It is a rare moment when Adam Oates’s players aren’t on his mind. He could be out to dinner or watching television at home, and suddenly a new detail will come into focus.
“Something will pop in my head, and I’ll go, ‘Oh, I’ve got to talk to Chimmer about this tomorrow.’ And it could have been a play from three games ago,” Oates said. “You’re watching a hockey game, and a situation arises and it’s like, ‘Oh my, I’ve got to go to Jack Hillen about that, or Greenie about this.’ Or, ‘I wonder if Greenie’s watching that right now. If not, I’ve got to show him that play.’ ”
He keeps track of the thoughts and suggestions everywhere. They’re on his iPhone, iPad and handwritten on the scores of notepads he keeps at the office, in his car and at home.
“My wife is sick of it,” Oates said. “I’ve got more journals than you can shake a stick at.”
Details are everything to Oates; understanding the how and why of each mistake and triumph on the ice is critical to his mission as the Washington Capitals’ head coach.
Last year, Oates’s first, the focus was on installing a new system and building relationships. As the Capitals open the 2013-14 season on Tuesday night in Chicago, Oates wants to delve deeper into the intricacies of every player’s game.
“He always comes up with something. He always sees those little details that maybe you as a player don’t always think about,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “How you can get a shot off quicker, how to catch the puck — it’s always something that, when he tells you, you try it and it really works.”
Some of Oates’s suggestions are subtle tweaks, such as switching to a new stick, and others are more profound changes — an entirely new position. But there’s no one in the Capitals’ dressing room who hasn’t experienced the hands-on style of Oates and the rest of his coaching staff.
“They work with the minor league guys, they work with all of us. They care about everyone,” veteran defenseman John Erskine said. “They’ll teach Ovi something, but move on down the line with all of us. Even in the NHL, guys are willing to learn, and we’ve got a Hall of Famer in Oatesy and [assistant coach] Calle [Johansson] who want to teach us. We’ll listen.”
Oates’s largest project by far is the continued evolution of Alex Ovechkin as a right wing. After a lifetime of playing on the left side, Ovechkin went along with his rookie coach’s belief last season that playing on his strong side would inject new possibilities into his game.
Even after Ovechkin recorded 56 points and a league-best 32 goals and won his third Hart Trophy as league MVP in the lockout-shortened year, Oates tells anyone who will listen that there are more levels the star winger can achieve with his play. Ovechkin sees the potential, too.
“There’s lots of ways to be better,” Ovechkin said, sounding a lot like his coach. “Find more ways in front of the net might be the biggest part. I’m pretty strong guy, and of course I use my shot most of the time, but sometimes I can find the rebound out there and that [would be] five or six more goals.”
Many of the adjustments Oates has worked on with other players are far less dramatic or noticeable on every shift. For Backstrom, stopping a puck along the boards with his skate rather than his stick has allowed him to better protect possession and defend against an opponent, leaving him a little more time to make a play.
When Jay Beagle returned home to Calgary this summer, he brought with him a regimen of drills and extra elements he could incorporate into his usual workouts to help improve his puck-handling skills. Troy Brouwer is working on his patience with the puck so that he’s less dependent on his linemates to create plays.
For Mike Green, Oates’s impact has been more on the mental side of his game. A host of injuries ranging from concussions to a sports hernia caused Green to miss 96 of the Capitals’ 212 regular season games over the past three seasons. When Green returned to the lineup, Oates challenged him to regain the swagger that had made him arguably the most dynamic defenseman in the league.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to start scoring goals again, prove yourself again.’ He gave me the confidence to do that,” Green said. “Oatesy’s really helped me with getting my confidence back after the injuries I’ve had over the last few years. I have the utmost respect for him.”
Fellow defenseman Karl Alzner, with Oates’s encouragement, is trying to adopt Green’s smooth method of cradling and slinging the puck on the blue line.
“It’s hard to learn when you’ve already played hockey for 22 years and done it one way,” Alzner admitted. “It’s not something that’s going to come quick, but it makes a ton of sense, and you can see the benefits of it.”
Oates has a habit that is well-known within the dressing room. He likes to analyze every aspect of a player’s stick, from the curvature of the blade to the length and lie and, more often than not, advocate a change. Since his playing days, he’s been interested in studying how the slightest adjustment allows for better puck control or an improved stride.
But he wants players to make the switch of their own accord.
“You don’t tell anybody [to change] ever. They’re pros,” said Oates, who on principle declines to discuss his private conversations with specific players. “You watch video, you make suggestions, you show them things, you show them situations, and maybe they come to the conclusion, and then you help them through it.”
Marcus Johansson, Beagle, Hillen and Brooks Laich are among those who have tweaked their sticks in the past year based on Oates’s advice.
Laich was skeptical when Oates approached him about changing his stick last year. It took some time, and a lot of video evidence illustrating how his stick was impeding his stride and restricting how he cut through the middle of the ice on his forehand, before he decided to give it a shot during the offseason.
“He sold me with video clips,” said Laich, who has a more significant curve and a higher lie that allows him to stand up more while skating. “It’s a fine line between ‘This guy is really onto something’ or ‘He’s really crazy.’ But I think he’s really smart, so the more he kept talking about it and showing me clips, finding little areas in the game where it could help me, the more it started to sink in.”
General Manager George McPhee always marveled at how Oates possessed the sharpest eye and awareness of the game as a player, and now sees how he’s translated those skills to coaching. It’s an analytical approach unlike that of any other coach McPhee has worked with.
“I think all coaches want to make players better, in the big picture and individually,” McPhee said. “But Adam just has a gift most people don’t have in being able to see things and make little changes that turn out to be bigger in terms of performance.”
For Hillen, working with a coach so focused on breaking the game down to what amounts to a molecular level is a new phenomenon.
“That’s what makes him a good coach. I’ve never really had a coach that’s been that detail oriented about the absolute littlest things, but it’s how you catch a puck that gives you that split second to get a shot through,” the defenseman said. “Those little things, in the long run, end up deciding games a lot of times.”