Reporting David Elfin
Adam Oates has accomplished much in the 27 years since he signed with the Detroit Red Wings as undrafted free agent in 1985. In NHL history, only superstars Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux have averaged more assists per game than Oates. Only 15 players have scored more points than the 1,420 that Oates did during his 19 seasons. And Oates was nearly as productive during the playoffs, averaging a shade under a point per game.
All of that earned Oates election to the Hockey Hall of Fame yesterday, the same day that he was named Washington’s coach, replacing former Caps teammate Dale Hunter. But as is the case with the franchise, there’s a major hole on the 49-year-old Oates’ hockey resume: he has never lofted the Stanley Cup in triumph.
“He shares that chip on his shoulder,” Caps owner Ted Leonsis said at Oates’ introductory press conference this afternoon. “We’re at that point where we have to do better in the playoffs. We have to win a Stanley Cup.”
Oates made it to the finals once as a player, with the Caps in 1998, their lone such advance, and reached that point again this spring with the New Jersey Devils in his third year as an assistant coach.
While Oates was known as a brilliant passer/set-up man, particularly during his time with standout sniper Brett Hull on the St. Louis Blues, he was indoctrinated in the Devils’ Hunteresque defense-first system over the past two seasons.
“I really feel like the game today is (about) territory,” Oates said. “We want to push the pace and be an aggressive team without sacrificing the defensive commitment (the Caps showed once Hunter replaced the offensive-minded Bruce Boudreau last year).”
That blend of an up-tempo offense and a tight defense appealed to Caps general manager George McPhee, who said, “I really like the way (Adam) wants to play the game, how he’s going to practice, how he’s going to run the bench.”
The Caps – who had won four straight Southeast Division titles under Boudreau — lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on the road to the New York Rangers, who pushed the Devils to the wall in the next round. Washington lost three of four to New Jersey during the season, but two of those defeats came in overtime.
“I think we’re close,” Oates said of the Caps’ Cup chances.
McPhee has already traded for solid second-line center Mike Ribeiro. If he can add an scoring winger or two in free agency – which starts Sunday – the Caps might be more than close.
Like the Los Angeles Kings, who were seeded eighth in the Western Conference playoffs but won their first Stanley Cup this month, Washington has plenty of young talent. Eight of the 12 forwards, both goalies, and five of the six defensemen who played regularly in the playoff upset of the then-defending champion Boston Bruins and the near-takedown of the top-seeded Rangers are under 30. All-Star defenseman Dennis Wideman was traded to the Calgary Flames today before he hit free agency. Mercurial winger Alexander Semin might not be re-signed, but the other 13 all should return as the core of Oates’ first Caps team.
New Jersey All-Star left wing Zach Parise, whom the Caps will likely make a run at signing as a free agent to replace likely departure Semin, said Oates had a major impact on the Devils.
“A lot of people are good players, but they don’t know how teach,” Parise told The Newark Star-Ledger. “(Adam) can teach. There are a lot of things he showed (me) that helped my game out a lot … small things like taking a pass where you’re in a better position to shoot, things even a lot of the hockey world doesn’t recognize.”
That intelligence prompted McPhee, who earned a law degree, to compare Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduate Oates to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a Wesleyan graduate.
“You always want the smartest guy in the room” as your coach, McPhee explained.
Belichick was a losing coach until Drew Bledsoe’s chest injury opened the door in 2001 for Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick the previous year, to take over at quarterback. A decade later, the Patriots have played in five Super Bowls, winning three and losing the other two in the final minute. Both coach and superstar passer are headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I believe that Brady made Belichick more than the other way around, but as McPhee said in a reference to Caps left wing Alex Ovechkin, “Even superstars need to be coached.”
Ovechkin, who endured six months under Hunter’s clamp-down scheme, was so happy about Oates’ hiring that he called to congratulate his new boss from Chicago yesterday.
If Oates can rekindle the fire that made Ovechkin – who’s still just 26 — the NHL’s best player during his first three seasons playing for the freewheeling Boudreau, then maybe the coach and the team he once captained can finally hoist that elusive Cup.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin