GM George McPhee loved the way former coach Dale Hunter was able to get the Washington Capitals to "play their guts out" in the postseason. But Hunter's conservative, defensive style of hockey wasn't the direction McPhee wanted to take the team.
"I think the whole league is trending toward an up-tempo style of play," he said before the NHL Draft. "But it's not necessarily the style of play that's important. It's the ability of a coach to sell it to the players."
New Jersey Devils assistant coach Adam Oates is both an offensive coach and someone that had the commitment of his players, helping the team go from 30th in the NHL in offense in 2010-11 to middle of the pack (2.59 GFA).
On Tuesday, Oates was named the next head coach of the Capitals.
From the Caps:
"We are very pleased to name Adam Oates as the new head coach of the Washington Capitals," said McPhee. "Adam was a highly intelligent player in the NHL for 19 seasons. He has been an assistant coach in our conference for the past three seasons and is prepared to lead our club as head coach."
Oates, 49, becomes the 16th head coach in Washington Capitals history and will make his head coaching debut after three seasons as an assistant coach. Oates became an assistant coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2009-10 season before moving to New Jersey in 2010. He was behind the bench as an assistant for the Devils' Stanley Cup playoff-run last season.
The Devils gave Oates permission to speak to one team after the season. Oates played in Washington from 1997-2002, the first four years of McPhee's tenure as GM. (McPhee traded him to the Flyers in 2002.)
He's never been a head coach at any pro level, having served as an assistant under Rick Tocchet in Tampa Bay and then being hired by the Devils in June 2010 to work under John MacLean. After MacLean was turfed that season, Oates worked under Jacques Lemaire and then Peter DeBoer this season.
According to the Washington Times, ex-Chicago Blackhawks coach Mike Haviland and Norfolk Admirals coach Jon Cooper were the other finalists.
Was this the right hire for the Caps? And can Adam Oates get a head coaching gig and a Hall of Fame invitation on the same day?
At face, it's a smart move.
If it's up-tempo McPhee wants, it's up-tempo Oates will deliver. The idea of Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro working with one of the best centers in NHL history — sixth all-time in assists — is tantalizing. The idea that Oates will take over the Capitals' power play — which ranked behind that of the Devils' last season — is encouraging.
From Rock The Red's Andy Green's assessment of Oates as a Capitals candidate last month:
"In the final tally, Oates has the smarts, experience, and resume to be an NHL head coach. He has all the intangibles McPhee likes, and he may well have the right combination of hubris and humility to work with McPhee while remaining adamant about his own ideas. Under Hunter, the Capitals gelled as a team and learned to play excellent tough, shot-blocking defensive hockey. It was obvious to those who watch the team the Capitals could be somewhat successful that way, but for most fans and the top players, it was a grinding style that limited the team's offensive chances. After all, the Capitals have extremely high-end talent that sets them apart, and Oates knows exactly what to do with that."
The major concern here isn't Oates' systems or game-plans. It's his inexperience.
He's never been a head coach. Hunter, by comparison, had been a head coach for years in juniors before taking his first NHL gig. And now not only will Oates coach his first team, but a team with Alex Ovechkin.
The automatic assumption, and not entirely an inaccurate one: That Ovechkin wasn't pleased playing a defensive style under Hunter, and now here comes a coach that might be able to get Ovie back to those halcyon days of 30 power-play points per season. Happy Ovie, better Capitals.
But as McPhee said: It's not the style of hockey that matters, it's the ability of the coach to sell that style. He clearly believes Adam Oates can get Ovechkin and the Capitals to buy in.