WASHINGTON, DC — He has tremendous upside. He's well-prepared, and rarely makes a mental mistake on the ice. He's known as a dynamic offensive player, but his defense is just as stellar. His hockey IQ is off the charts.
Washington Capitals GM George McPhee was describing a hell of a hockey player. Which is something that Adam Oates was during his 19-year NHL career, validated with a Hall of Fame selection this week.
Less defined are Oates's accomplishments as a head coach. This is due to the fact that he's never been one.
Oates was formally introduced by the Capitals on Wednesday, 24 hours after he was hired for his first NHL head coaching gig and selected for the Hall of Fame in the same afternoon. (Remember that next time you find a dollar on the sidewalk and consider it a "lucky day.")
McPhee, who was Oates's GM during parts of six seasons in Washington, said that the former New Jersey Devils and Tampa Bay Lightning assistant coach was the choice he kept returning to during the team's coaching search.
"We believe Adam Oates has a lot of upside, and can be a real difference-maker for the club," said McPhee.
Said Capitals owner Ted Leonsis: "Not only will Adam be a very productive coach for us, he also shares having a chip on his shoulder. We're at that point where we have to do better in the playoffs. We have to win a Stanley Cup."
The Capitals still believe the foundation for a championship team is there. Despite never having been a head coach, they believe Oates is the man to lead them to the Cup.
McPhee has hired coaches without NHL experience before, but never one that hadn't had prior experience as a head coach. But McPhee was never a general manager before the Capitals hired him in 1997 at just 38 years old. Like Oates, he learned from the old guard, like Pat Quinn when McPhee was VP of hockey operations for the Vancouver Canucks.
Oates worked with Jacques Lemaire in New Jersey, a coach with whom McPhee drew similarities given the way he and Oates played as NHL centers. He's played with some of the game's great leaders over the years — Scott Stevens, Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque and Dale Hunter. He's played for coaches that helped shape his philosophy as a first-time head coach — like Brian Sutter, who coached Oates with the St. Louis Blues.
"Every day you walked in, he had that Sutter magic, where those guys were ready to work every day," said Oates. "As a player, you appreciated those guys were ready every day, so you better do your job today."
That's one plank in Oates's head coaching platform — work ethic. Setting an example for the players, communicating well and getting on the ice to teach them.
He's even eager to coach Alex Ovechkin, who hasn't exactly been on the same page as his previous two coaches in Washington at times.
"The physical element of his game is unprecedented. I watched you guys play against Boston last year, and he's the only guy in the league who can take on Chara and Lucic and Seidenberg and have that physical impact," Oates said. "In terms of adding things to his game, I think I can. But he's gotta earn my trust as a coach first, along with the rest of the guys."
Added McPhee: "He still might have to dump it in and block a shot once in a while. When it's his turn."
McPhee said time and again that the trust established between coach and players — and their willingness to buy in — was essential for anyone he hired, even more so than an effective coaching system. He said that Oates will earn it because he's smart, tireless and prepared.
"What I really admired Adam as a player, and what I heard about him from other people, is that he's really well-prepared. Always ready. Adam never made mental mistakes. If he made a mistake, it was physical. He was always on. People talk about Nick Lidstrom in Detroit, always doing things perfect. That was Adam as a player," said McPhee.
"You want intelligent guys running the bench. A guy like Bill Belichick in New England, he's an intelligent guy. You want the most intelligent guys in the room."
Smart is good. Mike Babcock is smart. Dan Bylsma is smart. Dale Hunter never came off as the sharpest blade in the hockey bag, but like those other two guys he had a gift as a coach: Convincing players to sacrifice for the team, and do the little things for success.
Oates wants to build off that, and up the tempo.
"If you look at the Final this year with LA and New Jersey, you saw two teams that were basically in-your-face teams. All over the ice, all three zones," he said. "I look at the Capitals' talent level, and I can't see any reason why we can't push the pace and be an aggressive team."
He said when the Devils scouted the Capitals, he told McPhee that he was impressed with the way they played the system and "the correct way of hockey."
Even when he was a player, Oates would impart some coaching knowledge to his GM.
McPhee relayed a story in which Oates came to his GM and coach, asking if Peter Bondra shouldn't be on the power-play point; Bondra went on to score a league-high 21 goals that season. He also suggested that Chris Simon skate on his line; Simon responded with a career-best 29 goals.
"We wanted to find the best guy," said McPhee of his coaching search. "It just kept coming back to Adam."
And Adam has come back to Washington. Albeit one where the Capitals are a slightly bigger deal than when he left.
On a day when over 70 media members crammed a room at Verizon Center to hear him speak, Oates remembered being named Capitals captain at a press event in front of the White House. "I think there was no one there," Oates said, laughing. "People were walking by, throwing me a nickel."
Now those people fill the arena every home game, waiting for this team to finally play for the Stanley Cup as Oates's team did back in 1998. The Capitals are in the hands of a novice head coach, but one whose résumé as a player, influences as a coach and philosophy behind the bench convinced the team to entrust him with its success.