Brooks Laich can see the big picture. He was on the ice for all the excitement, success, tumult and failure the past few years. Now he has an inside-but-detached view as he recovers from an injury and the Washington Capitals adjust to their newest new coach, Adam Oates.
“Knowing how our system is supposed to work, I can see it working really well once we master it,” Laich said. “But it’s the same thing with the other systems we played with past coaches. You don’t have a suffocating defense the first 10 games. It takes 60 or 70 games – or it takes a season – to build that up, so by the time the playoffs come, you have your team identity.”
The problem is obvious: The Capitals don’t have 60 or 70 games. They don’t have a full season. They are already nine games into an abbreviated 48-game schedule. With the NHL’s worst record entering Tuesday night – 2-6-1, for a .278 points percentage – can they build their identity and make the playoffs and make a run?
It’s far too soon to give up. The Capitals entered Tuesday night still only three points out of eighth in the East. What if everything clicks? But while there needs to be a sense of urgency on the inside, there also needs to be an understanding on the outside that Oates has the biggest coaching challenge in the NHL for several reasons:
1. He’s a rookie: There is reason to believe Oates can succeed when so many former offensive stars have failed as coaches. He wasn’t a natural. He had to work at it. Not only was he not a high draft pick, he wasn’t drafted at all. He rose from U.S. college hockey to the Hall of Fame by analyzing the game and outthinking his opponents. His specialty was assists, setting up others to shine, and he was an excellent assistant coach in Tampa Bay and New Jersey.
But even if he can communicate his vision better than other former offensive stars have in the past – even if he isn’t frustrated that the players simply don’t see the game like he can – being a head coach is different. It’s about leading men. It’s about managing egos and schedules and the media. Oates might need time to figure out what he doesn’t know.
2. The lockout hurt: Oates had a plan for training camp and the exhibition season. He had to crumple it up and throw it away. Worse, he couldn’t even talk to his players for months.
“Obviously the toughest thing for me being the new coach is, the guys don’t know you,” Oates said. “You don’t get a chance to introduce yourself and have the luxury of a camp and exhibition games to establish it.”
Oates had six days of camp. He had zero preseason games. Now that the regular season has started, he is still handcuffed because the schedule is compressed and the new labor agreement requires more days off, leaving him with little practice time. All he can do is extra video work and teach on the fly.
“When to jump in to help your partner out defensively, what to do exactly on the forechecks, what to do exactly through the neutral zone – a lot of it has to do with timing,” said Capitals center Matt Hendricks. “With not many practices to work on it, it’s got to come in the game. It’s just not there yet.”
What part of the game is most dependent on coaching and practice time? What part of the game is hurting the Capitals the most? What part of the game did the Caps drill when they did have a full practice Monday? Special teams.
3. Here we go again: Every other coach in the league had to deal with the lockout, and some other coaches took over new teams, and one other coach had never been a head man in the NHL before – Edmonton’s Ralph Krueger.
But this is where Oates’ situation starts to become unique. He is the only coach who had never been a head man at any level before – Krueger was a longtime head coach in Europe – and he is the Capitals’ third head coach in two seasons. Bruce Boudreau went from offensive hockey to defensive hockey in 2010-11. He was fired early last season and replaced by Dale Hunter, who was even more defensive.
Frankly, Hunter simplified the game so much that he dumbed it down – sit back, play man-to-man in the defensive zone, block shots, flip a coin. Oates wants more sophistication – pressure the puck all over the ice, outnumber opponents at the right time in the defensive zone, put the puck in the right place in the offensive zone, forecheck. More sophistication requires more teaching, more trust and more time, especially when old habits are all over the place.
“There's nothing wrong with the way that Dale coached, because it's the same way that Boston plays the game and they won the Cup doing it [in 2011],” said Capitals GM George McPhee. “And Dale came in in a pinch and helped us out in a year where we had to make a change and you don't have a lot of time to talk to other coaches.
“But we were able to take our time on this decision, and we've hired a real good coach. We want to play the way most teams are playing in the league, and that is a real up-tempo game where there's a lot of pressure on the puck. If you create turnovers, let's make the turnovers in their end and not in ours.”
4. The Great Eight ain’t great: Alex Ovechkin used to score 50 goals and put up 100 points and do it with joy. He doesn’t anymore. The change in Ovechkin coincides with the change in the team – shades of cause and effect going both ways – and fixing Ovechkin must go hand in hand with fixing the team.
Ovechkin is the captain. He can be the catalyst. He is signed through 2020-21 at a salary cap hit of more than $9.5 million. Oates must do what Boudreau and Hunter failed to do – find a way for Ovechkin to be productive within the team concept. He can’t let Ovechkin run loose, like Boudreau did originally, but he can’t try to win in spite of him, like Hunter did, either. He must find the right balance and get the most out of the Caps’ biggest asset.
Oates thinks Ovechkin can excel by switching from the left wing to the right wing, the way Ilya Kovalchuk did with the Devils. He thinks Ovechkin can slash across the middle and touch the puck more in this system, and he thinks an improved power play will improve Ovechkin’s numbers. But again, all of that takes time.
“I'm asking him to be patient and to play the team game, and he's been great about it,” Oates said. “He really has.”
5. Expectations are high: Consider that the Capitals won four straight division titles, that they won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2009-10, that they finished second in the NHL standings in 2010-11 and that it wasn’t enough. For five straight years, the Caps have exited the playoffs in the first or second round. They haven’t made the final since 1998, when Oates played for them. They have never won it all. When Oates was introduced in June, owner Ted Leonsis said: “We have to do better in the playoffs. We have to win the Stanley Cup.”
No pressure, eh?
But here’s hoping, for Oates’ sake, that when Leonsis said the Capitals “have to win the Stanley Cup,” he didn’t mean they necessarily had to win it this season. The Capitals are arguably in this situation because they got impatient, because they panicked. They had a great thing going, then overreacted to playoff struggles and lost their identity. They swung the pendulum too far from offense to defense. They declined in the regular season and fared no better in the playoffs.
Now Oates is trying to push the pendulum to the middle. “We're kind of 50/50,” he said. “We're defense when it's time to be defense, but we're offense when it's time to be offense.”
It’s obviously not going to happen overnight, not under these circumstances, against these odds. If it takes 60 or 70 games – or it takes a season – to build that up, that means they might not hit their stride until a quarter of the way into next season.
If so, the Capitals should take comfort in the fact that they hired Oates out of New Jersey. He was there when the Devils started poorly in 2010-11 and Kovalchuk was a flop. He was there when they missed the playoffs and then brought in their third head coach in three seasons. He was there last season, when they went to the Stanley Cup final.