Nearly thirteen years after Oates followed Hunter as a captain, he has been named the Capitals’ head coach a month and a half after Hunter stepped down from the position.
Oates, who spent the past two seasons as an assistant in New Jersey, was named the 16th coach in franchise history Tuesday, making him the fifth bench boss during General Manager George McPhee’s 15-year tenure. All of McPhee’s hires have been first-time NHL head coaches, and the past two, Oates and Hunter, have been former Capitals captains.
The coaching announcement kicked off a banner day for Oates, 49, who was elected to the Hockey Hall of Famehours later.
“Absolutely fantastic day. I don’t know if that’s happened before,” said Oates, who addressed the hire briefly during a Hall of Fame conference call. He and McPhee are scheduled to appear at an introductory news conference in Washington on Wednesday afternoon.
“I’ve got to go out and play lotto, I think. Just two huge honors. Obviously, I’m very excited about the coaching job and to be called to the Hall of Fame. It’s just a special, special day for us.”
While this is Oates’s first head coaching job at any level, those who know the Ontario native well believe he is not only ready for the promotion, but that he will excel in his new role.
Oates, who played six seasons of his 19-year NHL career with the Capitals, is known as a detail-oriented players’ coach. His former teammates praised his communication skills and cerebral approach, saying that even as a player Oates would help others correct subtle parts of their game.
“He has the most elite hockey mind I’ve ever come across,” said former Capital Jeff Halpern, who played alongside Oates for three years in Washington and also had him as an assistant coach in Tampa Bay during the 2009-10 season.
“I’ve always been blown away by how hockey smart he is,” Halpern said. “He has a way of not only identifying the little things but seeing the big picture of the game as well and how it all fits together. He was able to take quick snapshots — he was always able to recall a shift or a play, not just his, but the whole game, and take in what was going on around him. To be able to identify those things as a player or coach and analyze them to improve is extremely valuable.”
The Capitals employed playing styles on extreme ends of the spectrum under the previous two coaches — run and gun with Bruce Boudreau, and low-risk, defense-first with Hunter — it’s believed Oates will bridge the gap with a style that allows the Capitals’ skilled players to perform without sacrificing defensive responsibility.
Earlier this month, McPhee said that while he wanted to see Washington maintain the level of commitment it displayed during the 2012 postseason under Hunter, he sought a more up-tempo pace moving forward.
“Last year we had guys like [Alex Ovechkin] and and Nicky [Backstrom], Marcus Johansson and Alex Semin — our offensive guys — who often felt like they were a little handcuffed,” said associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig, who played with Oates for six seasons. “Oatesy should be that balance between Bruce, who was so offensive, and Dale, who was so defensive.”
It’s understandable Oates would have offensive leanings. His 1,079 assists rank sixth all-time, and he finished his playing career with 1,420 points in 1,337 games, totals that played a large role in earning him a spot in the 2012 Hall of Fame induction class, along with Pavel Bure, Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin.
Oates’s experience as an elite NHL talent as a player should also help him bond with Washington stars, particularly Ovechkin, who after being benched routinely by Hunter in favor of more defensively sound players is happy to hear Oates likes offense.
“It’s not blocking the shots and it’s not dump and chase,” Ovechkin told reporters in Chicago, where he is attending players’ association board meetings this week. “Any system that I played, I learn a lot. I’m an offensive guy, it’s no secret to nobody. I’m pretty excited and very happy to hear the Caps signed that kind of guy that likes offense. But again, you play offense, but you don’t forget about defense.
“I think coaches and players have to have good relationship, especially in the kind of situation where we have right now,” Ovechkin added. “It’s nice.”