Adam Oates played 19 seasons in the NHL, six of them here in Washington. Tuesday he was named as the 16th head coach in the franchise’s history, replacing his former Capitals teammate Dale Hunter. During his playing days, Oates was one of the NHL’s premier playmakers. He led the league in assists on three occasions; he finished in the top 20 in scoring ten times. In the 1990s, only one player amassed more assists than Oates—his name was Gretzky.
Oates takes over a team that is dripping with talent but that has failed to advance past the second round of the playoffs five years running. He is charged with leading the Caps across the finish line to the organization’s first Stanley Cup title. It’s a heady mandate for a man who has never before been a head coach in the NHL, and who has logged just three seasons as an assistant. He takes over a dressing room that has been factious at times, led by a gifted but complicated superstar in Alex Ovechkin. The following is my conversation with Oates, which took place last night. It began by recalling the doubly magical events that befell him this Tuesday.
Take me through what has to be one of the best days anyone could ever imagine: getting your first NHL head coaching job and being named to the Hall of Fame all in the same day. How did it go down?
Obviously, it was an incredible day. In the past week I’d been talking to George [McPhee] about potentially being the coach, and George called me in the morning and told me I got the job. Obviously I was pumped up, and I was in the process of calling all my family and friends to tell them, and I had this phone number that kept calling me. I thought it was just a reporter trying to get a scoop on the coaching job, so I was ignoring it, but then George called on the other line and said, “I think you might want to pick up that number.” And I answered it, and it was the Hall of Fame. It was Jim Gregory, and I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I had been so excited about the possibility of the Caps job, I totally spaced about the Hall of Fame.
How close to winning the Cup is this Capitals team, in your opinion?
LA finished eighth in their conference and they won the cup. I think there are at least ten teams right now that could win the cup. I mean, some things have to go your way; you need a bounce here and there, you need to stay healthy, you need the team playing well at the right time, but I think the Caps are one of the teams that are right there. Think about it—they were one game away from going to the conference finals.
We’ve had a couple of very different coaching styles with the last two coaches that were here. Bruce Boudreau played a wide-open offensive style; Dale Hunter played much more of a lock-down, East Coast defensive method. What can we expect from you?
I take an in-your-face approach. I think today, the game is about territory. You have to be in someone’s face in all three zones of the ice. You obviously need to protect your goalie and your defense, because they’re the lifeblood of the team, but you have to score goals. And teams are so well coached that you can’t let an opportunity slip. You have to be able to do everything in the game. Six teams in the playoffs played that East Coast style, so you have to be able to do that. If you play a team that’s a little more open, you have to be able to match them as well. You have to be able to play every which way. That’s not just one zone any more. You have to able to play all over the ice.
Let’s talk Alex Ovechkin. He scored 38 goals last year, which is still fifth best in the league, but people are pointing to what he didn’t do because he set such a high standard early in his career. Why do you think there’s been a dip in his production?
It’s tough from the outside looking in. I haven’t been there every day, so I haven’t been able to read all the nuances and all the little things, but I know the player I see is a guy who is an incredible force on the ice. I think I can add to his game. I think I can maybe enhance his game a little bit and maybe clean up some of the flaws, if you will. But it’s so tough to score in this league, and you’re talking about the guy that—every team he plays against, the whole focus of their pregame meeting is about this guy. So he wears that burden on his shoulders every single night. But can he play better? Sure. Everybody can play better.
Ovi has had a complicated relationship with his past two coaches. Things didn’t go well between Boudreau and him at the end of Bruce’s tenure, and then with Dale [Hunter], he reduced his minutes and there were some questions there. Knowing how vital the relationship is between a coach and his superstar, how eager are you to get off on the right foot with him?
I think in today’s game, communication is vital. And I consider myself a communicator. I think we’re going to get off on the right foot because I think I can explain to him the game I want, and I think I’m going to be the kind of coach he and the rest of the guys on this team like. But to answer your question—yeah, I think it is vital. You want him to believe in you, but you have to earn his respect. He’s the star of this franchise, and he’s going to be leery of me; he’s going to want to see what I bring. He’s going to have to play for me, and I’m going to have to do my job for him, and I think that’s very fair.
From what you saw of Braden Holtby in the playoffs, are you convinced he’s the goalie of the future for this franchise?
I think there are two great young goalies here [Holtby and Michal Neuvirth]. Braden came up and played very well for the team and gave the guys some confidence, and they played well, as did the whole team. I think it’s a little early to say that. I think he played great hockey for the team, but I think both young goalies are very good here.
You played here in ’98 when the Caps went to the Stanley Cup Finals, and the building was filthy with Detroit fans. Can you believe how much Washington has evolved as a hockey town between then and now?
I think you have to look to ownership there. Obviously that’s been one of Ted [Leonsis’s] strengths in his lifetime. And there’s the amount of attention he’s gotten for the franchise, and drafting a guy like Alex, and building this practice facility in Arlington, which is state of the art. And then the fans down at the Verizon Center—going in there as a visiting team, it’s electric every single night. To see the evolution is great for the franchise and great for the city.
This team has won the President’s Trophy [for most regular season wins], and it’s been to the second round of the playoffs a couple of times. What are your goals? Is it pretty much Stanley Cup or bust at this point?
Well, that’s what Ted said at the press conference. And you can understand that. They were one game away from going to the conference final last year. The team played very good hockey and played great the last month of the season, and there’s no reason to not let that continue. I think you have to have a couple of mini goals first, and that is to get off to a good start and to get everybody playing solid, but the ultimate goal is definitely the cup. For sure.
You made it to the Stanley Cup Finals twice, but in 19 seasons, you never won it. How much does that eat at you, and how much of that can you impart to this team in terms of the need to seize opportunities?
You get so close, you can just taste it. And I’m sure during the course of the season, when you have meetings and you tell stories, that’s one of the messages I’ll try to let the guys know that’s it’s not that easy, and you’ve got to stay focused. I think they got a taste of it themselves. I mean, to get to game seven against the Rangers—they were right there, and I think a lot of the guys will draw upon that as part of their learning curve. Was it disappointing for me? Yeah. You’ve been in the game a long time, and you want to get your name on it.