The 2013-14 campaign hasn't exactly gone according to plan for second-year bench boss Adam Oates thus far, as the Washington Capitals enter their Tuesday night game against the New York Islanders at 7-7.
Despite the .500 record, Oates should be credited for getting his troops to rally back after a very troubling 2-5 start, but the jury's still out on how good this Caps team truly is.
With a lengthy road trip and a handful of divisional clashes out of the way, here's a look at how Oates and his team have performed through the first 14 games of the season.
For whatever reason, Oates began the season with an apparent distaste for Martin Erat, at least as an offensive threat, which is why the former Nashville first-liner began the year on the fourth line and without a spot on either power-play unit.
While Oates' squad is currently 13th in the league in terms of goals per game, the Caps have relied far too heavily on the power play to generate offensive opportunities, and that has to change going forward.
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson tore the league to pieces during the latter stages of the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign, but the trio didn't seem to mesh as well at even strength this season, which is why Johansson's been demoted.
Overall, the Capitals can score, and Oates has a number of nice pieces to play with up front. As arguably one of the smartest playmakers ever to skate in the NHL, one has to believe he's got a good grasp of what combinations will work best for Washington.
The second line remains an issue, as the third unit has been far more productive offensively (and stingier in the defensive zone). Oates has to be thinking about shifting his top six forwards around in order to generate some chemistry.
On the back end, Oates hasn't had a lot to work with, as the Capitals remain decidedly thin on the blue line, especially after John Erskine and Jack Hillen went down early.
Connor Carrick clearly needed more time to develop, but overall, Oates is icing a consistent, if rather unspectacular top-six. George McPhee absolutely has to be thinking about adding a veteran presence to aid the learning curve for this young defense corps.
Oates demonstrated last season that his on-ice intelligence hasn't left him, as he was a driving force behind Ovechkin's resurgent showing on the right wing. That being said, Oates was hesitant to make changes after a 2-5 start, and more importantly, he seems to have made a mistake in his handling of Erat.
The Hall of Fame center is one of the smartest guys in the game, so there's no doubting that he's capable of turning things around, as he did last year, but this team's lineup isn't as effective as it could be. His recognition of Erat being a useful top-six forward is a start, and he's assembled a very impressive third line, so one has to think he's heading in the right direction.
The Capitals have looked very similar to the team that shocked the NHL by roaring back from a dreadful start to capture a division title last season, as Washington's game plan has remained pretty much the same.
And that's suited some units, such as the third line featuring Jason Chimera, Joel Ward and Mikhail Grabovski. For others, production has been hard to come by due to the grinding style Oates has emphasized.
Obviously, Oates' ability to get Backstrom and Ovechkin to dump the puck when necessary has been productive, but Troy Brouwer, Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson have had a lot of trouble retrieving the puck in the offensive zone. As such, they really haven't generated enough chances to merit their top-six spots.
Unlike many recent Capitals teams, this is a roster with a solid number of hard-nosed forwards. It's not necessarily the wrong approach, but Oates needs to find a way to get his forwards to control the puck down low more efficiently; otherwise, this team will continue to rely heavily on the power play for offense.
Defensively, the Capitals' puck-moving system fits with the team's offensive strengths, and that's why Connor Carrick, Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt have received opportunities on the back end.
Oates needs to find a way to get more offense out of the second line. Overall, he's remained effective at getting his best players to put points on the board, which is critical for a team as top-heavy as Washington. At the end of the day, this team will live and die on the contributions from Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green, but one thing he needs to adjust is limiting the opposition's chances, even from the outside.
Since Oates took the reins behind the Caps' bench, his team has boasted the most lethal power play in the game, as Washington ranked No. 1 in power-play efficiency last season. The team has picked up right where it left off in 2013-14.
Currently, the Caps sit fourth in the NHL in power-play goals with 14, and Oates has been a big reason behind that success. The former All-Star's designed a power-play scheme that not only creates openings for the gunners in Ovechkin and Mike Green, but also gives Nicklas Backstrom more options down low.
Unless Washington suddenly begins to produce offense at even strength, the power play's continued success will be the deciding factor in whether the Caps can keep pace with opposing teams on a nightly basis.
At the other end of the ice, the Caps have been equally impressive, if not more, boasting the second-most effective penalty-kill unit in the game.
Washington's defense has been surprisingly stingy when on the kill, but perhaps more importantly, Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth have done a good job at limiting rebounds in such situations.
When your team's got penalty-kill and power-play units that rank within the league's top five, your coaching staff is doing something right. Oates has done a good job at putting the right guys on the ice, and has developed sufficient systems to remain effective.
Oates is obviously a capable NHL head coach. He's managed to do what Dale Hunter and, to a degree, Bruce Boudreau couldn't, which is getting Ovechkin to play like the game-breaker that he is. With top-flight offensive weapons at his disposal, Oates should always be able to ice a dangerous power play. As the kids grow on the back end, things will only get better from here.
He's clearly understood that lineup changes need to be executed on the go, as Oates has mixed things up on the offensive side of the puck during the last week. That will certainly serve the Caps well going forward.
Despite the team's relatively average record thus far, Oates has done a good job at molding this team into a puck-possession squad that has a great deal of balance up front.
At this point, Oates has Ovechkin and Backstrom doing what's expected of them and has crafted a third line that every team in the league's envious of.
Though there are absolutely areas for improvement, he's done a commendable job on the whole with this Capitals squad. Given how cerebral the former RPI star is, one has to assume that after having further opportunities to understand his players, stability will follow.
This team is undoubtedly a work in progress, but with Ovechkin firing on all cylinders, the Capitals should receive enough offense to stay afloat while they figure things out in their own end. Once they do, this will be a team to be reckoned with going forward.
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