COMMENTARY | Normally when a team makes a coaching change during the offseason, there is time to prepare. There is a summer to study and organize. The players can know what to expect. There are weeks of training camp to implement the system. There are preseason games to smooth out the wrinkles. Unfortunately for the Washington Capitals, nothing about transitioning into new head coach Adam Oates is normal.
The NHL lockout gave Oates just one week to teach his team his system. The only scrimmages to assess play were against minor leaguers or each other. There wasn't time for questions or clarification. They would have to learn on the fly.
When you have 82 games to make the playoffs, this is a fine plan. When you have just 48, you have a problem, one the Caps are realizing just two games into this sprint season.
Oates took the Caps into the deep end with his changes on day 1. He moved Alex Ovechkin to the right side. He adjusted the special teams. He started using Ovechkin on the penalty kill. After two games where the Caps looked fatigued and confused, it appears as though jumping right in may not have been the best strategy.
Making harsh changes all at once is a good plan for a full-length season. Players learn best by doing, by changing their muscle memory, by repetition. In a full-length season with a pull length training camp, this can bring the best results. What has happened instead is that the Caps have been so shocked by change that they look lost.
It seems backwards: change needing to happening over a longer period of time in a shorter season. But the Caps need to ease in to their new system before they lose too many games for a new system to matter.
Take a look at Ovechkin. Oates has moved him to the right side after he's spent his entire career on the left. When Ovechkin remembered he was playing the right side, he was more dynamic. When he didn't, he aimlessly drifted back to the side he scored his 339 career goals from. He regressed to muscle memory, often getting in the way of his linemates. Why not allow him to play on the left side during games while he practices on the right side?
It is the same story with Ovechkin's time on the penalty kill. While the effort is there, there is no player who can wake up one morning and decide they are going to be the best penalty killer in the league. It takes practice, it takes patience, and it is something Ovechkin has very little experience accomplishing. He was thrown into a role he wasn't prepared for, and the Caps are paying for it. Why not give him more practice shifts on the PK before throwing him into a man-down situation in a game?
The Caps' defensive play has been lost. There are gaping holes and slow reactions, making it look easy for opponents to pick apart. That is what is to be expected with a new system, but normally these mistakes are made in preseason scrimmages instead of key divisional games. Why not slowly ease into these adjustments instead of changing everything at once?
Allowing the Capitals to play a system they are comfortable in while making slight changes could be the best way for the team to succeed. They will be comfortable enough to have success, yet still be making strides toward Oates' style of play. It feels counterintuitive, but if they continue to flounder in the deep end of their new system, soon it won't matter when they come around.
The Caps can't afford to waste games being shell shocked by a new system. You can't win if you don't play, and it won't matter what changes the Caps make if they miss the playoffs for the first time since 2007. More familiarity while the team gets used to playing NHL hockey again could be just what they need to get going before it's too late.
Keara Dowd has spent years covering the Washington Capitals for multiple websites including The Hockey Writers and FanSided. She was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, where she still resides today.
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