Even though newly appointed Washington Capitals head coach Adam Oates succeeded Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter, he has seemingly found himself nestled in between them as a means of comparison.
To their credit, those comparisons have their validity. Oates, who was formally introduced Wednesday at a press conference at Verizon Center, is less gregarious than Boudreau (who earned the affectionate nickname "Gabby" for good reason), but is far more talkative than the incredibly reserved Hunter. Philosophy-wise, Oates looks to be a mixture of Boudreau's run-and-gun offensive style and Hunter's defense-first mentality.
Oates is used to being the man in the middle. For 19 seasons, Oates was one of the NHL's most prolific playmaking centers, making superstars out of his linemates while also doing so for himself with his brilliant passes.
As the Caps' head coach, Oates will have to do the same thing; he will have to get the most out of his new charges will also earning his own respect as a first-time bench boss. That will come through maintaining a steady line of communication with his players (which Hunter lacked) and earnest assessment (which Boudreau lacked).
"I’m a true believer in communication,” Oates said. “When the players walk in and they see your work ethic, your intensity and your knowledge, they become believers. When you go out on the ice and show them things that can add to their game I think that just helps the cause...but there’s no question that you have to earn their respect. I think that’s the most important thing."
“I can’t be a hypocrite as a coach because as a player that’s what I wanted,” he continued. “I wanted feedback. I wanted communication from the boss. You can yell at me if you want, but I wanted input. And that’s the coach I want to be."
As far as the kind of team that Oates hopes to mold the Caps into, he wants to bring a brand of aggressive, "in-your-face" hockey that is predicated on establishing territory in all three zones, yet another combination of the offensive-minded Boudreau and the defensive-oriented Hunter.
“When you look at the Finals this year, you saw two teams, the Kings and Devils, that were basically in-your-face teams all over the ice, in all three zones,” Oates said. “I really feel the game today is about establishing territory and protecting it."
“I look at the Caps lineup and the talent level and I don’t see any reason we can’t push the pace and be an aggressive team, but at the same time not sacrificing defense and protecting our goalie and that requires commitment all over the ice."
Yet, where Oates, General Manager George McPhee and team owner Ted Leonsis hope the comparisons to previous coaches end is how the season plays out. Both Boudreau and Hunter failed to maximize Washington's potential in the postseason. In fact, the last time the Caps advanced past the second round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, Oates was still playing in Washington. As was Hunter.
The Caps were unceremoniously swept out of the 1998 Finals by the Detroit Red Wings. Since then, Oates is 0-for-2, having lost again as a player with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003 and as an assistant coach earlier this month with the New Jersey Devils.
"He shares having a chip on his shoulder," Leonsis said in regards to why Oates was the best fit for the Caps' vacancy. "We're at that point where we have to do better in the playoffs. We have to win the Stanley Cup. That's what our mission is. Adam has been to the Finals [three times], [twice] as a player and once as a coach. We want to win a Cup together. That's our collective goal."
Whether Oates can finally be the one to do that, however, will require plenty of work, from revitalizing Alex Ovechkin's career after two consecutive career-worst outputs to returning the once-feared power play to its place of prominence. For as much as Oates stressed communication, talking can only go so far.
Oates has been used to playing the man in the middle, but as the new head coach of a franchise in flux, he is now in the middle of it all.
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