Adam Oates leaned back in his desk chair and turned his gaze to one of the immense white dry-erase boards in his office, the one with a magnet of each player’s name arranged in accordance with that day’s lines for practice, and went through the list.
He has seen improvement from every player over his year and a half as the Washington Capitals’ coach, from players finding their offensive confidence to young defensemen taking on more significant roles. For all the various individual strides, though, Oates knows that aside from a 19-game stretch at the end of last season, the Capitals haven’t found success consistently during his tenure. But as they kick off the final 23 games of the regular season Thursday night in Florida against the Panthers, Oates believes it is within the Capitals’ grasp to find a rhythm and secure a postseason berth.
“I think we have moments every single night where we play decent hockey,” Oates said last week, making an exception of the Capitals’ two ugly losses at Columbus in January. “Other than that, we haven’t been really blown out in any one game, so on a given night we do certain things well. One night the power play’s not good enough. One night the PK’s not good enough. One night five-on-five we’re not good enough. . . . The ship’s running; we just have to upgrade.”
General Manager George McPhee shares Oates’s optimism and believes the Hall of Famer can guide the Capitals back to the playoffs for a seventh straight season.
“I don’t think anything different from last year; we started a little bit slow last year and then got it going at the end of the season, played really well,” McPhee said. “I think he treats the players right, prepares them in a positive way, and they’re always well prepared to play the game. He’s a good coach, and I don’t think anything has changed from last year, and he did a good job last year.”
Oates (54-41-12 as Capitals coach) has remained steadfast in his pragmatic and analytical approach — emphasizing positives while seeking to correct errors without what he deems phony motivational speeches — even as the Capitals have foundered this year.
That demeanor — and his goal of creating a team that functions the same way every night regardless of who is in the lineup — has earned the continued respect of the dressing room through the rough patches.
“He’s installing and believing in a process. He hasn’t panicked,” said right wing Joel Ward, who made it clear the ultimate responsibility rests with the players.
“We’ll have a lapse of five minutes that costs us after playing 20 minutes of really good hockey. That’s on us as players and grown men. We’ve got to find a way to execute. Everybody has to find a way to be mentally sharp and focus.”
Washington’s maddening inability to maintain a high level of performance over the course of an entire game is largely why the team sits three points out of the playoff picture . To get the Capitals functioning like the automated machine he envisions, Oates strives to coax a little more out of every player continuously so that he makes better decisions every shift.
The players have seen the improvements from that strategy themselves. But as readily as they credit Oates with adding nuance to their games, players say they must apply those lessons to avoid the mistakes that cost them momentum and, at times, games.
“He’ll give you a foundation, but then it’s up to you to watch your shifts and talk to your linemates and in practices try to establish some rules so you’re on the same page when you go out there. Do you do one cycle or two cycles? . . . On defensive switches, who’s going to call who off?” Brooks Laich said.
“Adam gives us a foundation, our expectations and our role, and then it’s on the individuals after that to take that to the next level.”
As much as the players are on the same page as their second-year coach, there have been some questionable personnel decisions as the team has fought to find balance.
Martin Erat, whom the Capitals acquired at the trade deadline last season in exchange for the second-best prospect in the organization, requested a trade after he felt Oates wasn’t giving him an opportunity to succeed by playing him on the fourth line and at every position but his usual spot at right wing. He sat Eric Fehr, who can play any one of the forward positions depending on the team’s needs, for nine games as the team fought to find chemistry because of its abundance of forwards. Last week, Oates called that particular decision “very difficult for me.”
A lack of top-level defensive depth, arguably Washington’s greatest weakness, presented problems as well. At the beginning of the season, Oates had to lean on John Erskine despite knowing the veteran hadn’t fully recovered from offseason knee surgery.
As Oates looks to push the Capitals toward the postseason, he knows consistency can’t come fast enough. But true to form, Oates looks to the positives: that Washington won three of four before the Olympic break, that it has been leading or tied heading into the third period in 33 of 59 games and that the players are working toward the common goal.
“The margin of error is very small, and we shoot ourselves in the foot sometimes,” Oates said. “But I haven’t seen us not show up for a game. I’m not happy with a couple games, but I've never seen us not show up.”