Gone. (Photo: Chris Gordon)
Adam Oates is a smart man. After going undrafted out of college, he turned into a Hall of Fame player. It wasn’t his skill that made him an NHL success, but his elite ability to notice things other people didn’t. Oates had a coaching mind in a player’s body.
“If Adam notices something in a game, he adjusts right away,” Ron Wilson, then the Caps coach, told SI in 2001. “Even if it’s only how somebody is holding his stick. He takes the information, processes it, and puts it to use. The thing about Adam is that he assimilates a lot of stuff at once. Most guys might see one or two things, and the rest is a blur.”
However, years later, when Oates became head coach of the Capitals, that obsession with improving individual players would undermine the team as a whole.
Five years after retiring from the NHL, Oates was named an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He set to work by tinkering with forward Martin St. Louis. The next year, Oates was snapped up by the New Jersey Devils. At that time, Ilya Kovalchuk had seven 30 goal seasons and a Rocket Richard Trophy on his resume. The Devils had just spent $100 million and had been drawn into a war with the NHL to sign him. But Oates, a second year assistant coach, set out to change Kovalchuk’s position. It worked. In his off time, Oates analyzed the sticks of his players, looking for any small adjustment that he thought would improve their game.
Oates, by most accounts, was an excellent assistant coach. He made star players better and helped devise successful power plays. On June 26, 2012, the Washington Capitals made him their third head coach in less than a year. The same day, he was inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame.
Oates’s first year was shortened by the lockout but the future looked bright. Alex Ovechkin had gone stale under Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter. In just two seasons, the Capitals captain had been transformed from 50-goal dynamo to a maligned has-been.
“[A]ll the candidates said, ‘I can get Ovi going,’” then Capitals general manger George McPhee said of his coaching search. “But Oates was the only one who showed how he’d do it: ‘I’d switch his position from left wing to right.’ He brought video of how you do it. He’d worked on position changes with Martin St. Louis and Ilya Kovalchuk.”
When Ovechkin first made the change in the winter of 2013, he was terrible. Slowly, though, Ovi got accustomed to the new position. After a horrible start, the Ovechkin ended the season as the league’s MVP. The Capitals made the playoffs for the seventh year in a row.
Oates’s decision to fiddle with Ovechkin was brilliant and for the time being saved the Capitals. Oates, though, didn’t restrict his changes to big-ticket items with huge payoffs. Instead, he couldn’t free himself from his days as a player. Oates was a micromanager and he brought that mindset behind the Capitals bench.
While Oates was an Ovechkin-whisperer, the adjustments he made with other players were less effective. He changed the stick of almost every Capital. When asked about their switches, many players sounded enthused. Oates wanted to help them become better players. However, when pressed further, they admitted it took time to get used to their new equipment. They were being asked to change their most fundamental tool, something many had played with since they were teenagers. When Eric Fehr was switched from left wing to center in the fall, he needed a new stick. It took him weeks before he found one that worked.
“It’s not ideal, but it’s the way it’s going to be for now,” Fehr told me.
Next, Oates moved to goaltending. Coming into the 2013-14 season, Braden Holtby was the team’s young, proven netminder, set to compete with Michal Neuvirth for starts. Holtby played an extremely aggressive style and it sometimes got him into trouble. However, Holtby was exactly the kind of goaltender you want: someone who could steal games in the playoffs, especially when he played consistently. He had a lifetime postseason save percentage of .931 with a goals against average just over two. While his consistency in the regular season could be improved, Holtby was not a severely flawed goaltender. Nevertheless, Oates wanted a change. He thought Holtby needed to play closer to the net, relying more on positioning than athleticism. Oates tried to get goalie coach Dave Prior to implement the switch. When Prior refused, Oates’s friend Olie Kolzig took over the job.
“I’m a head coach of a team: My job is to know every position,” Oates said recently. “I never played D but I know D, so I know goaltending.”
Holtby, however, struggled, posting a save percentage .915 and a goals against average of 2.85 this season. Holtby needed starts to work out his style, but after a bad winter, rookie Philipp Grubauer took over his starting spot. From the middle of December to the middle of January, Holtby played in just three games, all five goal losses. When Neuvirth was traded away and Grubauer was finally sent down to Hershey, it looked as if Holtby would finally get time to work out the kinks in net. Not so. The team traded for Jaroslav Halak at the deadline. Before pissing off Oates, Halak made the majority of starts.
“Nothing against what the philosophy was, it just didn’t coincide with my personality and my natural instincts,” Holtby said on breakdown day. “The changes led to a lot of second guessing myself and over-thinking things.”
Finally, Oates had a religious devotion to having players skate on their natural wing. He would avoid putting someone on their off-wing at nearly all costs. However, many players, especially Europeans, had never played on their strong side. Switching Ovechkin to the right wing was the correct move, but mainly because his moves had become so predictable. Ovechkin’s goals, however, still came from the left. Other things being equal, skaters probably should play on their natural side. For most players, though, it represents a big adjustment in pursuit of modest gain. Still, Oates would often play a markedly worse defensemen over an established player just so he could have “balance” on the wings. That’s likely the reason why Dmitry Orlov was buried in the AHL at the start of the season.
“I still feel more comfortable on the right, that’s understandable, I played there my whole life; but if the coach thinks it’s better when everybody plays on their strong side, I understand that,” Orlov told RMNB’s Igor Kleyner in November. “Every coach has his own perspective on that; our job as players is to execute what the coach says.”
In the end, Oates’s tweaks will likely make the players more well-rounded. In the short term, however, the changes made the team worse. At any given time, players at every position were struggling to get used to new sticks, different wings, and radical adjustments to their playing styles. Oates was also constantly scrambling the lines, coming up with nonsensical combinations.
The team was perpetually in a state of change. It showed. After 137 games as coach, the Washington Capitals fired Oates, along with McPhee. They broke the news unceremoniously with a Saturday morning press release.
Ian Oland made me write this.