The Micromanager: Adam Oates’s Downfall

Breakdown Day (12 of 12)

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.

  • John M

    I’m late to the party here, but awfully nice to open the site and see this post as the top one. I really feared Ted L. would let McPhee and Oates talk him into how they could turn this around for next year. The bottom line for me was–McPhee and Oates were not on the same page. The Erat trade was a disaster, not because Erat was necessarily a bad player, but because of how Oates essentially wasted it and drove him away for pennies on the dollar. And then to repeat it with Penner pretty much proved this wasn’t going to work. There were plenty of reasons that Oates and McPhee “earned” their pink slips, but the bottom line was that they could not keep the status quo, because the status was not quo.

  • Camillia Gomez

    “Ian Oland made me write this.” Hahaha!!

  • Myan

    I remember seeing a video last summer where Oates was telling Wilson that he should change his stick lie. I didn’t think much of it then but my boyfriend plays hockey and he just remarked “whoa, that’s going to take Wilson a while to get used to!” In retrospect, we should have recognized Oates’ obsessive tinkering then. I don’t understand the coach asking a player to change such a significant part of his game, especially when it’s a part that got him to the NHL. All of this tinkering was supposedly to tap into the player’s “natural instinct” but it seems counter-intuitive to change something a guy’s been doing or using since childhood.

  • OlietheGoalie

    Hopefully change for the good is coming soon. Both are good men, but both showed they were in over their head. McPhee showed it years ago.

  • In my mind, Chris’s story here and Peter’s story here really cover everything for me on why Oates just could not come back.

  • Bev Miller Bellamy

    Doesn’t it make sense that a coach should “capitalize” on the players strengths and not try to change the style? Wouldn’t that be more successful, or is Oates just offended by the obvious??? Don’t let the screen door hit ya Oates/McPhee…

  • Brittany

    When do we get Binky back?

  • 70Caps
  • alchemistmuffin

    Maybe. Maybe not. Time will tell

  • 70Caps

    How do I post a video?

  • 70Caps
  • Bugs Fire

    Full reset is probably the best option. I am just very disappointed that Oates has failed – he seemed to have the smarts to turn into a great coach. It is actually a sad day, as it reminds us that two more seasons were wasted on failed experiment. My favourites are both Capitals and Ovie, and while Caps have the eternity to turn things around, Ovie’s clock is ticking.

  • VeggieTart

    You would think. But as the article said, he’s a micromanager and has to tinker with everything.

    I’d like to know how knowing “D” means you know goaltending.

  • Langway

    Agreed. But for what it’s worth, a Russian friend of mine who knows both Ovechkin and Semin pretty well has told me several times that the players are/were willing put up with Oates’ tinkering because they respect him as a HOF player and someone who knows what it’s like to be on the ice. Conversely, they lacked the same respect for Gabby when he tried to offer the least of suggestions because, in their eyes, he didn’t possess the same NHL-proven chops as an Oates or even Hunter. Not sure how much of this may or may not be true, but it seems to me that Oates is a terrific Assistant Coach, but simply can’t manage a game in sort of forest from the trees kind of way.

  • RESmith

    My Thoughts exactly. Oates was a perfectionist and it served him well both as a player and an assistant coach. However, an assistant coach has the luxury of focusing on specific details to help individual players but a head coach needs to step back and trust his assistants to tend to the details so that he can keep his focus on the overall team play. The Dave Prior quote from Katie Carrera’s late season article was pretty damning and was obviously part of a trend. Bringing in an experienced assistant in Tim Hunter was a smart move to help a first time head coach but I suspect Oates drove him away because the micro-managing did not let him do his job.

  • dcv

    What’s interesting is that in St. Louis, they did the same thing to Ryan Miller, and now everyone is blaming Ryan Miller. Messing with goalies during the season is a losing proposition, unless your name is Patrick Roowah.

    Anyway, best of luck to Oates and GMGM. I don’t understand all the celebration over their demise, especially with regards to a guy like Oates who was a Caps HOF player, but I do agree with their departure. I’m sure Oates will learn from this experience just like BB did, and some other team will eventually benefit from it.

  • Myan

    Yeah I don’t think the Head Coach should be the one suggesting equipment changes to the players. That seems like an assistant coach’s job. I want the Head Coach focused on the big picture like whether or not this defensive scheme coupled with that breakout scheme will work. In all seriousness though, I don’t understand wanting every player to change his equipment! Let the boys play with what they’re comfortable with so they can focus on making your system/plans work!

  • Justin Collins

    Really no evidence to show that the switch to RW was actually a good thing. Ovi’s PP goals are back up, his even strength goals are still around where they were in his slump years. I’m hoping the new coach at least tries moving him back to LW. If nothing else, maybe a couple Rocket Richards got his confidence back where it needs to be and going back to LW maybe he’ll go back to scoring at even strength as much as he used to. If he does, and keeps scoring on the PP like he has been, he’ll win the Richard by even more than he did this year.