3 Changes Adam Oates Must Make for the Washington Capitals to Contend

Dave Ungar@@DaveUngar68Correspondent IIIFebruary 16, 2013

3 Changes Adam Oates Must Make for the Washington Capitals to Contend

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    Don't look now, but the Washington Capitals might just be on the upswing.

    Perhaps Adam Oates' system is not so flawed after all.

    After being trounced twice by their archrivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in less than a week, many were ready to declare the season lost and many were calling for Adam Oates' head on the proverbial silver platter.

    Just about a week ago, the Caps were the worst team in the NHL and could seem to do nothing right. Alexander Ovechkin was struggling, as was the entire offense. The defense was not much better, and the team was drawing penalties at a very alarming rate.

    It's funny how winning a few games suddenly makes everything better.

    A 5-0 shutout of the defending Southeast division champion Florida Panthers seemed to do something to the Caps.

    For the first time all season, the Caps scored more than three goals in a game.

    For the first time all season, a Caps' goaltender played really well as Braden Holtby notched the shutout.

    For one game, the Caps looked like the Caps of old. The question then centered on whether they could actually win two games in a row.

    The Caps did win their second in a row with a stirring, comeback, 6-5 overtime win against the Panthers in Sunrise on Tuesday night.

    It wasn't just the fact that the Caps won that made the game so important—it was the way the Caps won that was so huge.

    They won on the road for the first time all season. They refused to quit despite being down by two goals late in the third period. They showed the emotion and heart that had been missing up until then. Alex Ovechkin scored the game-tying goal, running his points scoring streak to five games. The power play continued to produce at a blistering pace.

    All in all, it was a great victory and something on which the Caps could start to build some momentum.

    The Caps then won their third straight game Thursday night, dropping the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3. In doing so, the Caps avenged the opening night loss to the Lightning that got the Caps off to such an ugly start to the season.

    Suddenly, the Caps are now 5-8-1. They are no longer the worst team in the NHL. They sit just four points out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Momentum is definitely building, and there is no doubt the Caps are playing better, particularly the power play.

    What kind of changes must Adam Oates make to continue the Capitals forward surge going and keep them in contention for a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference?

    Here are three changes—or perhaps just suggestions—that coach Adam Oates can make in order for the Caps to contend for the playoffs this season.

1. Keep Building Momentum

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    While this might not necessarily qualify as a "change," Adam Oates is now facing a critical point in his young coaching career.

    Oates and the Washington Capitals have weathered a horrible start to the season and find themselves still in the hunt for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. The first couple of weeks of the season could almost be considered as exhibition games that counted and, as far as the Caps were concerned, it showed.

    The Caps have had great difficulty adjusting to Oates' system and style of coaching, but they now seem to be grasping it more effectively. The end result has been some victories and a sense that maybe, just maybe, the Caps are the team many of us thought they would be.

    Thus, the first "change" Adam Oates must make is to keep building momentum for the Caps. This will require Oates to make a few smaller changes within this much larger—and much more important—overall category.

    The biggest change Oates must make in this area is he has to get the Caps to play a more disciplined style of hockey. Penalties have absolutely killed the Caps this season. The Caps have been penalized 74 times this season. That makes the Caps the 11th-most penalized team in the NHL.

    That is an issue of discipline, and that is something that falls squarely on the shoulders of the head coach.

    All the penalties create a major issue because the Caps' penalty kill has been rather poor so far. True, the Caps penalty kill has been improving. But they are still only killing off 75 percent of the power-play opportunities against them. That has them ranked 24th in the NHL, and that won't be good enough.

    So in order to keep this momentum going and building, Oates must get the Caps to cut down on the penalties, and he has to figure out a way to get the penalty kill to play as well as the power play has.

    Speaking of the power play, a big challenge Oates will have is to keep the Caps' power play rolling as it has been. The Caps' power play is currently operating at an astonishing 27.1 percent efficiency rate. The power play is a key reason why the Caps have started to win.

    It does not seem likely that the Caps' power play can continue to operate at that high of a level, though. Still, if Oates can keep the Caps' power-play efficiency rate at around the 20 percent mark, this should lead to many more victories for the Caps.

    Another slight "change" Adam Oates can make to keep the Caps' momentum going is to lean more heavily on Braden Holtby. The Caps' goaltending was a mess earlier this year, but Holtby has been playing well lately. Three straight wins, including a shutout, has got to be a confidence builder for the hero of the Caps' playoff run last spring.

    Statistically, Holtby is still struggling. His goals-against average is still high at 3.89, which has him ranked 43rd in the NHL. His save percentage is .877, which has him ranked 40th.

    But over the past four games in which Holtby has played, his goals-against average has been roughly a 3.05 and his save percentage has been a .892. The quality of saves Holtby has been making also are indicative of his play improving. No, he is nowhere near as sharp as he was in the playoffs—at least not yet.

    But he looks like he is getting there. To keep the momentum rolling, Oates should ride the hot hand for as long as he can.

    And the last smaller change in this larger category that Oates must make is he has to make sure the Caps continue to play desperate. He must continue to make this team believe that every game from here on out is a must win so that they continue to play hard from the moment the puck is dropped each and every night.

    Earlier this season—and particularly in the two losses to Pittsburgh—the team just did not play with the heart and guts necessary to succeed on a nightly basis in the NHL. That has changed these past few games, especially in the comeback win over Florida on Tuesday night.

    Jay Beagle summed up this shift in attitude after the win over the Lightning Thursday night (The Associated Press via ESPN):

    We had a talk and said the time is now. We have to start winning and stringing a streak of wins together to try and climb. We're playing a little bit more desperate and it's showing right from the get-go.

    Oates' biggest challenge right now is to get the entire team to buy into this mentality so that the players continue to play desperate and with a high level of emotion and intensity.

    If Oates can accomplish all of these smaller changes, then the larger objective of continuing to build momentum for the Washington Capitals will be that much easier to accomplish.

2. Help the Team Find an Identity

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    Heading into the season, one of the big tasks that Adam Oates had was trying to help the Capitals find an identity.

    The Caps have been somewhat of an enigma the past few years. It has been hard to put a label on them. Are they an offense-first, run-and-gun sort of team that would just as soon overpower you instead of trying to really beat you with defense?

    That certainly seemed to be the case in 2009-10 when the Caps blitzed the rest of the NHL for 318 goals while giving up 233 in the process. The 2009-10 Caps, on several occasions, would spot the opposition a mullti-goal lead only to come storming back for the win. This served the Caps well, as they ended up with a 54-15-13 record and captured the Presidents' Trophy.

    The next season, the Caps suffered the beginnings of their identity crisis. After the stunning loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the 2010 playoffs, the Caps seemed to realize that simply overpowering the opposition might not yield playoff success. The Caps tried to play a tighter style of game and no longer attacked with the same blitzkrieg style of offense as the previous season.

    Alexander Ovechkin began to struggle, and the Caps only scored 224 goals during the 2010-11 season. Playoff success was a little better, though, as the Caps advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals before bowing out.

    Last season, though, the Caps fired Bruce Boudreau very early into the campaign and replaced him with the more defensive-minded Dale Hunter. The Caps struggled with their identity crisis even further. Their goal production slipped a bit further, down to 222 for the season. Ironically, their goals against went up during the 2011-12 season (230) as opposed to the previous season (197).

    Still, this defensive philosophy paid dividends during the playoffs when the Caps subdued the more offensively talented Boston Bruins and very nearly repeated the trick against the even more offensively lethal New York Rangers.

    When Adam Oates was hired, the hope was that he would be able to strike a balance between the offensive style of Bruce Boudreau and the defensive style of Dale Hunter.

    The solution that Oates came up with was, in essence, a hybrid of the two systems. Prior to the season starting, Katie Carrera of the Washington Post reported that Oates was going to call upon his defensemen to be something really special in his system.

    Oates was going to place immense trust in his blueliners by giving them the discretion to jump up into the offensive zone with the forwards. Moreover, Oates was giving all the defenders the green light to do this.

    It was an immense leap of faith on the part of Oates and new assistant coach, Calle Johansson. They were trusting players who had never been given a chance before to make the right choices, jump into the play when the situation presented itself, so long as they were not sacrificing position and exposing the team to odd-man rushes.

    Oates seemed intent on creating a cohesive overall system that almost organically created offense out of the flow of the defense. Oates wanted to utilize the same sort of pressure-based and aggressive defense that Dale Hunter used, but with a higher emphasis on puck movement and using turnovers to create scoring opportunities.

    As Oates said to Katie Carrera:

    The system is really based on keeping the D from taking as much contact as possible. They are the lifeblood of the team. I really believe that. They got to obviously help us in our own end, but they got to help the forwards score. The way teams back-check now and play all three zones, our D [is] vital to us. So the system really is based on them.

    In theory, it sounded great, especially if the forwards got adept at back-checking so that the defense was not hung out to dry if a mistake is made.

    But early in the season, the system was a mess. The Caps were being exposed to odd-man rushes all the time, and the defenders jumping up into the offensive zone were doing so at the wrong time. Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth were being hung out to dry far too often, and the team was getting absolutely blitzed by everyone they were facing.

    The downward spiral would continue because as the Caps would fall behind, the defense would press to try to get the team back in the game which, naturally, would leave the Caps defensive zone more unattended. Rinse...repeat...and is it any wonder the Caps were the worst team in the NHL just about a week ago?

    But the past few games, something has seemed to click for the Caps. After not scoring more than three goals in any game during the first 11 games of the season, the Caps have scored at least four in the past three games.

    That is the good part. The bad part is that the team is still giving up too many goals and is not playing the type of tight, checking style of game that served the team so well in the playoffs last spring. The past few games, the Caps have looked a bit like the 2009-10 version, a team simply trying to outgun the opposition.

    The goal that Tampa Bay's Nate Thompson scored on Thursday night was a good example of the Caps still trying to find their way. Why were all the defenders up in the offensive zone when the Caps had a two-goal lead with barely three minutes left to play? The resulting breakaway goal by Thompson was inexcusable.

    Without question, playing in this manner might be a necessity for a team struggling to climb back into playoff contention. But once the playoffs begin, will the Caps be able to play the sort of hockey they  need to play in order to succeed in the playoffs.

    Another identity crisis, come playoff time, would be devastating for the Caps' chances.

    This is where Adam Oates has some work to do. He must either do much more to get the Caps to embrace the hybrid sort of system he wants to install or he needs to decide, definitively, what sort of style the Caps will want to play the rest of the season.

    If the Caps are going to be an offense-first team, then so be it; if they will focus on defense first that is fine too.

    But getting the Caps to figure out their identity—and figure out what style of hockey best fits the team's current skill set—is an enormously important change that Adam Oates must make.

3. Getting Better Production from Some Key Players

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    Adam Oates has certainly been creative as far as putting together the Caps' lines and trying to create scoring opportunities for the best players on the team.

    This is especially true with Alexander Ovechkin. Oates has lined up Ovi on the right wing and placed him on pretty much every possible line available in an attempt to help the Caps' franchise player rediscover his scoring touch.

    After a slow start, Ovi seems to be heating up. Ovechkin now has five goals and five assists for 10 points. Ovechkin currently ranks fourth on the Caps in points and is tied for second on the team in goals scored.

    While Ovechkin has improved—and while the job Oates has done with Joel Ward, Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer cannot be praised enough—there are some other key players on the Caps who are not producing as they should. If the Caps are going to contend for a playoff spot, Oates must figure out how to get more out of these players, in one fashion or another.

    One of those players is Nicklas Backstrom. To be fair, Backstrom is having a pretty good season as he is second on the team with 10 assists and tied for second on the team with 11 points. But he has only one goal all season.

    To put that in perspective, Eric Fehr and Matt Hendricks have more goals than Backstrom. If the Caps are going to compete for a playoff spot, then Oates must figure out a way to get more goals out of his top-line center.

    John Carlson is another player struggling a bit. Carlson has only one goal and four assists on the season so far, and he has a minus-one efficiency rating. For a guy who signed a six-year, $23.8 million contract on the offseason, I suspect the Caps were expecting more from Carlson this year than they have gotten (Washington Post).

    Another player really struggling is Jason Chimera. Last season Chimera had a career high with 20 goals, double the total he had the previous season. It was the first time Chimera had ever had a 20-goal season.

    This season, though, Chimera has done next to nothing. He has yet to score a goal, has six assists and has a minus-three efficiency rating. After the season he had a year ago, getting Jason Chimera on track has to be a priority for Adam Oates, and it would be a definite way to get the Caps back into contention.

    And lastly there is Mike Green. Green is another player who signed a big contract in the offseason as he inked a three-year, $18.25 million deal (Washington Post). Green has been healthy this year, which is certainly a good sign. But if the Caps were hoping for the return of the guy who scored 73 points in 2008-09 and then followed that up with 75 points in the 2009-10 season, that has not come to pass as of yet.

    So far, Green has two goals and five assists. That's not too bad. But in Oates' system, with the blueliners jumping up into the offensive zone, one would hope for a few more goals from Green by now. His plus-three rating, though, is very encouraging, and Green has been playing solid defense.

    If Adam Oates can get Nicklas Backstrom and Jason Chimera scoring goals, get some more solid defensive play and production out of John Carlson and get some more scoring from Mike Green, then he will have made some big changes that should help the Caps contend for not just a playoff spot but perhaps for even more.