Brett Hull had 741 career NHL goals on the way to the Hockey Hall of Fame, but when he watches Alex Ovechkin score, he sees pure joy.
“Have you ever seen a guy happier to score a goal than Ovechkin?” Hull said. “He goes crashing into the glass. He lives for that.”
But in last year’s playoffs, Ovechkin saw as his ice time dip as low as 13 minutes and 36 seconds, even as he was scoring goals and helping the Washington Capitals win. That was under Dale Hunter, who put an emphasis on defensive play and leaned on the likes of Jay Beagle and Brooks Laich late in playoff games rather than Ovechkin.
Don’t expect any of that from new coach Adam Oates, who could be the perfect guy to take Ovechkin’s career back to superstar levels.
“I think Adam will find the key to Alex Ovechkin’s soul,” Oates’ college coach at RPI, Mike Addesa, said.
Oates is off to a good start. Ovechkin doesn’t need day-to-day tutelage, but he’s enjoying having an open line of communication with his coach.
“I know I can talk to him about everything,” Ovechkin said. “I talk only one time to Dale all year. Right now I talk to Oatesy almost every day.”
And it’s not just about being there to talk, something Oates said is key to his style with all of his players. It’s about understanding how a star player’s mind works.
“Coaches that never [were stars], they don’t understand Ovechkin. Like Dale Hunter. How is Dale Hunter ever going to understand what’s inside the mind of Ovechkin? He can’t. Adam Oates can,” said Hull, who scored more than a third of his career goals with Oates as his linemate. “He understands the mind of a superstar scorer and the ego that goes with it and what it takes to satisfy that ego. And the ego I’m talking about isn’t a bad thing; it’s a hunger within that guy.”
Ovechkin has an ego, no doubt about it. You don’t become a two-time Hart Trophy winner without a burgeoning sense of self-confidence. Even cockiness.
Managing that and channeling it is part of what Oates was brought here to do. He coached alongside Peter DeBoer with the New Jersey Devils last year as Ilya Kovalchuk scored 23 more points than the previous year and became a better all-around player.
Oates gave credit to DeBoer, but his getting the Caps coaching job had plenty to do with how he planned to deal with stars like Ovechkin.
“We thought that that would be important, we thought that Adam’s going to be a terrific communicator with the club, collectively and individually, but he’s certainly going to be able to relate to the star player,” general manager George McPhee said. “Adam, he’s going to have a great relationship with all the players, but in particular really get along well with the top guys.”
Ovechkin said the most important thing with Oates is “trust.” Because he’s comfortable with his new coach, the 27-year-old is trying to make the switch to right wing after spending the vast majority of his career on the left side.
The team’s hope is that Ovechkin returns to all-world form from earlier in his career, when he was a 50-goal scorer. In a 48-game season that would equate to roughly 30 goals, a nice goal to shoot for in Oates’ system.
“The system works very well for goal-scorers and works very well for defensive guys, too,” Ovechkin said. “You never know how many goals I’m going to score.”
Oates is careful not to come off as someone who has to re-teach Ovechkin how to play in the NHL. That’s not his intention. But he does think he can get through to him, based on his playing career.
“I think I can. But I am a coach now, so it’s different,” Oates said. “I think I can help him.”
And not just in the traditional ways like putting Ovechkin the right place on the ice. As Hull said, Ovechkin doesn’t always need to be skated hard in practice to get production out of him.
Oates learned that from his playing days.
“He knows what was right for Brett Hull. It might be a little bit different than the rest of the team, but he knew what was right for Cam Neely or a Peter Bondra,” McPhee said. “So he’ll know what’s right for our players. He’ll know what it’s like to get in after playing three games in four nights at 3 o’clock in the morning, and the guy’s played 27 minutes, what you can expect out of him the next morning. Is it the time to really push him in the weight room or is it the time to say, ‘Let’s back off a little bit, and we’ll do that in a day or so.’”
But Oates wasn’t just a star-maker, another reason those around him believe in his ability to coax the most out of Ovechkin.
“I think a big reason is Oatsey was a star. He didn’t deal with them, he was one,” assistant Calle Johansson said. “He knows what really, really good players want and needs to succeed. I think that’s a huge reason why he might be able to have everybody play at their best.”
Ovechkin wasn’t at his best when scoring 32 goals in 2010-11 or even 38 a year ago, a number boosted by a late-season resurgence. But the captain seems happier, and McPhee expects “another big year” from him.
That all starts with Oates.
“Ovechkin is going to be like a kid again,” Hull said. “Oatesy’s going to make him so happy.”