This time, Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee didn’t have to rush to hire a coach. McPhee’s last two hires were made midseason, when the team was spiraling and his gut told him his coach had “lost the room,” in hockey parlance.
On both occasions — first with Bruce Boudreau in 2007 and again last fall with Dale Hunter — McPhee brought in coaches with no NHL coaching experience, and both had varying degrees of success. Neither got the Capitals beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
On Tuesday, after a six-week search, McPhee may have found the best qualities of both when he hired Adam Oates. Oates was a great player, as evidenced by his election to the Hockey Hall of Fame a few hours after his new job was announced. He’s about as comfortable talking hockey as he was playing the game. His coaching résuméis short: three seasons as an assistant in Tampa Bay and New Jersey, but his playing résumé is lengthy. It includes 19 NHL seasons, including a stint with the Caps. He had four 100-point seasons, including 142 in 1992-93; was a five-time all-star; and, in his first full season in Washington in 1997-98, was a part of the only Washington team to reach the Stanley Cup finals.
He became the team captain after the next season. The man he succeeded was Hunter.
Coincidence perhaps, but it may be something McPhee took into consideration. During Hunter’s brief tenure, McPhee talked often about “liking the accountability” Hunter brought to the team. Alex Ovechkin may not have been thrilled with Hunter’s dump-and-chase style, but he bought in because it became clear he had no choice. Ovechkin’s refusal to go along with Boudreau’s attempts at discipline led to Boudreau’s firing and to a team and a player clearly in flux.
Hunter didn’t really care if Ovechkin didn’t like his style because he wasn’t planning to stick around for very long. Ovechkin grudgingly began to play two-way hockey in the playoffs, and in part because they were healthy and in part because goalie Braden Holtby was mostly brilliant, the Caps became a dangerous team.
Oates is clearly going to need an enthusiastic Ovechkin, one who will do what is asked of him without sulking. Maybe he can even convince him to park his big body in front of the net on the power play every now and then, rather than on the point.
Like Hunter, Oates had the kind of playing career that every player, including No. 8, has to respect. He also has what Hunter didn’t: the kind of personality that will make the players want to play for him not just because he’s the boss but because they will like him. There were probably about as many laughs in Hunter’s locker room as there have been Stanley Cup championships in Washington.
For all the talk about how important it was for McPhee to pick up Mike Ribeiro as a second-line center and Holtby’s emergence as a No. 1 goalie and the health of Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, the only way for the Capitals to be true Stanley Cup contenders is for Ovechkin to go back to being the Great Eight. The past two seasons, he has been the Okay Eight.
That’s not good enough.
That’s why McPhee was in no rush to make this coaching hire. To begin with, he took note of the fact that Lou Lamoriello, his counterpart in New Jersey, didn’t hire Pete DeBoer until mid-July a year ago, and the Devils ended up in the Stanley Cup finals. More important, though, McPhee wanted a coach who he believes can get Ovechkin back to being close to the player he was when he won MVP awards in 2009 and 2010.
If that player ever shows up again, the Caps, as they proved when he was around, can play with anyone. Clearly McPhee believes that Oates is that coach. Some may worry about his lack of experience as a head coach in the NHL, but none of the team’s past four coaches had been NHL coaches prior to coming to Washington. The last two worked out pretty well.
McPhee knows though that the time for doing pretty well has come and gone. The Capitals haven’t been beyond the second round of the playoffs since, well, since Oates was playing here and wearing No. 77.
He’ll be wearing a suit the next time he walks into Verizon Center for a game that matters. His ability to convince the guy wearing No. 8 that night to be an MVP-type player again will go a long way toward deciding how much time he gets to spend in his second — and most important — stint in the nation’s capital.