The ability for Adam Oates to succeed as a first-time coach with the Washington Capitals always likely was to hinge on his relationship with Alex Ovechkin and the other star players on the roster.
Oates arrived with a detailed plan because he is a coach who is all about the details, just as he was as a Hall of Fame player. His ability to execute that plan was hindered at first because of the shortened training camp after the lockout. It wasn't without some adversity, but Oates found harmony with Ovechkin and the Capitals in his first season.
"He's real direct with the players and he tells them what he thinks he can accomplish with them," general manager George McPhee said of Oates. "It is not only having a good overall team play perspective; he thinks he can help players individually and help them improve. He spends a lot of time on details with players individually. That's something he told me he could do when we interviewed him, but he's really pulled it off."
The early returns were not great. The team slogged to a 2-8-1 start, and Ovechkin and the other top players weren't producing. McPhee knew patience was required, but this is an organization and a fan base that has known only success in the regular season for the past half-decade.
"There were two points in the season that stand out," McPhee told NHL.com. "One was early in the season when we lost another game and it was at home and we were [2-7-1], but I liked the way we were playing. We had a couple of issues going on then. We weren't getting the saves from the goalies early, and as a team we were taking too many penalties. We thought if we could clean that up and get the goalies playing better, we're going to be fine.
"I remember going down [to the dressing room] after that game and the coaches weren't happy that we lost another game, but the message I had was, 'Don't change what you're doing and don't change the message or lose confidence in what you're doing.' Sometimes when things aren't going well you think you have to change things when you don't have to."
Part of Oates' plan was to move Ovechkin, a two-time NHL MVP, from his natural position at left wing to the other side of the ice. Former Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau had done this a couple of times in brief spurts, but Oates wanted to make it a permanent switch.
It took a while, but eventually Ovechkin not only figured out his new position but thrived, scoring goals and dominating games consistently like he hadn't in the previous two seasons.
"It made him a better player," McPhee said. "It took the risk out of his game. He wasn't turning the puck over at the blue line the way he was and it was giving opponents a different look because he got a little stale and too predictable on the left side. It made us better in our own end because he could slash through the middle and take a puck on his forehand. When he was on the left side, he just went straight down the boards and never came to the middle to help us get the puck out of the zone. When he was coming down the ice, he was driving the puck deeper and keeping it down low.
"It only works if the player is willing to buy in. Here you have this athlete who has been an MVP twice on the left side and you're asking him to change positions. It is not an easy thing to do, but he bought in and he was very coachable. In addition to that, Adam helped him a lot with regards to his positioning on the power play."
The Capitals started to turn things around as well. Oates helped everyone on the power play, and it converted 26.8 percent of the extra-man chances by the end of the season.
Ovechkin led the League in goals and became a three-time MVP. Nicklas Backstrom finished third in the League in assists and had 48 points in 48 games. Almost quietly, Mike Green led defensemen in goals playing 35 games.
The second pivotal point for McPhee started with another loss. Washington went to play the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he felt his team played its best game of the season to that point in a 2-1 loss. From there, the Capitals went to play the Winnipeg Jets in two critical games.
"That was the season right there," McPhee said. "They were up by [nine] points on us going into that weekend and we beat them 6-0 and 4-1 and really played the kind of hockey we thought we could play. I thought that week was the turning point."
The Capitals finished the regular season with a 15-2-2 flurry to win the Southeast Division, but the Stanley Cup Playoffs left the club with an all-too-familiar ending. The New York Rangers knocked the third-seeded Capitals out in the first round, finishing them with a 5-0 victory at Verizon Center in Game 7.
CAPITALS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
C Mikhail Grabovski, D Tyson Strachan
C Mike Ribeiro, D Jeff Schultz, C Matt Hendricks, RW Joey Crabb, G Dany Sabourin, LW Wojtek Wolski
D Tom Poti, C Ryan Potulny
RW Tom Wilson, C Michael Latta, D Nate Schmidt
The second half of the postseason remains an elusive place for these Capitals, who have won three playoff series in six years and lost a Game 7 on home ice four times in that span.
"You can point to certain things at the end of each season in the playoffs and why didn't we advance," McPhee said. "This past year I was really, it isn't the politically correct thing to say, but I wasn't happy with the way the games were officiated. I went on record with it, and that happens sometimes. You've got to get beyond that. You might not think it's fair, but others who are objective may have thought it was fair. That's what we were disappointed with this year, and of course losing a couple of top-six guys in [Brooks] Laich and [Martin] Erat hurt a lot."
Now there is renewed optimism in Washington. Oates will have a full training camp for the first time, and the players will be more comfortable with his system and his teachings. Erat and Laich combined to play 18 games for the Capitals in 2012-13, and their returns, along with the addition of free-agent center Mikhail Grabovski, give the team a formidable forward group (though restricted free agent Marcus Johansson needs a contract).
The biggest question in the lineup is, can the Capitals find a competent top-four defenseman from a group that includes Dmitry Orlov, Jack Hillen and John Erskine? The top three of Green, John Carlson and Karl Alzner is a strength, as is the goaltending, with Braden Holtby entrenched as No. 1 and Michal Neuvirth a capable backup.
Washington is moving to a new division (Metropolitan) with some old rivals, but the expectations remain the same: Compete for a division title then figure out a way to navigate an extended stay in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time with this core group of players.
Oates was well-liked in this city as a player, but he'd be revered if he becomes the coach who led this franchise to its first Stanley Cup.
"I like where the organization is right now," McPhee said. "I think we have a real solid club here and a solid club in Hershey (American Hockey League), and some good prospects on the way. This club should stay competitive for a long time."
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