’ system will take a while to learn or if the team has been beleaguered by instability, either explanation seems more plausible to me than the “nu-uh, too dumb” proposal put forth by this nameless former coach.

It takes time to adjust. It takes practice to adjust. Due to the lockout and the abbreviated schedule, the Capitals have had neither. I think that’s a pretty plain explanation for an entirely hypothetical problem (i.e. that Washington’s woes result from systems instead of luck, injury, or the Gillette company). And the implication that the Capitals must be dummies because they’re two wins behind the Rangers (yeah, I’m surprised too) seems provocative and sensational.

I think the hockey world has an anti-European bias. Take a look at the Penguins’ roster over the last few years. Starting either with the Summit Series or Don Cherry’s hatching, the word Canadian always seems to be shorthand for pure.

But the Caps aren’t led by a Canadian; they’re led by a Russian player,  one saddled with a reputation as a caveman. He’s physical, intuitive, and emotional on the ice. Thus he is placed into a media parallax across from Sidney Crosby– who is supposedly quiet and cerebralThese descriptions are reductive, but that’s how folks seem to talk about them: Ovi dumb, Crosby smart.

Crosby is definitely smart, but Ovechkin is also a world-class athlete and possessed of all the intelligence required to become one. Are we to think he won’t be able to figure out the vagaries of breakouts and backchecks, and neither will the team he leads? If so, what systems are suitably simple for Ovechkin and Washington? Do you think they are the dumbest team in the league or just top 5? And that whole Presidents’ Trophy thing was just a freak accident, right? Should they be riding the short bus to games? And wouldn’t they be better off if they were led by a good Canadian boy instead of some ESOL ape who one time deigned to admit that he actually enjoys his job?

Hockey intelligence probably can’t be ascertained by how someone speaks, what schools he went to, or what country he is from. Maybe there’s some feedback loop between reading Anne of Green Gables as a tween and shooting percentage, but I really doubt it. Intelligence is a sneaky, multifaceted thing. I know this because I’m supposed to be a genius according to Stanford and Binet, but earlier today I needed professional plumber to explain to me how a wrench works.

The Capitals aren’t dumb, they’re just disadvantaged– and bound to overcome it. Dumb is a term I’d hope we can reserve for sweeping generalizations and narrow minds.

  • Well said.

  • Have to take comments from cowardly ‘unnamed’ sources with grain of salt. If he/she believed their statement, they would stand by it, not sit in the shadows.

  • It’s not that Ovie is necessarily dumb. Perhaps stubborn is the word? He has been trying the same move since 2010 despite a mountain of evidence suggesting that it no longer works and hasn’t really added any wrinkles to his game. His lack of skills development to make up for what appears to be a lost step doesn’t specifically prove that he’s hockey-dumb, but it isn’t exactly encouraging either.

  • More potshots that I can only assume are from Marc Crawford.

  • Oh I didn’t even think of that. Wow.

  • I’m okay with him being anonymous. Marek was relating the guy’s account– which I totally agree with– but since it wasn’t first person, I don’t have any problem with him not being ID’d.

  • I think Neil did something like that a while back– either here or on WaPo. Consult teh googles!

  • You’re on a roll, Peter. This was a fantastic read. It’s a shame that it even had to be written, really, but I’m glad that it was. I can’t remember where I read it, but Nate Ewell once spoke about how incredibly intelligent Alex Ovechkin is. Nate spent a lot of time close to Ovechkin, and in a lot of different environments— hockey, social, hockeysocial— and he absolutely raved about Ovechkin’s ability to adapt to all. (And nevermind the intelligence it takes for a man to learn a new language, and master it to the point that he’s thrust out into the media by the organization after every game, responding to poorly worded questions, honest questions, and trap questions with equal parts honesty, thoughtfulness, and veteran conniving).

    I think Ewell’s words on Ovechkin might be found in one of Ted Starkey’s books.

  • I think that the impact of lack of practices, both preseason and since the start of games, on performance cannot be overstated. The answer to “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? ” is not “play concerts until it clicks.”
    But what do I know.

  • sean

    I agree with most of this, but how long do we wait till they ‘get it’? 5 more games, 10 more, 38 more?

  • Al

    My take it´s Melrose.

  • My google-fu sucks apparently, all I found of interest was neil’s piece on how the Caps need to win 10 in a row to save the season because of the games all being intra-conference this year. So now I’m more depressed. 😛

  • johnnymorte

    I think Ovi has definitely forgotten what it means to be Ovi, The old Ovi was back against the Penguins and the Flyers, but it seems like every time he tries to get back he doesn’t score for a few games and goes back to the lost and confused Ovi. It’s definitely all in his head. He gets more bad press and scrutiny than anyone in this league. Its up to Oates to get up Ovi’s behind and bring the confidence out of him. If he can continue that for 5 or 6 games he will score again in bunches, I know it. I don’t care if he scored or not…in that Penguins game he was glorious.

  • LadyDi

    Ah, the Pens; Canadian “pure”; but the caveman Russian, Malkin, won the Conn Smythe; how in the world was that allowed? I think the Caps’ hockey brains have been turned inside out; they need to just look at those earlier games to remind them how it was done 4 coaching “minds/su=ystems” ago.

  • KareeLyn

    This article is too sophisticated and confusing for me 😉

  • AFTER LEAFS’ LOSS-I was paying attention:

    Ray in Bowie • 7 days ago
    “The Caps are gonna turn it around, and you’ll be able to say you were there when they did.”
    NOTHING I’ve seen this year remotely supports that prediction.1

    Peter Hassett Mod > Ray in Bowie • 7 days ago

    Then you haven’t been paying attention. Read the post about “freaking out” from 2 days ago. The Caps are having miserable shooting luck, which tends to even out as time goes on. They have good puck possession, which is the single best predictor of success.
    Pay moar attention and hop on the bandwagon.

  • You’re right to call me out, but the Caps puck possession changed. They stopped pressing– they’re losing in a different way every night.

  • I think it’s Engblom or Millbury…

  • Kev

    Meh. I’d skip the big words; looks more like the writer trying to seem intelligent than somebody trying to get information across.

  • That’s a pretense I got over a long time ago. Thanks for the note though.