Adam Oates handles media, but can he turn the Washington Capitals into champions?

Adam Oates deflected a lot of pucks to his teammates during a 19-year NHL career. So it’s hardly surprising he can change the direction of much slower questions from a much slower media contingent with equal aplomb.

Oates didn’t avoid difficult questions Wednesday at his introductory news conference so much as answer them without answering them. This is a skill usually but not always more often seen among the more politically minded in Washington. He is going to fit right in.

He didn’t want to name a starting goalie – understandable, since he hasn’t had either in camp yet, but given Braden Holtby’s playoff performance, still a little surprising. Later, he gave an almost imperceptible nod to Holtby, then went neutral again. He has one skill rarely seen in D.C. – he can backpedal on skates.

Asked about what he’ll do with the Caps’ system, which already has undergone more changes in the past 12 months than Tiger Woods’s swing, he was quick to point out the good. “I saw a much bigger commitment to the little things” in the playoffs, he said. “No reason to change that.”

And of course, there were the inevitable questions about Alex Ovechkin. Letting him run amok didn’t work. Reining him in (and sitting him on the bench) didn’t work – or at least, it worked at times but made for the most unhappy Russian working in America since Boris encountered Moose and Squirrel. What did Oates say about that?

“I’m sure when Alex gets back to town for training camp we’re going to sit down and talk about his game… I still think the physical element of his game is unprecedented. … I think he’s a special player. In terms of adding a little bit to his game, I think I can. He’s got to earn my trust as a coach, along with the rest of the guys.”

Then he added:

“Even the superstars need to be coached once in awhile.”

That’s it. That was the closest Oates came to controversy. Not bad for a rookie. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis wasn’t as circumspect. He said little, but he did say this: “We have to do better in the playoffs. We have to win the Stanley Cup.”

Oates can’t say he wasn’t warned.

(It is Oatsey or Oatsie? You have to like a coach who comes with his own hockey nickname – that is, adding an “ie” sound to the end of some part of his name. My quibble is with spelling. I don’t like Oatsey. It reads like a breakfast cereal from the sixties, one you’d eat while watching Moose and Squirrel. My research shows that 98 percent of all hockey players have a nickname ending in some derivation of “ie” – and no one likes the other two percent.)

But Oatsie likes Ovie – seriously, are these grown men or is this a show on “Nickelodeon”? or both? – although he doesn’t really know him yet. Asked what he liked about Ovie, Oatsie said he liked to see Ovie not only gets excited by his own goals, but by his teammates’ goals as well. What a safe, non-controversial answer! Then George McPhee had to ruin it by adding: “To finish that answer, he still might have to dump it in and block a shot once in awhile.”

Meow! (Or whatever the male equivalent of that sound might be. Is there one? There should be. Because damn! Unless this is a show on Nickelodeon. Then it’s perfect!)

Maybe McPhee got it right this time; maybe Oates is the one who can see the Matrix. I don’t know Oates from Adam, but I hope so because no fan wants to see his franchise burn bridges with former stars. Not that the Hunter bridge is burned. A presidential order wouldn’t have kept him in D.C. He wanted to return to minor league hockey in Canada. This is not the minor leagues, and it sure isn’t Canada. He’s happier now, I’m sure. (A report out of Ontario says that he smiled the other day. A tourist from Saskatoon captured the image on his camera before fainting, it was quickly pressed onto a new loonie, replacing the Queen, and a chicken in Thunder Bay laid a perfect Western omelette. True. Story.)

Oates isn’t that guy. He seems like he’ll be affable and honest with the players. That’s the key. How he answers the media’s questions doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this old world. He’s been in the Cup finals twice – once with the Caps in 1998, and this year with the Devils – and has no hardware to show for it. Like Leonsis and McPhee and the players and the fans, he’s hungry.

But hunger isn’t enough. The Caps’ playoff runs these past five years could be called “The Hunger Games,” but without the archery and the worldwide box office gross. Wanting it isn’t enough. McPhee and Leonsis believe Oates was a pretty good on-ice coach when he was still a player for the Caps; they think he’s only gotten better. We’ll find out if they’re right soon enough.

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