When Adam Oates met with Mikhail Grabovski, the Washington Capitals coach turned into a hassle-free salesman.
“I said to him, ‘You should look around,“’ said Oates. “‘For example, like Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s a team that obviously likes to score. Well, you like to score, so that would be a team that maybe you would consider if they had room.“’
Oates wasn’t trying to talk Grabovski into joining the Penguins, his team’s biggest rival. Instead, he was trying to explain why he thought the Capitals were the best fit for the 29-year-old centre who was bought out of his previous contract by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Hall of Famer with just one season of head-coaching experience came off as a seasoned veteran. Oates stayed away from specifics, not promising Grabovski any defined role or amount of ice time, instead focusing on the “puzzle” and the benefits of signing with a playoff team featuring reigning MVP Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and others.
“I said, ‘You want to go to a team that likes to score, you want to go to a team where you fit in,“’ Oates said. “I said, ‘The reason I’m here talking to you is because I think we’re one of the teams that you should consider.“’
Oates’ “enthusiasm” was enough to convince Grabovski to sign with the Capitals on a US$3-million, one-year deal, agent Gary Greenstin said. Asked what it was Oates told him that made up his mind, the Belarusian said it was “everything.”
It wasn’t a “hard sell” according to Oates, who was for the first time making the primary pitch to a highly sought-after free agent. And it wasn’t just about the quality of the team and the lure of likely top-six minutes.
Oates pointed to centre Mike Ribeiro, who was a point-a-game performer and a power-play specialist during his lone season in Washington. Ribeiro went from two goals and 13 assists on the power play during his final season in Dallas, when the Stars were ranked last in the league, to six and 21 for the No. 1-ranked unit in the league with the Capitals.
“For a guy who points matter and that helps your juices flow and your game flow, 20, 30 points is a lot. And that’s in a 48-game season, so who knows how many that can turn into during an 82-game season?” Oates said. “I said, ‘You know Mike. I don’t think Mike changed. I think certain variables allowed some of his skills to come out more.“’
Grabovski could be a focal point on a power play that includes Ovechkin, Backstrom and Mike Green and will likely slot in as the Capitals’ No. 2 centre, but he said “it’s coach’s decision” where he plays. His focus is on the future after a season with Toronto head coach Randy Carlyle limited him mostly to bottom-six duty, when he finished with nine goals and seven assists.
Capitals general manager George McPhee noted that coaching changes often lead to variations in performance. The gamble, while it’s a low-risk one on a one-year contract, is that with Oates calling the shots Grabovski will return to his previous form under former Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson, like when he set a career high in points with 58 in 2010-11.
“I think he likes our situation here,” McPhee told reporters in Arlington, Va. “Obviously we’re a good team, we feel like we have a good team heading into the season: sold-out building, great fan base, great city, great travel schedule, stable ownership and an opportunity to play on a team that likes to score goals. And he liked Adam a lot as well. I think they had a real good meeting and I think that’s important to this player, having the coach’s trust.”
It didn’t take much for Oates to earn Grabovski’s trust. Oates recommended Grabovski talk to someone who played for Oates — namely Ribeiro — to get a feel for his coaching style.
He didn’t, citing the trust of his agent. No doubt Oates’ words played a large part.
“That’s very nice,” Oates said. “I’m glad that he is looking to put his opportunity with us. I really believe in communication and I’ll do everything I can to help him succeed because if he has a good year, it will obviously mean that we’re having a good year.”