Photo: Alex Brandon
In Adam Oates’ fourth game as head coach for the Washington Capitals, he put Alex Ovechkin on the top line with Joey Crabb and Jay Beagle. We should have seen trouble coming then.
Later that season, the Capitals narrowly made the playoffs and got booted in the first round. In 2013-14, with a full preseason under his belt, Adam Oates has led the Capitals to their worst season in almost a decade. They’ve got less than a 1-in-10 chance of making the playoffs and an astronomically small chance of doing anything meaningful once they get there.
If you measure the Caps by their shot differential, Adam Oates’ team is closer to the fire-sale 2003-04 team than they are to the scoar-moar-goals heyday of 2008-09. On the other hand, Alex Ovechkin is likely to win yet another Rocket Richard Trophy and the Washington power play is the best in the league.
In this article, I will carefully measure both the arguments for and against the continued employment of Adam Oates as head coach of the Washington Capitals.
I’ll begin by listing criticisms. Everyone reading this will have to choose how to weigh each item, and that’s totally fine. My intention is to offer a litany for critique and evaluation. If you have items you think I’ve missed, or you think something I’ve proposed is incomplete or invalid, let me know in comments below.
1. Paired Alex Ovechkin with Jay Beagle with the season on the line.
Like driving a Mercedes-Benz SL65 to pick up groceries. Together, Beagle and Ovi were roughly equal to Steve Ott in puck possession. Ovechkin did not score a single point while they were together.
Ovechkin suffered at even strength all season, but never more than with Jay Beagle. Oates’ line decisions at the end of March forced the team to win by lucky bounces, good goaltending, and special teams–rather than the stuff a real playoff run is built on. The lines were so poorly constructed that someone improved them just by sorting them by jersey number.
The lack of even-strength scoring support for Alex Ovechkin (whose on-ice partners have shot under 4 percent) is perhaps most upsetting because it has granted fodder to the lazy hockey personalities who market in character assassination (“specialty act“) and hyperbole (“one-dimensional hockey player“). No, on second thought, the losing was worse.
2. Made Tom Wilson one of the most disadvantaged rookies in years.
Despite playing every game this season, Wilson got very little ice time and had some of the worst teammates in the entire league. His role as the team’s de facto fighter (142 PIMs) cost him ice time and further hindered his development. He has scored 3 goals and 7 assists in 574 minutes on ice.
If a team isn’t winning, the expectation is that they’ll at least develop young talent. It’s hard to argue that has happened for Tom Wilson this year. Actually, what little development Wilson got out of 2013-14, he seems to have got by shirking his assigned role. Good for him.
3. Played Aaron Volpatti after it was clear he wasn’t cut out for the NHL.
Volpatti’s shot-attempt differential indicated sub 40-percent puck possession, a threshold for the league’s worst players and goons. Yet Oates suited up Volpatti for 40 games and 300 minutes. Both Oates and Volpatti should be grateful for Braden Holtby and the other Caps goaltenders, who saved 95.2 percent of shots in that time– keeping Volpatti from costing the team even more.
Adam Oates had no business playing Aaron Volpatti as much as he did, especially when he had much better options in the press box. For example…
4. Scratched Eric Fehr for most of November.
Fehr was a healthy scratch from November 2nd until the 23rd.
When he came back, Fehr went on to be the sturdy center of the team’s best line with Chimera and Ward, and one of the best possession players on the team in addition to its all-time outdoor goal-scoring leader.
Fehr has 12 goals and 15 assists this season– nearly all of them during 5v5. On a team barely hanging on during even strength, Fehr has been excellent– and Oates didn’t even want him.
5. Failed to recognize that Alex Urbom and Connor Carrick were outmatched.
Oates had already seen Urbom play 13 games in New Jersey, but he needed 20 games this season to realize Urbom was in way over his head. Urbom was in the 9th percentile of defenders in puck possession, by far the worst among the Caps.
Carrick fared slightly better, but he gave up an abundance of scoring chances– getting outscored 21 to 11 during 5v5. To make matters worse, Carrick was paired with the staggeringly slow (and probably injured) John Erskine. When Carskine was playing– which they did against weak competition– the Caps bled shots.
Despite that, Carrick played 30 games for the Caps before Oates finally gave him a break.
6. Sent one of the team’s best 4D, Nate Schmidt, to Hershey.
Schmidt generated individual offense and made a great pairing with Mike Green before Orlov showed up. He was one of just five Caps players to outshoot the competition during even strength. Of all the rookies on the Caps defense (which is McPhee’s problem, not Oates’), Schmidt was the best. But for some reason, Oates was done with him after December 13.
Schmidt made one more appearance in January before getting hurt in Hershey last month. On a team with an ever-changing roster of defenders, the best of the bunch somehow failed to register with Oates.
7. Kept Dmitry Orlov stuck between Hershey and Washington for two months.
The Caps defense was atrocious in November, but Oates said they were “playing good.” Instead of adding Dmitry Orlov, Oates stuck to his guys. That meant Orlov had to drive between Hershey and DC every few days for two months. We later learned McPhee was satisfying a contract requirement by calling Orlov up despite Oates’ refusal to play him.
Orlov requested a trade at the end of November, one of
four three Caps players to do so this season. Instead of leaving, he played the next day. Despite Oates’ protestations, Orlov quickly became one of the team’s best defensemen– albeit with flaws.
With Urbom, Carrick, Orlov, and Schmidt, we’ve got a telling pattern of Oates’ failure to evaluate talent among the defense, which was the Caps’ biggest weakness this season.
8. Stuck with the Black Hole Line way too long.
Brooks Laich tried to play through a groin injury this year. He did not succeed. As Laich struggled, Oates paired him with Troy Brouwer, where the pair got outshot and outscored. Brouwer’s crash-the-net instincts did not blend well with Laich’s hobbled speed and declining possession, but Oates nonetheless kept them together for 30% of the season.
Brouwer’s production improved after the breakup, mostly due to the power play, which truly is awesome.
9. Wasted Martin Erat on the fourth line.
When George McPhee acquired Martin Erat last April, he explicitly called the Nashville winger a top-six player. It seems Oates and McPhee were not on the same page about that. Instead of getting top-six minutes, Erat got less ice time than any forward except Volpatti, Wilson, and Beagle.
In spite of how Oates used him, Erat was one of the team’s best possession players and even tied for third in even-strength assists (on a bad even-strength team) while playing fewer minutes with inferior players.
Oates eventually pushed Erat out, sending his asset value plummeting. George McPhee traded Martin Erat for a few minor league players and a middle round draft pick— a stark drop-off from the highly rated prospect given up for Erat in 2013.
10. Wasted Dustin Penner on the fourth line.
This is like Erat, Part II. After acquiring Penner at the deadline, McPhee went as far to call him a replacement for Erat on the left side, albeit with more net presence. McPhee declined to say if Oates would play Penner on the top line, but he probably didn’t expect what would actually happen.
Penner has played under 12 minutes more often than not, making him a fourth liner. He has scored one goal and two assists in his 165 minutes, less than ten of which he’s shared with Alex Ovechkin. That is not the usage that fans expected from the big deadline pick-up, and one has to wonder if McPhee didn’t see it coming either.
11. Implemented suffocating rules for defensive breakouts.
George McPhee built a defensive corps of mobile defensemen, but Adam Oates wanted his blueliners to play a stricter style that did not match their talents. The coach told Ed Frankovic that he instructs his defenders to pass the puck within five feet of getting it during breakouts. That’s a very big adjustment for guys like Green, Carlson, and Orlov, who were first scouted for their skills at carrying the puck through the neutral zone.
That’s one small reason for the decline of the Caps defense, but it’s also emblematic of the kind of rigidity Oates has imposed to the team’s detriment and without any perceptible benefit. The Caps’ neutral-zone play– full of turnovers, odd-man rushes against, and missed passes– is one of their biggest flaws. It’s also the direct product of Oates’ systems decisions.
12. Presided over the decline of John Carlson and Karl Alzner from a shutdown pairing.
The defensive pair known as Carlzner was a possession monster at the end of the Boudreau administration. Under Hunter, they faltered, along with everyone else, but Oates brought renewed hope Carlson and Alzner could return to glory. Instead of developing as talented young defenders, Alzner and Carlson have regressed— the opposite of what Oates’ hands-on, tactics-focused coaching was supposed to do.
Carlson and Alzner eat up big, tough minutes for the Caps, but they’re trending in the wrong direction. There’s no reason to think they’ll do any better playing under the same system or coach.
13. Played goalies in back-to-back situations.
This one is easy. Goalies in back-to-back situations perform worse. You might see a goalie do great in B2Bs sometimes, even getting a shutout from time to time, but overall they save fewer shots when they haven’t been rested.
Oates played Braden Holtby on consecutive days three times this season. He played Grubauer and Halak in back-to-backs once each.
There are few cases when statistics are as instructive as this, and yet Oates ignored it. Riding the hot hand caused a bunch of problems for the team– especially in December– but it also further exposed the team’s head coach as a stubborn man unswayed by analysis.
14. Ran Michal Neuvirth out of town.
Michal Neuvirth struggled to stay healthy this season. Once he was ready to play, most expected him to take some starts from Braden Holtby, who began struggling in December. Instead, Oates played Hershey’s Philipp Grubauer for most of the month– alienating in the process both the team’s then-franchise goalie in Holtby and his backup, Neuvy.
Already a below-average goaltender with a history of injuries, Neuvirth’s value as an asset sunk even further by the vote of no-confidence from his coach and his resulting trade request (again: one of
four three this year). Despite that, George McPhee managed an impressive return, snagging Jaroslav Halak from Buffalo at the deadline.
15. Surrendered two-goal leads like crazy.
No lead has been safe under the Oates regnum. Per Adam Vingan, thirteen times the Caps have blown two-goal leads. Something about Adam Oates’ direction has made the Caps a singularly easy team to catch up to. Maybe it’s their weak possession (43 percent) when they have the lead or some poorly timed goaltending troubles. Either way: a Caps lead means less under Oates than ever before. They did, after all, blow 40 percent of them.
Part of that may be due to the next item.
16. Allowed a startling number of goals against after scoring.
Again, Adam Vingan of NBC has been all over this. The Capitals have allowed a stunning 28 goals within a couple minutes of scoring, making them one of the most vulnerable teams in the league when they should have been playing confidently.
In my own analysis in early December, I discovered the Caps were playing around Sabres-level hockey in the moments and minutes after they score– plus their goaltender’s save percentage dropped hard.
However we interpret the Caps’ penchant for nullifying their own goals, it’s definitely evidence that something is systemically wrong with how they’re playing.
17. Played down to weaker teams.
Even when the Caps were declining under Dale Hunter, they made the postseason by beating up on the weaker teams of the Southeast Division. Under Adam Oates, there’s a distressing pattern of the team playing down to the level of inferior competition.
It happened against the Oilers in October. It happened against the Senators in November. Really, much of the team’s first two months was spent blowing games against teams that we thought were inferior.
Three losses to Carolina, three more to Ottawa, two to Buffalo– the Capitals wasted the games they needed to make a meaningful playoff push.
18. Fielded the worst penalty kill in the league.
There was a moment early in the season when the Caps had the best PK in the league. We knew then it wouldn’t last, but we didn’t know how bad it would get.
When on the penalty kill, the Caps allow more unblocked shot attempts than any other team in the league– by far. The only reason the team isn’t dead last in PK% is because their goalies have been magnificent (despite whatever the general manager and coach may say about them). Still, the 50 goals they’ve surrendered when a man down has cost them huge, and the tactician standing behind the bench is responsible for that failure.
19. Changed Braden Holtby for the worse.
Caps franchise goalie Braden Holtby had never even peeked under a .920 save percentage until this season. His early numbers were a small sample, but they were encouraging– until the 2013-14 campaign.
Holtby’s drop in save percentage might just be regression to a more reasonable mean or statistical noise, but Japers Rink makes the compelling case that Olie Kolzig’s tampering with Holtby’s style may have led to the decline. J.P. cites a Kolzig interview in which the goalie coach describes his instructions for Holtby to sit back in net, which may have been the operative factor in Holtby’s pedestrian .911 this season.
Whether or not Kolzig has tried to fix something that wasn’t broken at the time, it certainly seems to be now. And if the solution is more playing time, the Caps need to place a higher priority on getting Holtby those minutes than they have over the past month or so. Time to coach, coach.
While Olie was the architect of that decision, Oates is accountable for what his subordinates do. The same goes for Calle Johansson’s choices as defensive coach.
20. Failed to analyze his own team.
If there’s any overarching pattern to Adam Oates’ failures as head coach, it’s his reluctance to make changes despite overwhelming evidence: Beagle-Ovi, Brouwer-Laich, Volpatti-Wilson, lay-back Holtby, bad breakouts, overperforming bottom-sixers, and back-to-back goalies. These problems were apparent and yet they languished while the season slipped away.
Even for amateurs like me, there are mountains of data available to define those problems and suggest their solutions. To a professional team with an analytics budget, there’s even more.
And yet, Adam Oates has revealed himself to be an anti-intellectual dilettante when it comes to analytics– to an extent that I think he’s no longer capable of performing his job competently.
For example, Oates was quoted as saying Alex Ovechkin’s line was on the ice for more scoring chances against Nashville than what was actually possible.
— Peter Hassett (@peterhassett) April 1, 2014
In actuality, Alex Ovechkin’s line was on the ice for only five shot attempts total, only four of them unblocked. Even if every one of those attempts was from a dangerous scoring area, the stat Oates cited would still be impossible. Perhaps that’s an innocent counting error or just a poorly defined stat, but it’s eerily similar to the type of patently wrong shot-quality attitudes that have sunk the Maple Leafs in the last few years. That should terrify Caps ownership.
There are other examples where one hopes Oates was merely tongue-tied, like when he told Katie Carrera he didn’t care about the team’s even-strength problems because production is “kind of a weird statistic.” In fact, production is measured in goals, which are the things that decide games and should be of paramount interest to a coach.
That could be considered an anomaly, except it’s not alone.
— Sky Kerstein (@SkyKerstein) April 1, 2014
The problem with that statement is that, while true, it’s indicative of a cynical approach towards data-driven analysis that is unfounded. There are way more charlatans in the anti-data crowd than there are among the geeks, and any numbers nerd with his or her salt is dedicated to exposing truth– not advancing an agenda or personal brand.
So when Oates rails against possession metrics (like he did after the Ottawa game), it’s not because the stats are flawed. It’s because someone has poisoned his ear and he’s not curious to learn more. Numbers-based analysis is critical to a viable championship-contending team. Once Oates exposed himself as hostile to that intellectual curiosity, my confidence in him as a competent head coach was devastated.
(For the record, stats are flawed, which is why context is key, regression analysis is crucial, and more investment into data capture is needed.)
I told you this was an article discussing both the case for and against Adam Oates. So here’s the other side of the argument:
The power play is really good, the third line is okay, and he looks nice in a three-piece suit.
The Capitals are not going to improve with Adam Oates at the wheel. He’s not the full extent of the team’s problems, and management absolutely is accountable for failures both in coaching and in construction, but I find it impossible to imagine a Cup-contending Caps team with Oates at the helm.
The Capitals have to fire Adam Oates.
Big thanks to ExtraSkater, Behind The Net, Hockey Analysis, Adam Vingan, Japers Rink, Katie Carrera, Ed Frankovic, The Peerless, Chris Gordon, and Ian Oland for all the work cited in here.