BOSTON — There’s a narrow hallway outside the visitors dressing room at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., with barely enough room for two people to walk side by side, but it was there that Washington Capitals Coach Adam Oates pulled his star winger aside Thursday night after an emotional victory.
Oates teased Alex Ovechkin about his shot at the open net that hit the goal post rather than the target, but the conversation quickly widened in scope. Oates demonstrated how Ovechkin might have positioned himself differently on a play, with a shift of his shoulders and arms that mimicked a move on the ice. The two-time Hart Trophy winner nodded, and their discussion continued until the coach was summoned to speak with reporters.
“I’m trying to establish that rapport with him so he trusts me in all the little situations in the game,” Oates said. “And all the stuff we’ve talked about, all the touches and every little play and I was making fun of him that he whiffed it.”
Building that relationship with Ovechkin and every player is what Oates previously called the most challenging aspect of his job. He wants to establish a solid foundation from which to offer praise but also constructive criticism.
But for the Capitals, there may be no more critical alliance than the one that is growing between the first-year coach and the 27-year-old captain.
“We joke around, but if there’s bad stuff, he show me the video and show what I have to do better, exactly what position I have to be,” Ovechkin said Friday in Boston, where the Capitals take on the Bruins Saturday afternoon. “It’s the kind of situation where I feel trust from his side, and I think he knows I’m on his side, too.”
Ovechkin said his relationship with Oates 26 games into this season is similar to the one he had in the first two years of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure in Washington. He’s comfortable talking with Oates about both the good and bad aspects of his play, and he knows that there’s an open line of communication.
There’s a different wrinkle to his relationship with Oates, though. Unlike Boudreau or any other coach Ovechkin has had, Oates had a Hall of Fame career as a player, giving him an intimate understanding of the expectations of an elite player.
“He knows exactly what position I am in right now, what I was,” Ovechkin said. “He gives me great advice; it’s very important for me I have that kind of guy behind me.”
Where Ovechkin is now is an interesting and well-documented place. His point production has steadily declined every year since 2009-10. His 10 goals and 22 points even in a shortened season, which rank 32nd and 41st in the NHL respectively, are far from the pace he set early in his career.
The lack of consistent production has made him a frequent target of criticism by NHL pundits whether on radio appearances or during the intermissions of nationally televised games.
Earlier this week, Oates took exception to the harsh critiques of Ovechkin’s play by NBC analysts Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire. While Oates will readily admit that Ovechkin can improve — he wants to see the winger be involved in the entire game, working to incorporate his teammates in plays while functioning within the five-man unit — he believes there is too much emphasis on any single error.
He considers Ovechkin setting up a teammate, helping to maintain the cycle or setting the tone with physical play just as significant a contribution to the overall team objective as scoring. Oates also takes stock in the effort Ovechkin has put in to switch positions, learn a new system and knows that it’s an ongoing process.
“Does he have responsibility? Yeah. And I want him to keep playing better, because I don’t want Mike Milbury to say that about him. I don’t,” Oates said earlier this week, adding that he takes some of the criticism of Ovechkin personally.
And Oates’s willingness to defend Ovechkin from naysayers isn’t something that goes unnoticed.
“It’s the most important thing that coach has my back,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t care what fans, media guys want to say about my game. It’s most important thing what happen here in our family. It’s good.”