The Washington Capitals were on the clock to find a new coach since May 14. They needed a replacement for Dale Hunter, but general manager George McPhee was in no rush.
Finally, the Caps selected Adam Oates. He’s not proven at any level, and choosing another coach without NHL head coaching experience is a risk, but it’s one the front office felt was worth taking.
“It’s not unlike what we’ve tried to accomplish when we go to the draft or the summer. Our philosophy has been to 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,” McPhee said. “That’s what we tried to do here. And we believe Adam Oates is a guy who has lots of upside and can be a real difference-maker for the club.”
Oates played parts of six seasons for the Capitals, scoring 73 goals and collecting 354 assists.
The decision to hire the 49-year-old with just three years of experience as an assistant coach came about from a combination of his smarts as a player and feedback from around the league.
“Certainly his background in the game is exceptional,” McPhee said of the 19-year veteran, who was chosen for the Hockey Hall of Fame shortly after being named the Capitals’ coach . “He was really a terrific player and has quickly become a top-notch assistant coach, and he’s now ready to be a head coach.”
McPhee didn’t just interview Oates. He talked to those who played with him and for him, other general managers, coaches and even referees. It took a few more questions of New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello and then thel decision was made.
Oates is the fifth straight hire by McPhee to lack experience as an NHL head coach, following Hunter, Bruce Boudreau, Glen Hanlon and Bruce Cassidy.
“I could hire a veteran guy, I could 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,” McPhee said. “We talked to some terrific people, but it kept coming back to Adam as the one with the most upside and could really make a difference here.”
Oates drew comparisons from McPhee to Stanley Cup-winning coach Jacques Lemaire and Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, for style and intelligence. Oates impressed in how he articulated his “hockey IQ,” but it also was how he wants the Caps to play that made an impact.
“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 and all three zones,” Oates said. “I really feel the game today is [about] 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, be an aggressive team but at the same time not sacrificing defense and protecting our goalie. That requires commitment all over the ice.”
Commitment and attention to detail are two aspects of Oates’ coaching style that attracted attention, though lessons learned from his playing days helped, too. McPhee told of Oates’ recommendation to put high-scoring forward Peter Bondra on the point on the power play and to put rugged wing Chris Simon on his line, experiments that worked out well.
But the Caps are hiring Oates the coach, not Oates the Hall of Famer, an important distinction even though it was hard to separate them at his introductory news conference Wednesday.
“In terms of methodology, how he’s going to practice, how he’s going to run the bench and everything else, I liked all of those things,” McPhee said. “His ability to communicate was terrific as a player, he’s terrific as an assistant coach. There’s a long checklist, certainly.”
Oates hit the boxes on that checklist, though it took until the Devils lost in the Cup Final for the Caps to ask for and receive permission to speak with him. Only then did the process really get underway for McPhee, who seemed to always want to bring the former Washington captain back.
Players and former teammates laud Oates for his communication skills, and he should be able to glean from his work alongside Larry Robinson in New Jersey to be a coach with an emphasis on teaching. But with his playing experience, Oates brings something that he shares with Hunter: instant recognition.
“The players are going to have a lot of respect for this guy when he walks in the door and I expect they’ll have a lot of respect for him three months from now and a year from now,” McPhee said.
But Oates knows he’ll have to earn the respect of the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. What the Caps are banking on with this risk is that he can get through to them.
“I think not only will Adam be a very, very productive coach for us, he also shares having a chip on his shoulder,” owner Ted Leonsis said. “We’re at that point where we have to do better in the playoffs. We have to win a Stanley Cup. That’s what our mission is.
“I think George’s feeling and analytics that he can be a difference-maker, that’s what we’re looking for, that’s what we need to take that next step.”