Adam Oates won just two of the first 11 NHL games he coached. It was the kind of start that could’ve been a breeding ground for doubt and second-guessing.
“I wasn’t second-guessing myself being a coach,” Oates said. “I was second-guessing that, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect it to be this lousy, this fast.’ You expect bad runs. I didn’t expect that.”
Aside from goaltender Braden Holtby, who watched a similar situation unfold in Hershey, most Washington Capitals players didn’t expect it, either. But they didn’t doubt Oates.
“Not for one second,” forward Eric Fehr said.
Perhaps the early struggles and late run to the playoffs should have been predictable for a rookie head coach, especially given the lockout and shortened training camp. In looking back at his first season running a team, Oates might take all summer to hone his craft for next year and beyond.
“You’re going to think about a lot of little things and evaluate yourself and try and think of the mistakes and what you could have done better, and all the little things,” Oates said. “Our job is to try and get better as coaches, and your job is to try and get better as players.”
A first-round exit showed there’s plenty of room for improvement, but a second-half surge to the Southeast Division title proved there’s a strong foundation behind the bench.
“I think he can be a terrific coach in this league, one of the really, really good ones,” general manager George McPhee said of Oates. “The players were all raving about him. They loved what he taught them this year. They also loved that he had a real positive approach through the year. He didn’t waver on that.”
Players used two words to describe Oates’ impact: positivity and confidence. Positivity got them through the tough times, and confidence kept them rolling through the rest of the Eastern Conference on the way to the playoffs.
When the Caps were languishing at the bottom of the standings, Oates showed video clips of what they were doing right and tried to keep them from getting too down.
“He left positive messages in our heads the whole time,” defenseman John Carlson said. “He was almost to the point where sometimes you just wanted to get yelled at.”
Not surprisingly, players said Oates never exploded at them. Through 19 NHL seasons, he never liked being yelled at by coaches, so he vowed not to do it.
“He’s a coach who likes to communicate and not scream,” center Mike Ribeiro said. “Nowadays, players are looking for more of a players coach: a coach that can talk to you and be normal and respect you, and I think Oates did that with everyone.”
The instant respect of being a Hall of Fame player helped, then Oates took it and got the most out of Alex Ovechkin and others. The captain enjoyed an MVP-caliber season after switching to right wing at Oates’ request, and could be in the midst of a career renaissance.
Oates also took defensemen like Jack Hillen, John Erskine and Steve Oleksy and turned them from afterthoughts to key pieces on the blue line.
“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.”