WASHINGTON -- Long before the 2000-01 Washington Capitals were crowned Southeast Division champions, then-captain Adam Oates was growing frustrated with his team's 0-4-2 start.
"I remember him coming up to [coach] Ron [Wilson] and I," Caps general manager George McPhee recalled Wednesday. "We were in the lobby of a hotel on the road and Adam asked if we had ever thought about putting Peter Bondra on the point on the power play. We weren't sure… but Adam said 'we need the shot back there and I can get him the puck.'"
At Oates' insistence, the power play started featuring Bondra at the point. Bondra went on to lead the NHL with 22 power-play goals, while Oates finished tops in the League with 69 assists.
"That was all his suggestion and there were all kinds of other [examples] like that," McPhee said of Oates' smarts and hockey IQ.
Oates spent parts of six seasons with the Capitals from 1997-2002. He returned to Washington on Wednesday where he was formally introduced as the 16th coach in franchise history. Oates replaces former teammate Dale Hunter, who stepped down May 14, not long after the Caps were eliminated by the New York Rangers in Game 7 of their second-round series.
"I'm a true believer in communication," Oates said. "When the players walk in and they see your work ethic, your intensity and your knowledge, they become believers. When you go out on the ice and show them things that can add to their game I think that just helps the cause. ... But there's no question that you have to earn their respect."
Oates was hired Tuesday, just hours before being notified of his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The offensive numbers Oates produced in his 19-year playing career rank among the NHL's best (sixth all-time in assists, 16th in points), but it's the intangibles the 49-year-old can bring to the Caps that led to his being named coach.
"You want intelligent guys running the bench," McPhee said. "A guy like Bill Belichick in New England -- he's a bright guy -- and you try to get the smartest guy in the room. I just think with Adam's understanding of this game and his ability to articulate it, he can be that guy.
"He's the guy with the most upside and he can really be a difference maker."
In addition to Belichick, McPhee also compared Oates to Nicklas Lidstrom -- both players had the smarts to limit any mental mistakes -- and to Jacques Lemaire.
"[Lemaire] was a player very similar to Adam -- a terrific offensive player when he played the game, but he also understood how to play defensively. … Jacques Lemaire turned out to be a heck of a coach, and I see similar things in Adam in the way he talks about the game."
Oates arrives in D.C. with no prior experience running a team, although he spent the past three seasons as an assistant with the Tampa Bay Lightning (2009-10) and New Jersey Devils (2010-12).
In New Jersey, Oates was praised for helping the Devils power play improve from 28th in the NHL (14.3 percent) in 2010-11 to 14th in the League this past season (17.2 percent). Oates also worked closely with Ilya Kovalchuk, who rebounded with 37 goals and 83 points this past season after a 60-point campaign in 2010-11.
In Washington, Oates will face a similar task in trying to get captain Alex Ovechkin back on track offensively. Ovechkin is coming off a career-low 65-point season.
"We're going to talk about his game," Oates said, "but I still think the physical aspect of his game is unprecedented. … I think he's a special player and in terms of adding to his game, I think I can. But he's got to earn my trust as a coach first and it will be a process that we're starting soon.
"Ilya made his adjustments willingly and people were talking about what a different player he was this season and really he had to be shown a few things. … He needed to learn a little bit about the game, and sometimes even the superstars need to be coached once in a while."
Oates interviewed with the Capitals shortly after New Jersey lost the Stanley Cup Final against the Los Angeles Kings. He said he hopes to bring a style to the Caps similar to that used by the Devils and Kings.
"When you look at the Finals this year, you saw two teams that were basically in-your-face teams, all over the ice," Oates said. "I really feel the game today is territory. You have to establish territory and protect it. I look at the Caps lineup and the talent level and I don't see any reason why we can't push the pace and be an aggressive team but at the same time not sacrificing defense. It requires commitment all over the ice."
We've got to find a way to win a game. He's played well in the minors, now he gets his opportunity. We tried [with Jonathan Bernier]. The way I look at it, you get opportunities and you make the most of it. That's what [James Reimer] did. Now another opportunity is here and Sparks ... you gotta grab it. Is he ready? We'll find out.
— Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock to the Toronto Star on recalling goalie Garret Sparks from the AHL to start Monday in his NHL debut
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