The search for the next head coach of the Washington Capitals came to an end Tuesday with the news that Adam Oates would become the 16th coach in franchise history. The former Devil’s assistant reportedly beat out former Hawks Assistant Mike Havelind and Norfolk Admiral Head Coach John Cooper for the job. Oates has no head coaching experience but has been an assistant coach in both Tampa Bay and New Jersey, culminating in this past seasons run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Oates also had a stellar playing career, ranking 6th on the All Time list for career Assists and 16th overall in Points. And like his predecessor Dale Hunter, Oates is a former Capital, spending 6 years in DC, which continues the recent trend in Washington of bringing old players back into the fold. He was also a key component to the Capitals only trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998.
General Manager George McPhee’s decision to hire Oates will surprise some who maybe expected him to opt for a more experienced coaching, but in reality it was predictable. McPhee has hired 4 coaches before Oates, none of which had any previous NHL head coaching experience. And despite saying he wanting to bring Hunter back, McPhee recently has made comments that seem to say he was not as enamoured by Hunter’s style of play as we thought. Oates has never been a head coach, so it is difficult to judge what his style is but we can look at for a clue is his playing style and the systems he has coached in. As a player, Oates was known as a cerebral player, which manifested itself on the ice as he was one of the most élite playmakers in the league during his career. As a top center, Oates also needed to be and was defensively responsible, which is also a hallmark of cerebral hockey players. In terms of system, the previously trapping Devils became a much more offensive and balanced under DeBoer and by association Oates, while still stressing defense. All this seems to point to the Capitals hiring a down the middle coach, which seems to be what is needed following the extremes of Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter, while acknowledging the offensive tendencies of the roster. Oates has also been described by past teammates and players like Petr Bondra, Jeff Halpern, and Danius Zubrus as being a brilliant offensive mind, a man’s man coach, and an excellent communicator. All good signs for a first time head coach.
Another interesting angle to take on this hire is the Ovechkin factor. As an assistant in New Jersey, Oates had at least some role in transforming Ilya Kovalchuk. The Russian Kovalchuk had always been a goal scorer, but saw his numbers drop as his career went on. He also had a stigma for being lazy on defense. Sounds a lot like the criticisms of Ovechkin. But, as a Devil, Kovalchuk learned to play a more complete game on the entire ice surface and even saw time on the penalty kill. Kovalchuk also started to use his teammates more in the offensive zone rather than going one on one all the time. One has to assume that Oates had a role in remaking Kovalchuk into a complete player and that he can to do the same for Ovechkin who finds himself in almost the exact spot Kovalchuk was in. And if that happens, look out.
There are some question marks though with the hire. Oates has never won a Stanley Cup in any capacity and the Capitals are desperate. Maybe it would have made more sense to bringing someone who has done it before (although his run with the Devils last year should ease that concern a bit). In addition, all accounts from former players about how great a coach he is relates to him as an assistant. The assistant is always he favorite coach and no one knows how he will operate as the head man. For all the deserved accolades, there’s no doubt there is a great deal of uncertainty in this hire, which could spell trouble for a team with the aspirations of the Washington Capitals.
With that said, Oates track record would seem to say he can do the job as he has seen success as a player and assistant. And to make McPhee look even better, he can now say his new Head Coach is a Hall of Famer, since about 2 hours after he was hired, Adam Oates was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Safe to say Oates and the Caps have had a better day than you have had.