Being a professional hockey coach means you have to be part tactician, part psychologist. And, as it turns out, part mathematician.
Before every game, Capitals coach Adam Oates has to make 23 go into 20. The NHL allows teams to carry 23 players. Only 20 can dress for a game. As cool as the media corps may be, players would rather be on ice than up in the press box where the scratches sit for a game.
It is not a decision Oates takes lightly.
“It is unbelievable how much it is on your mind,” Oates said after a recent practice. “It wakes me up.
“You’re thinking about it, you’re thinking about everybody’s feelings, you’re thinking about the subplots, all the conversations you have to have. You’re thinking about the team, who is hot and who is cold, how to get them in, where they fit within the system, etc., etc. You just try to piece it together.”
It’s hard on the players, too, at least those on the lower end of the roster pecking order. The names “Ovechkin” and “Backstrom” and “Green” don’t cross Oates‘ mind when he’s figuring out which healthy players get to sit out. So far, eight members of the Caps’ current roster have been scratches. Some have been out much longer than others.
Forward Jay Beagle has only played seven games this season, and he went from Oct 16 until this past weekend without playing. An injury to Brooks Laich helped put him back in the lineup for now.
Forward Aaron Volpatti started the season upstairs but has since played 19 straight games. He had the Caps’ first goal in a victory over the New York Islanders on Saturday.
Forward Eric Fehr found himself on the scratch list for three weeks before returning last week (and being chosen to go first in a shootout in his first game back). He has two goals, and two shootout goals, since his return.
Defensiveman Steve Oleksy sat the first two games, joined the lineup and then was scratched again last week. He remained out over the weekend.
Part of it is matchup, how Oates thinks a certain player might do against an opponent. Part of it is a hunch, a feel for when the time is right for a return (or a scratch). Sometimes a minor injury takes one player out a game or two and gives a player who is often scratched a chance, as was the case with Beagle over the weekend.
Players usually find out after the morning skate on the day of a game, though sometimes it is later if another player is dealing with an injury and Oates wants to see how he is able to handle pregame warmups.
“It’s one of the things you don’t control,” said Beagle, who played all 48 games last season. “I love to play the game so you go out and play the game when you’re called on. The coach and the [general manager], that’s one of the things they have to deal with, that’s their job.”
Fehr, not often a member of the scratched crew, found himself upstairs early in November then found himself back on the ice last week. It was time, Oates said, to get him back in the lineup. It didn’t hurt that Martin Erat was demanding a trade, something Oates said was a factor in Erat being a healthy scratch on the night Fehr returned.
“My thought is to work as hard as I can when I’m not playing, try to stay in game shape and be ready,” Fehr said. “It is extremely difficult. You try to keep yourself in with the team, but you kind of distance yourself. You’re not with them, you feel like you’re away from the guys and it is not a good feeling at all. It is a lot easier to feel like a part of the team when you’re playing.
“It is completely out of my control. I played as hard as I could every game I played and one game you don’t get your jersey. You just have to keep working and try to prove that you can get back in there.”
Oates doesn’t expect, or want, players to be happy when they’re not playing. He said he considers himself a communicator, but also admits there are times when players just have to accept it without explanation.
“It’s just part of the game,” Oleksy said. “Nobody likes to sit out. You just have to keep a positive attitude, stay the course and be ready when you do get a chance. You can only control what you can control — that’s your attitude and how hard you work. You have to contribute any way you can, even if you aren’t in the lineup.”
The obvious answer would seem to be having 20 players on hand and extras a phone call away in the minors, where they can work on their skills in actual games. But Oates and his coaching colleagues say they need extras on hand to practice properly and because injuries are more frequent in a physical game like hockey. Most teams keep the allowable 23, though some go with 22.
Though he’s hardly playing, Beagle said he’s right where he wants to be. He’d rather be in his current spot than playing in the minors.
“I love the guys here. This is where I want to be,” he said. “You take this time to get stronger, on and off the ice. You take this time to work on things you normally can’t work on. One of those things for me is my hands — I’ve been working on it a month now, trying to get better every day.
“There’s a lot of guys who want to be here and I realize I’m blessed to be here. Every time I do go into a game, I never take it for granted. Every game I play, I give it everything I have.”