Photo by AP Photo
WASHINGTON – For George McPhee and the Washington Capitals, the time is most certainly now. In the hiring of Adam Oates as the 16th coach in franchise history, McPhee made it clear that he is going for it.
“We wanted to go hire the guy with the highest upside,” McPhee said Wednesday as he introduced Oates. “A guy who could really be a difference maker. It’s not unlike what we do in the draft. Go in there, and try to find the difference makers, try to find the players with the most upside and really swing for the fences. We believe Adam Oates is a guy who has lots of upside and can be a real good coach for our club.”
Oates, who was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame on Tuesday afternoon, is widely regarded as one of the best offensive players in the history of the National Hockey League. In 1,337 NHL games, Oates recorded 341 goals and 1,097 assists – one of only 11 players in history to pass the millennium mark in helpers. Immediately, he hopes that he can bring this style of play to Washington to help revive the Capitals once-dominant offense.
“When you look at the Finals this year, you saw L.A. and New Jersey, two teams that were basically in your face teams. All over the ice, in all three zones. I really feel the game today is territory. You have to establish territory and protect it. I look at the Caps’ lineup, and the talent level, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t push the pace and be an aggressive team, but at the same time not sacrifice defense and protecting our goalie. That requires commitment all over the ice.”
For a team like the Capitals, who have swung from one extreme to the other in terms of style of play over the last four seasons, that type of balance could work wonders for the entire team. Especially, however, the focus will be on Alex Ovechkin’s whose statistical decline over the last three seasons has been alarming and sudden.
“I’m sure when Alex gets back to town for training camp, we’ll sit down, and talk about his game,” Oates said. “He scored 37  goals last year, and the league gets better and better. There’s not a lot of goal scoring anymore, but I think the physical element of his game is unprecedented. I think he’s a special player. In terms of adding a little bit to his game, I think I can.”
The problem, of course, is that Ovechkin was publicly displeased with the style of hockey that Washington was playing last year. He did not take well from being told to play dump and chase hockey, and though he never actually said it, it was easy to tell. Oates knows that, and is prepared to start working with Ovechkin right away – especially after calling the Russian on Tuesday.
“He [Ovechkin] has got to earn my trust as a coach first. It will be a process…even the superstars need to be coached once in awhile.”
Despite Oates’ tremendous credentials as a player, there are some fears, as always, about his lack of head coaching experience. Oates has never been a head coach at any level, and only spent three seasons as an NHL assistant before being hired for this job. But McPhee, who is as loyal a general manager as they come, is not at all worried about a former captain becoming acclimated to life as an NHL head coach.
“It’s not that I like first time coaches. We just went into the process this summer,” McPhee said. “And I could hire a veteran guy, I could hire an inexperienced guy, I could hire a guy that played the game, I could hire a guy that didn’t play the game. We just wanted to find the best one. We talked to some terrific people, but it kept coming back to Adam. He was the one with the most upside, who could really make a difference here.”
Still, it’s a risk. McPhee has now not hired a bench boss with previous NHL head coaching experience since Ron Wilson in 1997. Many have attacked him for it, saying he is afraid to take risks. But what is a bigger risk than this? As the general manager said, this is a high-risk, high-reward move.
Oates could be a great fit. He is incredibly smart, and knows the game of ice hockey well, particularly the offensive side of it. But, as noted before, he has little experience. Oates knows that, and is willing to communicate with his players as much as they want.
“I’d say there’s a more open line than when I played, for sure,” Oates said. “When you respect each other, and they respect you, you can go on the ice and tell them they’re doing something wrong and it’s okay.”
This is also a noted improvement from Hunter, who was notorious for being a poor communicator during his time behind the Washington bench. At one point, he went almost six weeks without telling defenseman John Erskine – benched for those six weeks – why the rugged defenseman was not getting any playing time. That’s not likely to happen anymore.
“I can’t be a hypocrite as a coach, because that’s what I wanted as a player. I wanted feedback, I wanted communication from the boss. You can yell at me if you want, but I wanted input.”
Whatever the changes may be in Oates’ new coaching strategy, the pressure is now solely on him and McPhee. Make no mistake, no matter how hard others want to deny it, this is a big swing. Ovechkin is almost untouchable because of his contract and the financial attachment that Ted Leonsis has developed with him – and a coach that knew offense well had to be brought in because of it. Some may think Ovechkin needs to go, but the reality of the matter is that he wasn’t, and likely isn’t, going anywhere. Hiring Oates was the right call.
But McPhee, for all intents and purposes, may be running out of chances.
In turn, the General Manager is placing all of his trust in a man he knows, appreciates, and respects. Unlike Dale Hunter, McPhee had two weeks to select who he thought the best man for the job was. The decision was not rushed. You could feel in the room – McPhee felt as though this was the right man for the job. Not someone to come in and “save” the team for a year, but someone who could really get it done.
However, by no means is Oates playing with house money. McPhee brings in the pieces, but is the job of any coach – and now, especially, Oates – to fit the pieces together in a way that will bring home a Stanley Cup.
It’s a risky move, and Leonsis’ patience is running out.
“We’re at that point where we’ve won in the regular season, but we have to do better in the playoffs,” the owner said.
“We have to win a Stanley Cup. It’s what our mission is.”
Adam Oates, welcome to Washington. No pressure.
Harry Hawkings is a college student who is credentialed to cover the Capitals for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here.