The applause echoed through the rafters and the sound of stomping feet rumbled across the aluminum bleachers as members of the Washington Capitals stepped onto the ice in Arlington on Sunday morning. As the players warmed up, the rows of fans who packed the seats and lined up three-deep behind the glass began a familiar serenade: “C-A-P-S! Caps! Caps! Caps!”
Amid the celebration, Adam Oates smiled as he took to the ice to run his first official practice as a head coach. After waiting more than four months because of the NHL lockout and spending the past week watching his players work out without being able to instruct them, he was more than ready for the moment.
“It was incredible. It was a lot of fun, it was great to finally get that over with, get the guys moving and be a part of it,” Oates said. “It’s been tough because you want to [coach]. The buildup and how long it’s been, very excited about it.”
Oates already has spoken with every player several times and held one-on-one video sessions with most of them, but this week marks the beginning of his two-pronged challenge as a new coach.
Not only does Oates need to install his system, a hybrid that aims to push the pace and promote an aggressive offense while still expecting sound defensive play, but he’s also working to earn the trust of every player in the Capitals’ dressing room. He plans to fully brief them on the system in the first half of the week before shifting the focus to preparing for the season opener Saturday at Tampa Bay.
Oates called Sunday a “long day,” adding that he threw a lot of information at the Capitals. “I thought they handled it well,” he said. Despite the volume of new material, the players said Oates makes it easy for them to follow his direction.
“He made it simple and he made it easy to grasp,” defenseman Mike Green said.
Not all head coaches address their defensemen directly, with some instead deferring to an assistant coach in charge of the unit, Karl Alzner said, but Oates does. It’s a welcome change for the 24-year-old.
“He knows exactly what he wants, he knows how to teach it. It’s proven to be a good system and he’s easy to understand,” Alzner said. “Normally it is just the D-coach that talks to the D and it’s almost separate sometimes from the forwards. Now it’s more of one unit. . . . It’s way easier to read and make plays when we all know what it’s supposed to be instead of ad-libbing like we have been in the past. It should be a great system as long as we do the work.”
Goaltender Braden Holtby got to know Oates during his six-week stint during the lockout as associate head coach of the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears. He was able to watch Oates work with players in Hershey and understand his new coach’s philosophy.
It’s one of respect that focuses on the various details of each player’s role and responsibility, Holtby said.
“With Adam, I think everyone learns really quickly that he’s a very good instructor. Some coaches are motivational guys and what-not,” Holtby said. “Adam is very about the details and very technical, and that’s something you really appreciate as a professional because your job is to prepare yourself for games. What Adam wants to do is make sure we’re given the instruction to get better.”
Oates knows six days of practice before kicking off a 48-game season that will take place over only 99 days isn’t ideal, but he’s making the best of the situation. At this stage, after weeks of studying old video of his players, Oates is glad to be working with them on a daily basis.
There will be some adjustment to the system and as players find their footing in an NHL season once again. The early games won’t be perfect, but Oates is confident that the Capitals will be able to push through this in-between stage quickly.
“It’s a growing period. Hopefully we’re a strong enough team to get through that. I think we are,” Oates said. “It’s tough in a short season to get through it, but that’s why you have to work to be good everywhere. We’re pretty healthy, so there’s no reason why we can’t get through this growing process.”
Mark Giannotto contributed to this report.