“If you give players confidence, an average player is going to be a great player, a great player is going to be all-world,” Hillen said. “Everybody plays better when they’re feeling better about themselves, and I think he does a great job at that.”
Confidence cuts both ways. Defenseman Mike Green said there’s a confidence level of knowing Oates will be back. Players know what to expect, thanks to the stability of the same coaching staff (Oates with assistants Tim Hunter and Calle Johansson) coming back for the 2013-14 season.
“Next year coming in it’s almost going to feel like we have a head start just because we know the system so well,” center Jay Beagle said. “It’s just going come natural to us now instead of making the switch on a shortened season.”
With 48 games to work with, consider 2013 a transition year for Oates and the Caps. Even if it cannot be marked as a success or failure, there are lessons for the young coach to learn.
Most notably a seven-game first-round loss to the New York Rangers will have him thinking for a while about what he could’ve done differently.
“There’s no one thing that came to my mind,” Oates said. “There’s a couple of line changes in the course of the seven games that I thought I should have done something different. But you kind of go through that every single night. You make mistakes every night. Everybody does. There was nothing that really stuck out that was a blatant flaw.”
No blatant flaws because Oates didn’t want to make changes to something he thought was working. A series of penalties in Game 3, a turnover by Holtby in Game 4 and a miss by Ovechkin in Game 6 cost the Caps three winnable games, so he didn’t feel the pressure to change.
“I can’t penalize my team for that. No way,” Oates said. “That’s not a system breakdown, that’s not system flaws. I don’t believe in making changes based on that.”
Helping the New Jersey Devils to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final as an assistant, Oates saw what it took to win. Maybe another year of seasoning, or maybe “a little bit of luck” will be the difference a year from now.
In his final message to players, Oates used the Boston Bruins as an example of how next year could be different, even as the Caps failed to reach the conference finals yet again. Under Claude Julien, the Bruins bowed out of the playoffs in the first or second round three years in a row before winning the Stanley Cup.
That might have no correlation to Washington, but that didn’t stop Oates from preaching positivity to the bitter end of his first season as a head coach.
“You’ve got to stay with it, and everybody try and keep getting better, and one day, it’ll just happen,” he said. “You’ll grow as an organization, and it’ll happen.”