As the new head coach of the Washington Capitals, Adam Oates said he plans to implement a style similar to what he saw from the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup finals: An in-your-face brand of hockey that dictates the course of a contest, balancing offensive intensity with sound defense.
What he doesn’t want to change in the slightest, though, is the attention to detail Washington showed in the playoffs under the previous coach — and Oates’s former Capitals teammate — Dale Hunter. He wants that exact level of commitment in adhering to a game plan.
“I really feel the game today is territory. You have to establish territory and protect it,” Oates said Wednesday during his introduction at Verizon Center. “I look at the Caps’ lineup and the talent level and I don’t see any reason why we can’t push the pace, be an aggressive team, but at the same time not sacrificing defense and protecting our goalie. That requires commitment all over the ice.”
Oates said he will draw on the influences of coaches he’s played for and worked with as he makes the transition. But he will also take cues from what he wanted when he was a player — communication and feedback — as he works to earn the respect of the Capitals.
While Oates will soon start that process with each member of the team, the most high-profile relationship will be between him and face-of-the-franchise Alex Ovechkin. The star left wing called Oates on Tuesday to welcome him and expressed his happiness that his new boss “likes offense,” but the real work will begin when the pair discuss Ovechkin’s game in preparation for a new season.
“I think he’s a special player; in terms of adding a little bit to his game, I think I can,” said Oates, who praised the physical element of Ovechkin’s game. “But he’s got to earn my trust as a coach first, along with the rest of the guys, and it will be a process that we’re starting soon and looking forward to.”
During his two years as an assistant in New Jersey, Oates was credited with helping Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk to become more of a two-way player. Oates acknowledged that there are some similarities between the two Russian wingers.
“Ilya is a great guy and he made those adjustments willingly, and it was a huge part for him in the game,” Oates said. “He’s the same guy he was when I first met him — he’s a fabulous guy; he just needed to learn a little bit about the game. Even the superstars need to be coached once in awhile.”
In Oates, Capitals General Manager George McPhee selected someone without prior NHL head coaching experience for the fifth straight time, but the newly named Hall of Famer’s intellectual and diligent approach to the game made the Capitals believe he is ready to guide a team.
“I think the best way to describe what we tried to do in hiring Adam was simply to go hire a guy with the most upside, the guy that could really be a difference maker,” McPhee said. “We talked to some terrific people but it kept coming back to Adam as the one with the most upside who could really make a difference here.”
McPhee cited numerous traits that helped push Oates to the forefront, among them his level of preparation, commitment to the game, understanding of leadership and ability to balance both offensive skill and defensive priorities as a player.
He went so far as to compare Oates to former New Jersey and Minnesota coach Jacques Lemaire, who was an offensive centerman as a player and developed into one of the most stingy defensive coaches in the NHL, as well as New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick.
“You want intelligent guys running the bench,” McPhee said. “A guy like Bill Belichick in New England, he’s a bright guy. You try to get the smartest guy in the room. I just think with Adam’s understanding of this game and his ability to articulate it, he can be that guy.”
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