Adam Oates is driving a change in culture in his first job as an NHL head coach but his skill as a communicator smoothed the way in what can be a huge challenge for a rookie.
When Oates took over from Dale Hunter last summer he erased a potential headache quickly by winning over Alexander Ovechkin, who once operated by his own rules. Ovechkin was not happy playing under Hunter's strict defensive style last season, but even though Oates also preaches defence first he was able talk the reluctant superstar into playing along with a more restrictive system for the first time in his life.
"First of all, you've got to respect them. You've got to respect who it is, and I do," Oates said without naming Ovechkin. "You've got to get his trust, which is second, and when he trusts you, you can try to provide information. It's not about changing anybody. It's about adding to their game.
"But until they trust you, there's going to be a wall there, and I understand that."
Ovechkin said if there was a wall, it came down quickly.
"I just feel trust," he said recently. "It's the most important thing for any player. When you feel trust for your coach it's unbelievable and you want to go play for him right away. When I met him I just felt it."
The hard part of the culture change was probably accomplished by Hunter, who replaced Bruce Boudreau in November, 2011. General manager George McPhee decided the change to defensive hockey caused by the Capitals' playoff flops needed to accelerate due to continued freelancing by the likes of Ovechkin and rushing defenceman Mike Green. Hunter, who is not big on positive reinforcement with star players, quickly installed a simple man-to-man defensive game amid much resentment before deciding to return to junior hockey last spring.
When Oates came along he had an easier time introducing his system, which allows for more offensive movement than Hunter's. "I think there's a bit of a balance here. It's a lot easier to adjust with him than between Bruce [Boudreau] and Hunter," Green said.
Considering the depth of the change Oates is undertaking, it is easy to believe him when he insists progress is being made despite being in last place in the NHL's Eastern Conference.
After beating the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2 last Friday for their second win of the season, the Caps played well enough against the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins but lost 6-3 on Sunday. They will get a chance to show they are on the right track Tuesday night against a team more in their weight class, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Capitals may be last place in the NHL's Eastern Conference less than two years after finishing first but what Oates is doing is necessary – the star system that allowed Ovechkin to do as he pleased was doomed in a league where coaches and systems are king. While Ovechkin enjoyed three consecutive seasons of 50 goals or more, the Capitals were tearing up the regular season as well, culminating with 54 wins and the Presidents' Trophy for finishing first overall in 2009-10. But when the other teams got serious about checking in the playoffs, Ovechkin was easily shut down and the Caps were gone in the first or second round.
Hence the arrival of Oates toting the anti-star defensive system he learned as an assistant coach with the quintessential team-first franchise, the New Jersey Devils. He summed up his philosophy the other day when someone asked how Ovechkin was going to score amid his increased defensive expectations.
"The play comes from the system and the team doing the job correctly," Oates said. "You can't design for one guy. He'll get his touches like everyone else."
As one of the foot soldiers pointed out, the lack of playoff success made for willing subjects.
"[Oates] doesn't want guys to run around and do their thing," said checking forward Troy Brouwer, who won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 and then came to Washington in a trade for a first-round draft pick as part of the movement away from run-and-gun hockey. "Before I got here, it worked for them in the past and it's just not that type of game any more. Guys clue into it, other teams figure it out and try to shut you down."