MONTREAL – For a rookie coach trying to win the trust of his players, winning once in your first seven games is not exactly the way to do it.
But that's where Adam Oates found himself with the Washington Capitals this season: making system changes and asking players to adjust to new roles while having no on-ice success to back up what he was preaching.
The Capitals got off to a 1-5-1 start to the season, and they were 2-8-1 after 11 games, so Oates would have been justified if he lost his temper with his players at some point.
But he didn't. Not once.
"I have to give credit to the coaching staff for not being negative with us when we were going through the learning process," Capitals center Matt Hendricks told NHL.com Saturday morning before the team's game against the Montreal Canadiens. "There were times they could have shown a lot of negativity on video, but they chose not to do that. That kept us on a positive note, they showed us a lot of positive clips of things we were doing correctly. We knew when we started doing those things correctly on a nightly basis, good things will come."
Oates is reaping the rewards for his positive approach, with the Capitals 22-10-1 since that 2-8-1 start.
"The way that I believed I wanted to be a coach was what I wanted as a player," Oates said. "I showed up for work, I wanted to be coached. I didn't need to be yelled at. That's what I responded to, and that's what I want to be as a coach."
Forward Troy Brouwer used one word to describe a Capitals turnaround that has seen the team go 12-2-1 heading into Saturday: trust.
He said the team needed to trust the system Oates was putting in, and trust each other to play within that system and do their jobs. That trust was difficult to find early on with a losing record and their superstar player Alex Ovechkin struggling with a switch from his usual spot at left wing to the right side.
"It's human nature that if you bring something new and it doesn't work right away, your first reaction is to kind of go against it," Brouwer said. "But the push back on the new system wasn't so bad; we were still embracing the system. But, like [Ovechkin] moving from the left wing to the right wing, he's only ever played the left wing, so at the beginning of the year I'm sure he was a little unhappy. But it's worked out well and it's paid off for us."
Last season, the Capitals played a very conservative system under coach Dale Hunter, one that placed a heavy emphasis on blocking shots and was ultimately very taxing on the players. Oates, on the other hand, doesn't want his players going down on the ice to block shots at all, except in very desperate situations.
"I don't believe in flinging yourself in front of a shot, because that means you're out of position," Oates said. "Even if you block the shot, the puck's lying there. How are you going to clear it if you're on the ice?"
Brouwer said this new way of thinking is one of the reasons the Capitals are buying what Oates is selling.
"We were winning, so it was fun to play, but after every game when we've blocked around 30 to 40 shots a game or so, that wears on you a little bit," Brouwer said of last season's system. "That's no fun. But if that's the price of winning, guys will do it. The fact that we're trying to put ourselves in better position so that guys don't have to block those kinds of shots, guys are really embracing that."
They've embraced it to such an extent that Oates doesn't need to remind them anymore.
"We can see the consistencies and inconsistencies in our game, it's almost like we're coaching ourselves in a way," Hendricks said. "The way Adam has done it, he's taught us the right way to play, and now we're noticing when we're not doing that."
The fact Oates remained cool while teaching that way to play may be the reason it has stuck so well with his players. It's no small accomplishment, especially considering it was done in the midst of a brewing firestorm as fans and media in Washington panicked over the team's difficult start.
Under those circumstances, it would be human nature to want to take your frustrations out on your players. But Oates insisted he was never even tempted to do so.
"No, because it's truly what I believe," he said. "I didn't respond to a guy yelling at me. Some guys might, I didn't. So I don't want to be that guy. I believe in talking to a guy. That doesn't mean that if I'm not happy with a guy I can't just let him know that I don't think he's playing good enough.
"But I don't have to yell at him to do that."