One benefit of having Adam Oates as coach is that the Washington Capitals can draw from his 19 NHL seasons and the situations he found himself in during a Hall of Fame career.
When Oates played with the Boston Bruins, he watched defenseman Ray Bourque work his way to legendary status, and now he's transferring some knowledge over to Mike Green. Much like Bourque, Green likes to score, but Oates doesn't want the 27-year-old to go below the top of the faceoff circle in the offensive zone.
Oates said Green, a two-time Norris Trophy finalist based on his production, was great about making the adjustment.
"I explained why. When I played with Ray, that was always Ray's philosophy," Oates said. "His job was to get to the offensive zone and contribute on the offensive blue line. You're not a forward, you're a defenseman. At the end of the day, you're still a defenseman. And it's more important for us to have Mike available for those 27 minutes handling the puck than it is for him to be behind their net."
That's not to say Green can't join the rush and get involved in the offense. Oates wants all of his defensemen to jump up and help the forwards.
But there's a limit on that.
"There's a certain style that he wants to play and it's nothing different," Green said. "It's just the way the game has changed and evolved, and it doesn't make sense [to take the risk]."
Green had three goals and five assists in his first 19 games of the season. He had a career-high 76 points in 2009-10 when the Caps were playing coach Bruce Boudreau's run-and-gun style.
Under Oates, there's a bit more restriction, but Green still believes he can create offense from the back end.
"If you're getting quality chances it's going to be at the top of the circles," Green said. "That's where you're going to get your chances to score. The game has evolved and changed. It's too risky now; teams are looking for those opportunities to transition to go the other way."
Oates said the Ray Bourque rule wasn't just in effect for Green. Even if it wasn't spelled out for the other defensemen, they understand the tenets of this system.
"I think that you see a lot of the breakdowns happen around the league when the D are below," defenseman John Carlson said. "There might be times where it makes sense to do that, but that's our position and if the forwards come way too low in the D-zone too, [it's a problem]."
Caps defensemen can't be afraid to pinch, though. It's part of Oates wanting an aggressive forecheck.
"The system tells us when to pinch and when not to pinch," defenseman Jack Hillen said. "You look over your shoulder, and if you have a forward supporting to you and they're rimming the puck, if you think you can get it, you go down and you be aggressive. You do what you need to do."
Preventing odd-man rushes the other way is of paramount importance, which means a forward must rotate back. When the New York Rangers scored off a two-on-one Sunday night, Oates said it wasn't because Green pinched too far but because the forwards "didn't recover correctly."
"It absolutely requires lots of trust, but we play a team sport and we all know where each other is going to be," Hillen said. "That's why you have a system. I never think twice about it; I've never second-guessed whether the forward's going to be there. And if you look over and you think the forward won't be able to get back, you just don't go and you play it safe."
Green is OK with how Oates wants him to play because it does still allow him to get into prime scoring areas.
"If there's an opportunity to jump up in the play and I'm going to create a three-on-one or something, I'm obviously going to do it," he said. "That's what he talks about a lot: making hockey reads. But there's no need to be up in the play over the top of the circles. If it's a three-on-three, there's no need. We've talked about it, and it's very clear what our limits are and that's that."
It's about having common sense, especially for the more offensive-minded players, such as Green and Carlson.
"Unless you're off the rush and there's two-on-one or three-on-two where you need to go low, then you're putting yourself out of position," Carlson said. "Then you've got to beat five of their guys coming back to get to your net. It definitely doesn't make sense, and I don't think it's much of an adjustment."
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