The statement surprised Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green, even as the words came out of his mouth Sunday. He just couldn’t believe the “clarity” new assistant coach and former Washington defenseman Calle Johansson had been able to provide on just the first day of training camp.
For years, Green and the rest of the Capitals defensemen have been receiving ever-changing messages about how they should play. Former Coach Bruce Boudreau encouraged his defensemen to join the rush, and even lead it sometimes. Dale Hunter, on the other hand, simply wanted his defense to dump the puck into the offensive zone.
Oates and Johansson are searching for a middle ground, with an emphasis on avoiding hits and eliminating doubt.
“There shouldn’t be any questions really about what you should do,” Johansson said following Monday’s practice. “A hockey player likes to be told what to do in a certain way. You want rules. Hockey players, we’re like kids. We want to be told what to do. But without taking away the creativity and the fun and all that stuff, so play within the boundaries.
“We’re never gonna hold you back. I can promise you that.”
Johansson added that Oates has been very detailed with each defenseman about what he hopes their role will do. He also has encouraged Johansson to do the same and invites suggestions from the players, instead of “push everybody in the same corner and say, ‘Do this,’” Johansson noted.
Johansson instructs us about “little things like re-groups where it’s easier for the D to get into the play,” John Carlson said. “Whereas last year, towards the end of the year, we were kind of just playing to get it deep and let the forwards go to work.”
“I’ve learned how to play the game, but they’ve definitely given the green light for defensemen to get up in the play,” Green said.
For all the talk about the offensive jolt a new system could produce, Oates said Monday that the defensemen could be the key to this team’s success. He wants to focus on the transition game, creating turnovers in the neutral zone and pressuring the opponent.
“The system really is based on keeping the D from taking as much contact as possible. They’re the lifeblood of the team. I really believe that,” Oates said. “They’ve got to obviously help us in our own end, but we’ve got to help forwards score. The way teams back check now and play all three zones, our D are vital to us. The system is really based on them.”