Washington Capitals: Early-Season Grades for Head Coach Adam Oates
After 19 games, the Capitals have 15 of a possible 38 points and are currently last in the Southeast Division as well as in the Eastern Conference. They would miss the postseason if the playoffs began today.
But beyond the win-loss record, how is Oates doing as a head coach? Which aspects of coaching does he excel at? And which aspects does he struggle with?
Here are the early season grades for head coach Adam Oates.
The Washington Capitals are currently tied for 15th in the NHL with 2.94 goals for per game, despite the offensive acumen of head coach Adam Oates.
This comes after the Caps finished 14th in the league in 2011-12, finishing the season under the guidance of defensive-minded head coach Dale Hunter.
The February 6 episode of the Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast revealed a possible reason for the Capitals' offensive struggles. Jeff Marek spoke of a conversation he had with a former coach familiar with Oates' system (as transcribed by Peter Hassett of Russian Machine Never Breaks):
I spoke to a former coach yesterday while I was at work who feels this way about the Washington Capitals and Adam Oates. He said to me, “I think what Adam Oates is doing is too sophisticated and confusing for this team. It makes sense to Adam Oates because he could play that way, he could do all those things, he could think the game that way. But I don’t think that that sophistication is right for this team. Maybe what Oates has is a system that is too complicated for the Washington Capitals to grasp.” That was this guy’s theory on what’s happening with Adam Oates and the Capitals.
If the Capitals continue to struggle as they implement Oates system, then Oates may have to adapt his system to his players.
The Washington Capitals' defense has been bad.
After 19 games played, the Caps are tied for 24th in the NHL by surrendering 3.11 goals against per game.
Elliotte Friedman of CBCSports offered his insight into the Capitals' difficulties on the blue line:
The Washington Capitals admit one of their biggest problems is getting used to their "new" defensive-zone coverage. Last year, they played man-to-man. Now rookie head coach Adam Oates, a former Devils assistant, wants them using New Jersey's "overload" style, which basically means you try to outnumber the other team. A few Capitals said they made mistakes due to old habits.
The Capitals have not had a lot of time to learn Oates' defensive system. Hopefully, the defense will improve with time. It can only get better at this point.
From the beginning of training camp, Adam Oates stated his intentions for his two young goaltenders, Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post:
Forty-eight games, I think both guys are going to play a lot, and I would say when a guy is playing well, he should play. [Competition between Holtby and Neuvirth is a] great situation to have, a luxury for a coach. I’m not experienced enough to know what’s right when it comes to that.
Oates has stuck to his word, riding the hot hand of Braden Holtby for the last nine starts after Neuvirth started five of the first seven games of the season.
But at this point in the season, the platoon system has not been a success. The Capitals' netminders are tied for 22nd in the league with a save percentage of .898.
Oates was not looking for two mediocre goaltenders. All he wants now is one good one.
For the Washington Capitals' power-play unit, Adam Oates has opted to utilize a 1-3-1 formation, just one of several power-play strategies used around the NHL. Oates explained the benefits of the 1-3-1 to Mike Vogel of Dump 'N Chase during Capitals training camp:
It turns into a 1-3-1 at some point in the power play. We coach every guy on his options and responsibilities. It's no different from any other system; it's a system with pros and cons. Sometimes it works like clockwork and sometimes it doesn't. But at the end of the day it's a system.
At first, this system did not work. In the first eight games of the 2013 NHL season, the Capitals were 5-33 on the power play, for a meager 15.2%.
But in the 11 games since then Washington is 13-33 for an impressive 39.4%.
Now, the Capitals have a power-play success rate of 27.3%, third best in the NHL.
Unfortunately for Oates, the power play has been the only true bright spot for the Capitals during the early part of the season.
In direct contrast to the Capitals stellar power-play unit, the team's penalty kill has been dreadful.
After 19 games, the Capitals rank 27th in the NHL with a penalty kill percentage of 76.0.
Thankfully, the team may have turned a corner.
On February 24, Katie Carrera of The Washington Post reported that the Capitals' PK unit was quietly improving. And in that article, penalty killing stalwart Troy Brouwer explained the keys to that improvement:
Guys are blocking shots and making a conscious effort to be in lanes and taking away passing lanes. I think before we were just kind of mindless pressure, and we were getting exposed as a result. So now we’re slowing it down a little bit and making sure that we’re taking away lanes and being more conscious of where they are on the ice.
The Capitals' penalty killers may be improving, but they still have a long way to go as they climb the NHL's PK rankings.
There's a lot more to coaching hockey than drawing up plays on a dry erase board.
A coach needs to connect with his players. Earn their respect. Gain their trust.
For Adam Oates, there is one player whose trust and respect are more important than anyone else on the team, and that is Alex Ovechkin.
According to Katie Carrera of The Washington Post, Oates has earned the trust and respect of the team captain:
He’s that kind of person who give me belief all the time. Sometimes I have a bad game, I talk to him and he said, ‘It’s okay. Chance is there. It’s going to come.’ After [Thursday’s 3-2 loss to New Jersey] I have two breakaways and I text him. I said ‘Listen, I don’t know. Puck just don’t wanna, don’t go through.’ And he texts me back says, ‘It’s going to come.’ For a player, if you feel that kind of trust from a coach, coaching staff, it’s very important.
The Capitals are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. But with a coach who has the trust and respect of the team captain, the rest of the team may be willing to follow these two men on the journey into the postseason.