ARLINGTON, Va. -- Toward the end of Washington Capitals practice Wednesday, when some players were skating around and having a few laughs, there was Alex Ovechkin at center ice. He was down on one knee, head up, eyes focused on coach Adam Oates, who appeared to be demonstrating to the superstar how to position himself for a good shot to a goalie's glove side.
Oates pretended to shoot. Ovechkin watched intently. Oates pretended he was the goalie waving his glove. Ovechkin watched intently. When the demonstration was over, the two chatted briefly before Oates let out a laugh, tapped Ovechkin on the shoulder and skated away.
Why is this important? Why does it matter that the coach and his superstar player were having a chat like this one day before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals between the Capitals and New York Rangers?
Oates' brand of 1-on-1 communication helped put the fun back in Ovechkin's game, and in turn created a new and intoxicating brand of winning hockey in Washington that has the Capitals thinking their time finally has come.
"He's such a visual guy, he watches everybody and he gives you these little notes, these little details that you can do to change your game depending on your position and how you play," Capitals defenseman Mike Green told NHL.com of his coach. "He really relates to a lot of us players and that's been comforting. He's smart and it's because he pays attention to detail."
Oates hasn't just changed the way the Capitals play -- he has changed the way they think.
He encourages them to play in five-man units, which means chemistry is as important as talent. The players have to build that with communication, amongst themselves and with the coaching staff.
He wants them to aggressively try to force turnovers in the neutral zone, which requires understanding angles and where everybody is on the ice. Again, communication and teaching are essential ingredients.
He wants his defensemen to move the puck out of the zone with quick passes instead of solo rushes. To do that, they have to know where the forwards are going to be and have an instinct of when to pass the puck and if they should join the rush after they do.
Chemistry, teaching, attention to detail, thinking -- this is the new identity for the Capitals.
"If you compare [it to] last year's coach [Dale Hunter], he [taught] only one thing," Ovechkin said, referring to Hunter's defensive principles. "Right now [Oates] teaches many things. He knows more of the game than the usual coach. Every coach has their plusses and minuses, and for me I don't see any bad side to his coaching."
Oates' success in Washington shouldn't come as a surprise.
Anyone who knows his history as an intelligent, thinking-man's Hall of Fame center and has a modicum of patience should have been able to predict that Oates would be a successful NHL coach once the players in Washington started to understand him, trust him and trust themselves to implement his tactics.
Brett Hull in St. Louis, Cam Neely in Boston and Peter Bondra in Washington all needed some time to understand and trust Oates. He turned them into 50-goal scorers. Hull scored as many as 86 with Oates and as few as 72. Hull said Oates would have made him a 1,000-goal scorer if they played together for longer than two-plus seasons.
"He knows exactly what a 50-goal scorer is," Ovechkin said. "He knows how to tell the center what to do and how to tell me to get open, how to find the space."
In addition, as a player Oates schooled himself in the concept of team by talking to and listening to some of the third- and fourth-line grinders he played with.
"He always went out and had dinners with Chaser [Kelly Chase], talked with Bobby Bassen over lunch, Dave Lowery and Garth Butcher," Hull told NHL.com. "He heard and listened and understood what they expected from the coach and how they wanted to be treated as players and what they thought their contribution was as players.
"So, sure, his expertise is offense, skill and working with guys like [Ovechkin], but he's so intelligent that he knows you can't win without an Eric Fehr or a Jason Chimera, people like that. He understands how to use them and how to treat them so that they feel they are as big a part of victories as [Nicklas] Backstrom and Ovechkin and the rest of the skilled guys."
Part of that is making sure his door is open to everybody. It's what Oates wanted as a player but feels he never got because in his generation, players talked far more with assistants than the coach.
"I want to give the players the feeling they can reach out to me and ask me something," Oates said. "That's why you have to do your homework. You have to have answers. You can't just wing it. They know. Every guy knows how much he plays, every second, how many shots he's had, every other guy's stat. There are no secrets. So when a guy asks me a question, and I encourage it, I may not be able to answer you right this second, but you'll get one tomorrow."
The players say they're never disappointed.
"I've never had a coach that's so in tune with his players," forward Troy Brouwer told NHL.com. "He talks to you as if he's still a player, but just a really smart player."
And respectful -- Oates never yells. He doesn't believe raising his voice will make a player understand him any better.
"I just really feel that if I'm not happy with a guy I don't have to yell at him to let him know," Oates said. "I can talk to him. He's still a pro. You've got to be a pro. That's what we are, we're pros now. It's a different game than before."
The players respect him more because of how he treats them.
"You don't leave video sessions feeling like you've been beaten up, like you do with some other coaches, when you come out saying, 'Geez, I need a drink after that,'" Chimera said. "With him you feel like you've actually learned something."