When things were the most dismal for the Washington Capitals, when they were stuck in last place with seemingly few roads out, they would arrive at the rink the morning after an ugly defeat prepared for a lecture or scolding.
But the verbal lashings never came.
Instead, first-year Coach Adam Oates showed video clips in which the Capitals made the correct play. He focused on fostering improvement.
“It was huge to learn the new system without being in fear of coming in the next day and not necessarily getting yelled at, but feeling depleted,” center Jay Beagle said.
“Even watching individual video with him, if you go in and watch the video on mistakes that you make, he turns it around and you walk out of the video thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve got to fix this, this and this,’ but you don’t feel down.”
During the Capitals’ 2-8-1 start, Oates’s approach never wavered, even as the pundits piled on and Washington slipped further down the standings.
“I didn’t have doubts about the way they could play and what I think it could turn into,” Oates said last week after Washington clinched a berth in the NHL playoffs. “The doubts, I think, came just because I was a first-year coach, and all the people out there that would jump on that. But I’m glad all the guys didn’t listen to them, or we fought through that.”
Players said Oates’s confidence in the Capitals and his belief that they would, eventually, find success laid the foundation for the team to go from worst in the NHL to first in the Southeast Division with a first-round playoff matchup against the New York Rangers set to begin Thursday.
Because even when much of the hockey world wrote them off as a lost cause, the Capitals knew the only person who counted didn’t.
“He’s always reinforced, since Day 1, that he believes in us and we’re his guys. He’s right behind us,” defenseman Mike Green said. “He’s the pulse behind the whole team. We go out and do business, but he’s the heartbeat behind it.”
Oates, 50, isn’t a yeller. He didn’t respond to that type of instruction as a player and he wasn’t about to take up the tactic as a coach.
The Hall of Famer is direct, though, working with each individual to make the required adjustments. He simply sees little benefit in dwelling on the negative and expects that all players know when they’ve erred.
“We’re all grown men. Hopefully you admit you made a mistake; let’s move on. That’s what I believe, that’s what I wanted as a player,” Oates said earlier this month. “Obviously you want to win, but there’s certain things you can’t control. So to me it’s glass half-full. It’s like ‘Okay, we’re a good team. How do we get better?’ If I’m not happy about last night, how do we get better today? . . . I want to make guys better.”
That kind of clarity has been a welcome change for many players after last season under Dale Hunter.
“It’s not a guessing game. Last year there wasn’t a lot of communication and this year’s totally different. It’s a 180 — they tell us straight up as it is,” said veteran John Erskine, who after being cast aside last season became a top-four defenseman for Oates. “We watch the video, they help us out and that communication makes things a lot easier.”
Oates said his experience in 2002-03 playing for Anaheim under Mike Babcock, who is now the coach of the Detroit Red Wings, has helped shape his approach. Oates was 40, in the penultimate season of his 19-year playing career and didn’t get off to a great start.
Babcock, in his first year as a head coach, treated Oates with respect, even when he wasn’t happy with the center’s game. That left a lasting impression.
Babcock’s career also serves as a reminder to Oates that results don’t always reflect the quality of a team, coach or player.
“We went to Game 7 of the [Stanley Cup] finals [in 2002-03], he’s obviously a good coach. But the next year he missed the playoffs. Does that make him a bad coach?” Oates said. “That always sticks in my mind.”
Oates’s perspective — that details and sticking to the game plan are fundamentally more important than what was on the scoreboard — is unlike anything most of the Capitals had experienced. Players, frustrated by early season woes, were caught off guard by the constant positivity.
“We could lose a game, 6-1, and he’d show us six great neutral-zone clips,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “Sometimes, even after we watched, we’d still be [ticked] off, but he kept such a straight face and even keel. He doesn’t seem to change, ever.
“It’s pretty amazing he’s been able to do that, but he knew we could do it.”
A critical element of Oates’s coaching strategy, Green added, has been his willingness, as well as his assistants, to work with players one-on-one.
“He’s so detailed with the other teams and how to play them and our own game that we’re learning every day,” Green said. “The amount of information I’ve absorbed over the course of this year from [Oates and assistant coaches Calle Johansson and Tim Hunter] has been outstanding. I’ve learned more than I’ve ever learned in my whole career.”
When Alex Ovechkin moved to right wing at the beginning of the season at Oates’s request and began incorporating additional elements — such as backchecking and better use of his linemates — the goals were hard to come by. But as much as Ovechkin wanted to contribute offensively, Oates maintained the mantra that solid play would lead to more touches, more offensive opportunities, more goals and ultimately make the star winger a better player.
That message wasn’t unique to Ovechkin.
Jason Chimera, who has three goals this season and is the first to admit he hasn’t produced as much offense as he had hoped, was made to understand that his speed and corresponding forechecking and backchecking ability were essential to the success of his line.
And that his worth to the Capitals wasn’t measured exclusively on the score sheet.
“A lot of coaches look at offensive production and as soon as it drops off they’ll say you’re not doing anything, or the wrong things,” Chimera said. “But the little things matter more with him.”
From tasking Jack Hillen with important minutes immediately after the defenseman returned from injury, to relying on minor league journeyman Steve Oleksy to be a steady presence every game, to giving Marcus Johansson another chance at being a top-line left wing and reuniting Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on a line, Oates pushed the right buttons every time Washington needed him to.
The decisions didn’t simply make the Capitals better, they resonated with the rest of the group.
Players saw teammates rewarded for precisely what Oates had been asking of them all along.
“Moves like the one he made with Steve playing a lot of minutes for a little while did a lot for our whole group,” goaltender Braden Holtby noted. “To know if you were doing the right things that you would get the opportunities, because with a new coach you don’t really know if he’s going to stick to his boys no matter what.”
Of all the buttons Oates pushed, none has reverberated through the team more than his work with Ovechkin.
In the past 23 games, Ovechkin has 23 goals and 36 points.
He finished the regular season as the NHL’s leading goal scorer (32) and thrust himself into consideration for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.
Oates doesn’t like the suggestion that he’s remotely responsible for Ovechkin’s resurgence, though, insisting that this is simply what the Capitals’ captain is capable of.
But there’s no denying that the 27-year-old superstar has established a close relationship with his fourth NHL coach.
“It’s always fun to work with a guy like him because he wants to be involved in everything,” Ovechkin said. “He wants to be involved in skates, in sticks, power play, PK, five-on-five.
“He always talk with the guys, have a good sense of humor and he was never give up. If we lose, he always try to find positives things about it. He never scream at us. It’s good when you have that kind of person behind you and you just want to win for him and play for him.”
But before the Capitals won, going 15-2-2 to close the regular season, there was a defeat that illuminated all the previous lessons.
On March 19, the Capitals lost, 2-1, at the archrival Pittsburgh Penguins after failing to convert on a four-minute power play and committing a costly late turnover. The emotional defeat could have shaken Washington to its core, but instead the players saw where things went right and how close they were to knocking off the top team in the Eastern Conference.
They viewed it as evidence of their improvement, of what they could do if they kept working. They viewed it the way Oates did.