Reporting David Elfin
When the Caps opened their lockout-abbreviated training camp 10 days ago, they talked bravely about having just six days to learn the system of Adam Oates, their third coach in less than 14 months.
“We had to learn [Dale Hunter’s] system during the season,” reasoned center Matt Hendricks. “I’m not worried about it. These [new coaches] are going to do a good job of getting us on the same page.”
Left wing Jason Chimera said, “It’s not like we’re re-inventing the wheel,” before quickly adding, “But it’s a lot to learn in a short period of time.”
Two games into the compressed 48-game race to the Stanley Cup playoffs, the learning curve has obviously been pretty steep. Washington fell to 0-2 last night with a 4-2 loss in the home opener before a Verizon Center crowd that went from rocking the red when Hendricks opened the scoring to very restless as the Jets scored the next four goals.
Washington, which hadn’t lost a home opener since 2000, has been outscored 10-5 by Southeast Division rivals Tampa Bay and Winnipeg while allowing five goals on 12 opposition power plays.
“We could’ve had better execution,” Oates said last night. “We didn’t give ourselves the opportunity to play the team game. We turned it over on the blue line too many times. I think that some of the mistakes out there weren’t the system. At this stage of the year, there’s a little confidence issue. We’re all second-guessing each other a little bit. We’ve gotta figure out a way to fight through that.”
If any coach could empathize with Oates – one of just four new NHL bench bosses – it’s the Jets’ Claude Noel. Last year he was new to his players and the entire organization was new to Winnipeg, having been the Atlanta Thrashers the previous 11 seasons.
“You feel for their situation,” Noel said. “It’s a really tough transition where you don’t have a long camp, you don’t have exhibition games, which is a huge difference. You can’t assess your team correctly. You’re doing it on the fly. This is their third coach in a year and a half …”
Right wing Blake Wheeler, one of 14 Jets in uniform last night who made the move from Atlanta, understands what the 15 Caps who played for Hunter and predecessor Bruce Boudreau are going through.
“Having a familiar system and having familiarity with what the coaches expect out of you is a huge thing,” said Wheeler, whose goal at 14:32 of the second period was the game-winner. I think that’s why our team is better off than we were last year. We know what’s expected of us.”
The minimum expected from the Caps last night was a better effort in their first home contest since their rousing 2-1 victory over the Rangers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last May 9. New York ended Washington’s playoff run with a 2-1 triumph three nights later.
“We’ve been talking since we got back in town about how much we missed Verizon Center and our fans, playing in front of them and the support they give us,” Hendricks said. “[But] I didn’t think we had the energy we needed tonight. [The Jets] played last night and we didn’t make it look like that.”
No, they didn’t. Through two periods, the Caps were outshot 33-17 and outscored 4-1, making the final 20 minutes virtually meaningless. Right wing Troy Brouwer’s goal with 76 seconds left was their first this year by someone who had more than six for Washington last season. Two-time NHL goal-scoring leader Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Chimera, Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson combined for 102 goals in 2011-12 but have yet to find the back of the net. And goalie Braden Holtby, who starred against then-defending champion Boston and New York in the playoffs, has been fighting the puck at times.
Right wing Joel Ward, who had two goals against the Lightning last Saturday, counseled patience saying “it’s a long way to go.” The huge difference is that an 0-2 start in a typical season would leave 80 games to catch up in the Eastern Conference standings, not just 46.
Back when camp began, defenseman Mike Green echoed many of the Caps in saying that Oates’ scheme is “exactly what this hockey club needs, a balance of the two structures we’ve had before.”
Indeed, Oates’ system is a blend of Hunter’s conservative, defense-first style and Boudreau’s shoot first and cover your own end later approach. However, as of now the Caps seem to have fallen into the chasm between those two radically different systems.
Washington lost three of its first four games after Hunter replaced Boudreau last Nov. 28, but each defeat was by a goal. The Caps won back-to-back games on the first two days after Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon on Nov. 22, 2007.
Maybe just letting the boys (hockey-speak) adjust to the new coach’s personality is easier than trying to cram a new approach into their brains in less than a week, especially when most of them hadn’t practiced or played for eight months.
Asked when camp started about trying to absorb Oates’ system so fast, Green said, “I don’t think we’re going to grasp it fully,” before the season began.
That’s apparent. And with a quarter of their possible practice days of before the season’s mid-point already gone, time to make what they’re supposed to be doing on the ice second-nature is already slip sliding away on the Caps.
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